The League of Women Voters and the PTA Council of Fair Lawn sponsored a Candidates Forum for the Fair Lawn Board of Education on Thursday, Oct. 25.
All six of the candidates vying for three three-year terms participated in the forum, which was well attended by residents.
The incumbents running for re-election are Eugene Banta, Ron Barbarulo and Josh Gillenson. The challengers are Vladimir Itkin, Jeffrey Klein and Mark Spindel.
During the candidates forum, audience members directed questions at candidates, who were then given 90 seconds to respond. Following the question and answer portion, each candidate was given five minutes to make a closing statement.
Below is a transcript of the event, taken while it was occurring. It's not a verbatim account of each response, but instead reflects generally what each candidate said.
How do you feel about religious viewpoints being taught in the classroom and what would you do to make sure students are learning good science and history?
Banta: Right now in Fair Lawn, we don’t teach any religion in the schools. We go out of our way to make sure that no particular religion is viewed as better than another or one is considered less worthy than another. We go out of our way during the holdiays to make sure the holiday songs are not about Jesus or Moses or any particular religion. It doesn’t happen in Fair Lawn. Our science and history curriculums are pure. Never heard Christian Nation uttered in a board meeting or in a classroom.
Gillenson: Agree with what Mr. Banta has said. Have never seen or heard or had any indication that the district would embrace any of the things that you’re concerned about. We have fully embraced the notion of the separation of church and state. In addition to the fact that we have not allowed religious beliefs to shape our curriculum, we have a very strong character education program. That has done a very, very fine job of teaching tolerance and teaching the points of character and teaching students to embrace the idea of accepting all from different walks of life. I cannot imagine a day when this issue would come up in Fair Lawn.
Klein: Clearly the practice to teach one particular religion has no place in our public schools, not at all. I do believe that we should be teaching the ideas to be beyond tolerance, but also understanding of other religions. Our children are going to be entering a world where the globe is becoming smaller and smaller. We should be teaching comparative religions and understand of religions, so our students can understand and appreciate their neighbors. There is clearly no place for your concerns in the Fair Lawn public schools. I don’t think this town would ever tolerate such a notion.
Barbarulo: We have a very diverse community and I agree that we should teach our children to accept each other. As far as teaching it as part of the curriculum, I don’t see that happening. It’s never been brought up. We get curriculums through supervisors. I would not allow it. I believe in separation of church and state. What you’re speaking about could be a district issue because it’s not something state mandated. I think a lot of districts would fight that.
Itkin:I agree with all the prior speakers that religion and state should be separate. As far as I understand this is now the state in Fair Lawn schools and we are going to keep it that way.
Spindel: Our curriculum is obviously secular and it does need to teach tolerance of other religions, that’s a definite. But if you want to have religion in your schools, that’s why we have parochial schools. It has no place whatsoever in the public schools.
Question for Josh Gillenson - Your bio says that you have experience in grant writing. Have you written any grants or gotten any money for the Board of Education?
Gillenson: No. I was involved in an initiative for the special education program that would have provided funding to expand our spectrum of autism services. We were unsuccessful. I was the wordsmith. I was not the content writer. I was the person who based on his knowledge of how the grantmaking process works, I was able to take wonderful ideas and cogent goals and objectives and put it into the framework that grantmakers require. I do have ideas in the future and I’ve spoken with our director of special education about another initiative as well as with our foreign language supervisor, to assist with the Chinese language program.
Spindel: At a teacher’s rep meeting that I attended about month ago, this was one of my ideas to reduce the budget by hiring a full-time grant writer. I think we could save the district tens of thousands of dollars by doing this.
Klein: Three of the candidates here represent change on the Board of Education. I think this is one of the reasons we proposed changing the face of the Board. There’s a lot of money out there to be had and wonderful programs with high educational value that could be brought here for our students. I feel if we have such talents on our Board, we should be using them. I believe that’s part of the job. I think that we should be tapping into a lot of the money that’s out there through grants and corporations that have lots of offerings for us and for our children.
Banta: Every year we get several hundred thousand dollars in grants. We just got one for $130,000 in regard to us having to school homeless children. The business office just got a grant to help with that. We’ve gotten several grants from the county. There’s not as many grants out there that fit Fair Lawn as you would think. When they come up, we apply for them. If you apply for it and you get it, you have to use it only the way they tell you to use it. They don’t give you $100,000 and say go and knock yourself out. They say, you have to use it this year in this way and nothing else. It’s good, but it’s not a cure-all.
