It’s a big week in Millburn with Election Day on Wednesday – voters go to the polls to on the school board. With two incumbents and three challengers, there’s a real race and candidates have hit the streets, coffee shops, library, school board meetings and carpool lines getting their messages across.
You don’t have to be a parent of school-age children to be interested in this election – the Millburn Board of Education that determines the school district’s share of a property owner’s taxes.
Voters will also vote on a budget that would increase their school tax levy by 1.35 percent over last year – below the 2 percent tax increase and well below the tax increases of many years in the last decade. (This year, it amounts to $14.90 additional per $100,000 of assessed value. The owner of an $800,000 home would pay additional $119 on top of last year’s bill.)
While the School Administration and Board made cuts to its $76.5 million budget, eliminating courtesy busing and the at the elementary school level (to be replaced with something like Rosetta Stone) and reducing staff by 18. 6 full-time equivalent positions, the board has also allowed for $750,000 for expenditures for “catching up” in the areas of technology and textbooks, as well as allowances for restructuring health benefits for teacher (still under negotiations) and maintaining full-day kindergarten.
While acknowledging that all the candidates are smart and qualified, an Op-Ed piece titled Hard Choices, the Item gave its endorsement to Waters, Pasternak and Truitt mostly because Fox and Mattlin have expressed views that the tax rate should be closer to the cap in order to not have to cut programs and to maintain academic excellence.
Candidates have stated their opinions at two forums, the last of which, on sposored by the Short Hills Association, the candidates prepared answers for three questions. We asked the candidates to share their statements and answers for those who want to read the candidates positions themselves. Almost all of the information is there, but we did edit for length in some areas. You can click on each candidate’s name to reach their Candidate Views page.
We also offer you a much briefer look at the candidates (in alphabetical order) here:
Fox, a market research consultant and former high school teacher and adjunct professor, wanted a 2 percent tax increase this year because, she said, she didn’t want to see programs cut unnecessarily.
“As a current board member, I am a strong, independent voice on the board, who is not afraid to challenge the majority,” Fox said. “I am running for re-election because I came to do a job and I feel that I have not finished that job. I believe that I have a view that reflects the opinion of a large constituency in the district who are not often heard at board meetings.”
Fox said she is the candidate who is probably known as the “Tax and Spend Liberal,” but she is someone who highly values education. “I am also the candidate with the youngest children in the school system,” she said. “I did support a 2 percent tax increase because I am very concerned about our ability to continue to offer a high quality education to all students. For those of us who will still have young children in the school system, we need board members who still have a personal stake in the educational excellence of Millburn. Having a fifth grader and a fourth grader, I will have a stake in our schools for a very long time.”
As an example of her independence, Fox cites her vote against redistricting. “I did not feel that the rationale presented to the Property Committee warranted disrupting the education of so many children,” she said.
Fox said she cares about how the school district runs, and it needs to be efficient and carefully managed in these tough economic times.
"I want to see tight control over our limited resources, but it is important to be careful not to damage our excellent school system," she said. "I moved here because of our schools. I want our children to have the same quality education as those who came before us.”
Fox said that while many people say that being on the board of education
is a thankless job, she has found the opposite to be true.
“I have been strengthened by the support of the community and their requests for me to run for re-election,” she said. “And I look forward to having the opportunity to serve the community again.”
Mattlin is a market research executive with children middle school and high school, who says he thinks the board could have come closer to the 2 percent tax levy cap when deciding the budget, so as not to have to cut programming and to maintain academic excellence. He said the three biggest issues facing the board are the impact of the transition to subscription busing, developing a long-term strategic plan and the possibility of opening in the area. “This is a relatively new development on which everyone needs more information,” Mattlin said of charter schools. “Early indications are that new charter schools could impose a burden on the district’s finances that the system can ill afford at the moment.”
Other issues include the budget and redistricting. “The budget is the perennial major issue and with it, the concomitant issues of the teachers’ contract and the requested tax increase,” he said. As for redistricting: “Discussions of any sort of redistricting plans should begin as early in the school year as possible to allow maximum time for all possibilities and viewpoints to be considered and evaluated.”
Mattlin supports teachers and wants to reach out to them regarding ways of “achieving efficiencies and savings” when it comes to salary and benefits.
“None of them are getting rich from teaching in our schools. I am alarmed at the wave of anti-teacher sentiment that has crept into public discourse. The teachers are the bedrock of our system’s quality and reputation,” he said. “Nevertheless, we need to be mindful of the “investors” in Millburn’s school system – the taxpayers, many of whom have been hit hard by this recession. It would therefore not be realistic for teachers to expect raises as high as those in their previous three-year contract.”
Mattlin would also like to discuss changing the start time for middle and high school students, who perform better later in the morning. “I would like to see the Board explore the possibility of later start times for the middle and high schools. Lack of sleep can certainly add to stress,” he said. “The transition from elementary school to middle school, which starts nearly an hour earlier, seems to be particularly jarring.”
Pasternak, a former managing director for JP Morgan & Co. with children in both public and private schools, said she is seeking a board position because it is her civic duty and a “natural next step” after a decade of extensive volunteer work in Millburn Schools.
