With 20-plus years on the Board of Education, Eugene Banta is Fair Lawn’s longest actively serving elected official.
While quick to acknowledge that his lengthy tenure makes him an easy target for critics of the board, Banta’s not ready to walk away any time soon.
“I know I’ve been here 20 years and people say, ‘Well it’s time for you to go.’ And If I was in congress, maybe I would agree with them. But I do this for free,” he said. “I’m doing it simply because I want to do what’s right for the kids.”
Banta, an attorney with offices in Corona, Queens, views his two decades on the board as a major benefit, not a liability.
“After 20 years of being on all the different committees, after reading how many thousands of pages of documents that we’ve been given, how many hundreds of meetings I’ve been to, I think that my experience is very important,” he said, noting that he’s often consulted by other board members for his institutional knowledge. “I relished my role as the young whippersnapper 20 years ago and now I relish my role as the elder statesman. I think that growth and that progression is a good thing.”
As a board member since 1992, Banta’s been a steward of the district’s growth over that time –both physically and academically – from voting to re-open Thomas Jefferson Middle School and add a new wing to the high school to overseeing an uptick in student test scores.
“If you look at the record of Fair Lawn schools for the past 20 years, we’ve gone up in the rankings, test scores have gone up and the property taxes -- obviously taxes go up -- but not in the same ratio that the improvement of the district has been,” he said.
Banta has also utilized his legal expertise to serve as the board’s lead negotiator in teacher contract negotiations, and believes he’s been able to strike a fair balance between offering teachers a reasonable wage and protecting taxpayers.
Teachers went 19 months working under an expired contract before coming to an agreement with the board in February on their most recent deal, which provides them a retroactive pay increase of 2.5 percent for the 2010-2011 school year, a 2.2 percent pay increase for the 2011-2012 school year and a 2.7 percent pay increase for the 2012-2013 school year.
“The overarching goal is to make sure that the kids are being educated,” said Banta, whose three daughters all went through the Fair Lawn public schools. “And I think I’ve been able to do that as negotiator.”
It’s his focus on providing Fair Lawn students the best possible education that Banta said led him to support a gradual outsourcing of the district’s custodial staff.
“With the reduction in funding from Trenton, with the increased burdens placed on us for the testing and the bullying and special education mandates that come down, there’s not that big a pot of money anymore,” he said, stressing that he felt the privatized custodians had been thoroughly vetted and posed no safety threat to children. “The main focus has to be giving the children the best education and, unfortunately, that takes a lot of money. If the custodians are going to be let go to make that goal a reality, that’s something we have to do.”
Banta said that while he continues to look for ways to save the district money, he isn’t willing to sacrifice the quality of education for a few bucks.
“You can’t have the kind of education that you get in Fair Lawn on the cheap. It’s just not possible,” he said, adding that he believes the board has delivered very responsible annual budgets. “You look at anywhere in the state and there’s a baseline you have to spend… In order to keep the level of education, it’s going to cost money.”
In Banta's mind, the school tax burden is commensurate to the quality of education the district's students receive.
“If you look at the bang for your buck, your property tax dollars versus our ratings in the state report card, we’re right up there top in the ratings and we’re about in the middle on the taxes,” he said. “We are right where we should be.”