What are your ideas for enhancing parent interaction and participation in the schools?
Barbarulo: First of all, I’ve always said and always will say, education starts at home. Unfortuantely, today when you have two working parents it’s very hard to get involved outside the home in the education. Me personally, I’ve been the chairman of community relations. I’d love to see more parents and taxpayers come to our meetings and learn what our system and our budget is all about and ways we can enhance to educate the children in the future. Since I’ve been on the board, there have been some issues I disagreed with but had to understand that’s the way it’s going with core curriculum standards. I’m very big not just on the academics but, also being a trade person, on trade schools. Not every kid is cut out for college. So we need to prepare for the future for whatever they can possibly do. And I'd love to see more parents get involved.
Banta:We have a very active parent community. We have PTAs, PTOs in every school. They meet once a month. I believe the PTA presidents meet with the superintendent once every month or two. Fair Lawn High School Marathon and Milnes Carnival are run by both students and parents. Not sure how much more you can do. This community believes education is important. They don’t come to a lot of Board of Education meetings and I don’t blame them because they’re boring, but they get involved at the schools. It’s a very, very active community for the parents.
Itkin: The most important thing for parents is to be involved in education of their children. Important for parents to be in touch with their children’s teachers. Not much that can be done here, but parents should do that. One other thing I’d like to see is electronic communications, maybe a service to serve the parents and answer certain questions. This way the communication could be made without taking precious time.
Spindel: There are a lot of things that the PTAs are doing, but there’s a lot more that also could be done. I know when I was principal, we had chats with the principal where parents come in during the evening or during the day, where parents chat with principal and have a learning experience with them.
Perhaps we should have board meetings at the local schools, each month at a different school, and there would be a better turnout. Parents could also come into the schools and act as tutors within the school or act as clerical people, they can do read alouds. Rather than movie nights, we could have family math scheduled for weeks at a time where you can bring in projects and work on projects during the evening. There’s a whole lot more that could be created. We should also have at least once or twice a year focus groups at the schools where administration and parents meet about what ills hey see at the school and correct them. More transparency.
Klein: It begins with attitude, I think people need to begin to feel that the board is more accessible to them. Board meetings may not be the most enjoyable of events, but I do think the board needs to go out of its way to make them more accessible. Newsletters could be sent out. If you can’t make a meeting, stream them electronically, tape them so people can watch them later, etc.
I agree our PTA does a wonderful job, but the events that they have, they’re not academic events and I’d like to see more parents involved in more academic parts of it to see what their kids are really learning. This all begins with a fresh attitude of a board who really wants to go out of their way to engage parents and to demonstrate to parents that they want to speak with them instead of just waiting for them to show up at a board meeting.
Gillenson: I don’t think this Board that I’ve been a member of, I don’t think we’re inaccessible or unwelcoming to parental involvement.
These are all good ideas, but going back to the notion of board meetings, I see people in audience tonight who were very active when my children and their children were in the schools together. Some of those faces I haven’t seen in 10 years since our kids graduated, but they haven’t been here the past 10 years. In the last week, we had a statewide assessment on the district's progress -- our QSAC report, information on science curriculum and articulation of literacy curriculum -- I think if people came and saw how much they could learn, then more would come. More dialogue would then flow. It doesn’t flow as well now because we don’t have an experience of people coming and exchanging.
To incumbents: What do you do besides your monthly meetings to reach out to the community?
To challengers: What have you done during this campaign season to learn about the major issues going on in Fair Lawn?
Gillenson: I do my best to talk to people I meet in the community. I get to the events that I can. Over the years I think I’ve become more prone to starting conversations with people in town to try to get a sense informally of how people feel. I tell people I am a board member and open it up to discussion, but I’m careful because I know I’m not a mananger, I’m a trustee.
I don’t micromanage, I’m part of a body. So I do my best to listen and when I’m at functions to speak to people and try to clarify things that seem to be issues that are on people’s minds. That’s something I see myself attending to maybe with a greater degree of energy in the next three years and perhaps my reluctance in the past has been somewhat because I believe in the chain of command and I feel very very strongly that any of us as individual board members are individuals and have no influence in and of ourselves.
Itkin: Over the past 1.5 years, I attended probably most board meetings and that’s a good place to learn about issues. I’ve met board members, I’ve spoke to citizens of Fair Lawn, and most important, I met with parents, because they are the central people of education and I learned about the issues of our schools mostly from parents.