“I want to represent the community's interests in educational initiatives to ensure Millburn remains a district to which others aspire,” said Pasternak, best known for her work with the Millburn-Short Hills Special Education Committee. “I also want to increase the diversity of opinions and approaches on the board so that collectively we develop a more robust, richer educational experience for ALL students at a cost we can afford.”
The biggest issues facing the board are oversight, vision and expense control and management, she said. “The board should conduct its fiduciary responsibilities by adhering to its policies especially as they relate to fiscal management and
reporting,” she said. “We must define what we want this district to be -- our strategic direction and our guiding principles for making decisions about education. And we need to build a zero-based budget so that every expense will be justified.”
Other issues Pasternak sees are accountability, community leverage, and technology and innovative programs. “Management information presented in a transparent way is essential for the Board to do its job,” she said. “Taxpayers need this to assess their investment in the Millburn education system.”
As for community leverage, she said board needs to involve the community. “Our citizens have ideas and expertise that must be tapped. A new era of collaboration and involvement must be ushered in.” She also said the district must pursue leading edge technology and 21st Century curriculum mandates.”
Pasternak said she is in favor of the budget, “but strictly because it buys (Supt.) Dr. Crisfield and his team deserved and needed time to do the job that needs to be done. He will have this next year to carefully examine and assess our cost structure, and I expect that he will propose more fundamental changes that root out the administrative overhead and wasteful expenditures in our district. I expect that all expenses will be justified with any increases or decreases to our program offerings analyzed in depth and presented clearly to the BOE for their approval.”
Truitt, a pediatric nurse practitioner and a past PTO president, said she thinks one of the biggest issues facing the board is the unsettled teachers’ contract, which is causing tension in the community.
“We have not heard specifics or contingencies,” Truitt said. “This year’s proposed budget assumes a significant cost savings due to negotiated teacher health benefit adjustments. The board is faced with addressing concerns that the
savings may not be realized or that the contract will not be settled by
the start of school in September.”
Other issues facing the board, Truitt said, are maintaining and improving the excellence of Millburn schools given the current economic challenges,
technology, a K-5 World Language Program, and building repairs.
“Our community has current challenges as never before,” Truitt said, including maintaining Millburn’s academic excellence given the reality of a recent recession, increased job losses, stagnant salaries, and a “large unknown element” with an unsettled teacher’s contract.
“There are decreased revenues due to severe cuts in state aid, mandated budget caps and greatly increased expenditures mostly due to the current teacher health benefit costs,” she said. “Due to a variety of factors, different times, different philosophies, our cost structure has gotten extremely large. Our enrollment has doubled in the past 20 years. But yet, our taxes have more than tripled. As such, our spending must be clearly prioritized on those resources that really matter. I am willing to make hard choices to control spending. Difficult budget situations require creative solutions and clear prioritization of finite funds.”
Truitt quotes Crisfield’s assessment that Millburn schools are technologically behind their district peers by three to five years, and wants to see technology plan put into place.
“It is imperative that Millburn Schools be brought up to date - $750,000
is on the proposed budget,” she said. “…I suggest creating a Technology Committee on the Board of Education and that monthly up-dates are given at BOE meetings.”
She’d like to see the district offer more gifted & talented opportunities provide more hands-on science classes and improved communication with the public.
In addition, Truitt says that her “open, honest and friendly personality would bring a welcome balance to the board. I am a good listener who values facts, fairness, transparency and civil dialogue.”
Waters, an incumbent and chairman of the board’s finance committee, created “a financial model designed to provide significant tax relief by returning excess surplus to taxpayers in a thoughtful, phased manner while ensuring that adequate funds would be available to fulfill educational priorities.”
One of his accomplishments during his time on the board, he said, was building consensus for that financial plan. “I have taken a lead role in steering the board, the school district and the community through a difficult and volatile period for school districts in New Jersey. The result has been a "soft landing" of lower tax rates and continued investment in education.
He said he hopes that work has earned him another term. “I am running for a second term to continue this important work. We need to continue on a course toward financial stability and sustainability,” he said. “Working with my fellow Board members and administrators I believe we are on the right path and look forward to playing a key role as we guide the district forward.”
Among the district’s top priorities, Waters said, is to successfully complete contract negotiations with teachers and making sure it doesn’t box the board in for future budgets.
Other priorities include beginning a more formal strategic planning process led by the Administration and that includes community involvement, Waters said. “The Board will play a role in the process and ultimately will have final authority to adopt whatever initiatives come out of the process,” he said. “But make no mistake that the process will be led by educators, which is how it should be. And importantly, it will signal a renewed focus on academic matters, now that we have the team in place to address them.”
Waters also wants the board to update its policy manual – since “it is document that codifies what we do, it is important that it is up-to-date and relevant,” because it’s essential to a well-run board.
Waters has also said the board, the district and the public needs to re-refocus on the positive.
“… There is a silver lining: Budget constraints have made us more willing to accept change,” he said. “If we handle things properly, when we come out the other side, we’ll be better off.”