Barbarulo: I’m all over this town. I try to attend everything at every school. I have three kids in the school system. I listen to people, but again I’m one member. I don’t manage the schools, I’m a trustee. I do enjoy educating people while I’m out there. I was on FLARE before I got on the Board and went to Board meetings for five years to learn. From that experience I find it amazing how many people don’t understand the budget process or educational process. I enjoy educating them to let them know what it entails. It’s very important for people to understand everything and my goal is to try to teach them the best as I can and I hope to see more people get involved.
Klein: I should thank my wife and daughter because they’ve been a large part to the answer to this question. I've been to over 500 doors handing out information on myself, to meet people and understand them and their concerns. I spent six hours at the Street Fair shaking hands and handing out literature, listening to people and their issues when it comes to what they want with their school system and taxes. I feel I have really gone out of my way and do think it’s incumbent for any person running for office to go out of their way and meet the people. We will be representatives of this town on the school board and I don’t see how one can be up there representing the town without going out of their way to get to know people and understand their concerns. It’s not a passive event, It’s meant to and has to be done actively so people can make an informed choice.
Banta: I've been on the Board for 20 years and I’m not gonna say I know everyone in town, but a lot of people know me. This town is not shy about coming up to me and saying, 'What are you going to do about this?' I’m accessible. I’m around town a lot. Besides monthly meetings, we have committee meetings – 90 percent of meetings are open to the public. I met a few weeks ago with a group because I knew they had concerns and I wanted to sit down and find out what their concerns were. If someone reaches out to me and says they want me to speak at their event I will, but there’s 30,000 people and it’s hard to get to know all of them. I have an email and people have emailed me and I’ve responded. I’m not going door to door or handing out flyers, but I’m very involved in the community. My kids grew up here and graduated here and we’re very involved in the school system. Parents can come to meetings and give me a call.
Spindel: I, like Mr. Klein, have been going house to house, and I think I’ve done a few more than Mr. Klein has. The central theme I hear is transparency surrounding the budget, why the taxes are too high and privatizing, as well as special ed. I have also attended board meetings over the past 12 months to get an idea of issues in town. One of the eye openers I’ve received is by looking at the website – which has just changed. I got a very clear understanding of a lot of info on that website. I’ve done my homework over the past year after I decided to run.
What are your feelings about tenure, the function of tenure and its limitations?
Spindel: I, as an administrator, had an experience a few years ago when I wanted to place tenure charges against one of my staff members and was discouraged to do so because I was told it would take years to resolve the problem and hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so. However, with the new tenure laws it's now much easier to get rid of tenure.
For the most part, teachers are great, but some don’t belong there, as in any business. There's one thing I do not agree with with the tenure laws and that deals with the evalation process. I don’t think student testing should be 35 to 50 percent of the evaluation. I think it should be about 25 percent and it should not be on absolute scores, but on growth from year to year. I also think mutliple measures should be used like parent surveys, student portfolio, etc. Yes, I am definitely in favor of the new tenure laws.
Barbarulo: The existing tenure laws I’m absolutely against. I respect teachers 100 percent. I believe they do have a hard job with all the mandated testing. There are a lot of teachers who do not do their job properly and it costs a lot to get rid of them. I agree with new tenure laws and I firmly believe being a worker myself, that if you don’t do your job there’s somebody else who’s going to do your job. Basing evaluations on testing I don’t agree with because I don believe you can judge a child’s growth strictly by tests. I am adamantly against all the mandated testing. As far as tenure, the change is in the right direction. I’d like to see more change, as long as it helps us remove a teacher that is not doing their job and it benefits the children, I’m all for it.
Banta: Tenure was put in place 100 years ago to protect teachers in situations where a board member would get a bee in his bonnet about a particular teacher, so it's to protect teachers against vindictiveness. The new law is 100 times better than the old one. The old laws took too long and were too costly and you weren’t always guaranteed success. Now it's streamlined dramatically. I’m not real happy about the evaluation – how do you evaluate an art or gym teacher through testing? We’re looking at a couple different evaluation forms now and must choose one by January. When administration is done they’ll refer it to us and we’ll decide. Tenure is a double edged sword, but I think the new laws are going to be a great help.
Itkin: I believe in no profession should a person be completely shielded from being fired if they don’t perform well and teachers are no exception. I support the new tenure laws.
Gillenson: I agree with what’s been said and welcome the new laws because it's been a barrier for a long, long time. I agree with what Mr. Banta said, the board will be hearing from the administration about the evaluation instrument to be used and we’ll look at that and make a decision based on their expertise. The other thing that needs to go along with this, which makes it hard for people on both sides to look at this objectively, is that there’s been an awful lot of acrimony and discussion on the political stage about teachers and what teachers don’t do and how teachers need to be held to the fire more stringently, and I think that rhetoric has made it difficult to have a dialogue with the teacher entities so that everybody comes to a common agreement that changing the law is constructive.
Klein: I concur with a lot of what Mr. Banta and Mr. Gillenson said about why the tenure laws were created and what their purposes are/were. I do hold the same concerns about how speech teachers and inclusion teachers will be judged. I also don’t believe test scores should carry such a heavy weight. There’s an enormous amount of variables included in a teacher's job and what their performance is and how it comes across -- who comes into their room, what issues already exist in their room -- these are some very deep things that cannot be seen by a test score. But thinking as a parent here, I really only want the best teacher in my daughter’s classroom. If my daughter were not to have a good teacher in that classroom, I’d want a process where that teacher could be removed quickly because that's where the loyalty should be, with the students.
How can the Board members maintain important education programs with less money coming from the state?
Klein: My philosophy on the budget – I think it’s very important that the budget remains stabilized and we don’t throw any tax burden back at our citizens in any budget. I do believe that we should do our best and work diligently to maintain all the programs we have in school. The extracurriculars and athletics, while not academic, truly mold our students into better citizens and into healthier young men and women. We should be looking more closely at the budget when it comes to sharing services -- IT services, busing and special education. I do believe there are probably many things that have yet to be explored with the budget and we can begin that with administrative costs.
Spindel: I’m retired, I have the same concerns, issues, monthly obligations as you may have in regards to paying bills, but I won’t slash the budget just to reduce that budget so taxes are lower. I will offer students today the same quality of education that was offered to my children when they attended Fair Lawn schools. How? I’ll think out of the box and come up with ideas. Shared services with the municipality for one, also partnership with businesses in town and local colleges. When I was principal, a local college came into our school and offered workshops, and it saved tens of thousands of dollars. Also can go more green. I know we are going green and have installed new windows, but could also look at using solar heat and solar energy. I know if this was looked at years ago, why not again? We can also get a full time grant writer. Most importantly, we need meetings for the parents so they know what’s going on. We need more transparency.
Gillenson: Necessity has been the mother of invention. A few years ago when we lost 5 percent of our budget from the state literally overnight and were given 72 hours to come up with a different budget, we changed our thinking. One of the things that was done was we began to work in committees by discipline. There was a building and grounds committee that looked at their aspect, also personnel committee that looked at personnel issues, and in my case, I’m the chair of the special ed committee and we sat down with the director of special ed to talk about how we were going to share the burden brought about by a decrease in revenues.
That was a very, very productive method and one that i think will continue. I do believe our budget process is transparent. We have put a timeline on the website to help parents see the budget. What they see in the final presentation is a culmination of almost 10 months work, to show a timeline as to how it starts and where it finishes, what goes on.
Barbarulo: I’ve been chair of buildings an grounds and technology committee. We have broken down each committee to see where we can cut costs. In technology, we limited color printers to one, so teachers now have to walk down the hall to make color copies. Buildings and grounds, we changed to green lighting. We’ve looked into solar, but government isn’t giving the credits they were. There’s a lot of factors, but we have looked at that. We just got involved in an energy consortium. We're looking at ways, besides grants, to bring in money. Shared services committee with borough, helped us in fixing equipment, we helped them with technology. If you slash administrative costs half-a-million dollars, that’s going to go back into the programs you want to keep, so that doesn’t automatically mean your taxes are going to go down.
Banta: Currently, our assistant business administrator works over at Rochelle Park one or two days a week and they pay us part of his salary, so that's a shared service. As Ron mentioned, the buses being fixed by the borough. We’re saving money by having the borough fix our buses. We buy a lot of computers. In the past we’ve gone to the borough and said we can get a better rate on computers, and they’ll say get us 10 and we do it. We’re doing a lot of shared services and have been for years.
In special education, we’ve brought a number of kids back ino the district that used to have to go to a special school. We’ve saved a tremendous amount of money doing that. Years ago, we put in an energy savings program where our boilers were on computer, and they come on and go off depending on when the building’s being used and that saved us probably over a million dollars in the last 10-12 years.
Itkin: I am a big believer in technology. I think there are many things that can be automatized and computerized and we can achieve savings from that. I agree with what previous speakers have said. Many suggestions people can do and we should seek out those suggestions. I’m sure teachers have many wonderful ideas on how we can save money. We should reach out to teachers and allow them the opportunity to give us their wonderful ideas. We could reach out to other communities for their best practices. Create a Bergen County database of best practices to see what are other towns doing that we’re not doing.
It’s very easy to say a teacher shouldn’t be tenured because they’re not doing their job. What are the parameters for a teacher not doing their job?
Barbarulo: My opinion of what a teacher is not doing there job is them not teaching their discipline to the full extent. What I mean is that when you have teachers that lack in their planning, they lack in their teaching abilities. There were certain criteria when I was in school and now they’ve even raised that bar. They’re supposed to be teaching a certain way now and when I hear from parents about a teacher who you can’t ask for extra help, they’re throwing videos in, they're basically not doing their job of getting through to the student. When you hear from students that the teacher is boring, you don’t understand what they’re teaching, that means they’re not doing their job and they should be disciplined or removed from that classroom.
Itkin: It's tough to come up with exact parameters. In general, when a teacher loses interest in teaching, that’s when the career should stop. Specific situations could vary. You could have abusive teachers, there are other things that could happen. But generally, if the teacher is not interested in teaching, that’s it.
Spindel: Let’s look at it in the reverse, what makes a good teacher. A good teacher gets the students involved in the lesson. A teacher who acts as a facililator not as a lecturer. A person who has classroom management skills, so when you go in there the class is working, not sleeping or misbehaving. Also that they’re teaching critical thinking, that they're not just giving them answers they can answer with a 'yes' or 'no'. Those are the areas that one looks at -- the classroom management and the instructional.
Gillenson: I very much agree with Mr. Spindel. In addition to what Mr. Spidenl said, you’re looking for consistency, you're looking to see if there are patterns of inconsistency. The district wants to see if children continue to be challenged. If kids are continuing to be excited, to see that they’re not bored. Certainly classroom management is a major criteria and one that, if it changes, it certainly gives principals and other evaluators a key that maybe something is changing. Looking for consistency and substantive expertise in their subject area and their ability to impart that knowledge to kids and to excite them.
Klein: Like Mr. Spindel, I did write down in the affirmative. I believe good teachers have rigorous academics and have high standards for their students. I believe that good teachers are excellent communicators. I believe that they can play well with others, their colleagues and administrators. Lessons are diversified and you can reach all children in class regardless of ability. Good teachers have well planned lessons and those lessons are well executed. Also believe that a mark of a good teacher is that their students demonstrate proficiency and achievement and they’re prepared to move on to the next grade or college, trade school, etc.
Banta: Showing up for work is a good start, because it does happen where people do vanish. Classroom management has been mentioned several times and I think the reason for that is if a teacher has lost a desire to teach, students know and they’re like sharks in the water. That’s a horrible sign because not only does the teacher now not really care, but the kids are out of control and they're not learning. Those are the easy ones, but as far as the nuances, you have to leave that up to the principal, assistant superintendent and the superintendent because they’re the ones running the schools. You try to find those people in the first three years before tenure kicks in. You can’t always do that because sometimes people get burnt out or want to leave.
What suggestions, proposals, measures do you feel should be promulgated to deal with this issue of young people using illegal drugs, smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol underage? Also how do you feel about resource officer being stationed at high school? What assembly programs should be installed?
Spindel: For the drug abuse you’re going to need to get the police and parents involved. They should be attending some kind of training to learn the signs of drug abuse at home, that carries out into school and into the assembly program. Also possibly role playing in school. Those trainings and lessons should start way down in kindergarten. The resource officer shows a sense of security in school and it’s the least expensive way to go to show security. I know many districts do have resource patrols. Also I don’t think they are needed at this time in the elementary and junior high schools.
Banta: We do teach this in health class -- how to avoid substance abuse, the dangers of smoking. The resource officer, we’re very happy with him, he’s done a great job. I don’t think we need to move it to the other schools at this point. We split his salary with the borough. We do our best about teaching the kids the evils of drug abuse, drinking and smoking but you can only tell them so much because when you’re 16, you already know everything. We do our best and we continue to strive to make sure they understand it.
Itkin: When you're a teenager and you're told that something is prohibited, it makes you want to try it. Most teenagers want to drink because it’s prohibited, not because they really want to. When a grown up tells them they cannot do it, this person is often viewed as a person from a different world. The best way to prevent it is to make kids not want it, not because it's prohibited but because they don’t want it, make their peers teach them. Have students teach other students that this is not a good idea, this will work better. Also have someone speak to the students who went through it, like a recovered alcoholic. Have him tell them what he’s gone through to help prevent them from going through the same thing.
Klein: I work with teenagers and as Mr. Banta said, teenagers sometimes and often do what is certainly not in their best interest. It’s likely that a teenager will do it for the sake of doing it. I’ve seen a lot of those assemblies brining this or that person, but I'm not sure anything is quite as effective as parent education and vigilance. Know when the parties are and don’t let your kids go. One person did give an assembly that did stick with me and it had to do with parent education. It's better to have your child mad at you than something worse. Parent education – stop children, speak with children, it has to come from parents who demonstrate caring and vigilance when it comes to vice uses.
Gillenson: Our family life education curriculum does emphasize the issues you spoke about. We start at an early age. One of the things, and this is sort of a wish list item because we talked about budgetary constraints. Afew years ago the administrators got together with a number of principals and support staff, and responded to a federal initiative called Safe Drug Free Schools. What we wanted to do and what we still wish to do is to bring guidance counselors into the elementary schools. This is a movement that has really taken hold, not in the sense we know in middle school or high school, but to do it as early intervention and work with youngsters before a behavior has taken root. It all depends on the money that is available.
Barbarulo: Mr. Itkin hit it on the head. It's education as far as bringing people that have been through it. I have a few alcoholics and drug addicts in my family and they’re all clean now and have been for years, but if you talk to them and hear what it’s like, that brings a better light to these kids. I also agree with Mr. Klein. I really think it’s education from parents. The main thing is talking with children. The majority of kids who try drugs or alcohol is because there’s something going on in their lives that they can’t talk to their parents about. It’s easier to get behind a drink or a drug because you don’t have to deal with the problem. To communicate and listen to children will solve a lot of problems in their lives.
With regards to full day kindergarten -- do you agree with it? If so, why hasn’t it been done yet? How would you get it done?
Itkin: Certainly, full day kindergarten is a good idea. I’m for it. Many parents, including myself, give their children to a private kindergarten. Full-time kindergarten saves money for parents. The issue is, of course, money and where do we get the money. I have discussed various possibilities how we can save on other things. Eventually my goal is to have full day kindergarten.
Klein: Full-day Kindergarten is an absolute priority. I believe it should be done with no extra cost to the taxpayer. I do believe the board could use a fresh perspective on how to get this done, how to fund it and how to work with the variables and logistics of getting it done, but it has to get done.
Gillenson: I think it’s something we’ve talked about for years and even well before I came on to the Board. We did put out a question a few years ago. The community did not want to support the extra money it would have cost. It’s pretty simple math. It costs twice as much as half-day kindergarten. In order to do that under the constraints we have it’s not going to be easily done without shaving somewhere else. As far as coming up with alternative funding methods, it’s going to have to be something built into the general budget. If it’s not built into the general budget -- if you got it through a foundation -- the minute you get the money, the clock starts ticking. They want to know how you’ll fund it once money is gone. I can’t imagine only doing it for a year or two and then have the funding run out. It’s a challenge.
Barbarulo: I’m 100 percent for all-day kindergarten. As far as what Mr. Klein said, I welcome a fresh idea on how we can do this. We did have it as a question three years ago and it passed by five votes, but that didn’t meet the state's criteria of needing 60 percent to pass. Two limitations are financing and space, because we must add another classroom for all day kindergarten. Another thing to keep in mind is future building projects in Fair Lawn going. With more apartments coming to town, we’ve been keeping an eye on that to know what we’re adding to our district in terms of new students. I'm not gonna tell you I have the answers of how to fund it. I welcome ideas from the public or challengers on how to do it. If we can fit it in, I'm all for it, but I'm not going to sit up here and say I have all the answers because I don't.
Spindel: It seems like the state values all-day kindergarten in urban districts, but not suburban districts. When you're building a house, you start with foundation. It's the same with kindergarten in the education system. How can you not provide a full day of education for kindergarten with the new common core state standards being implemented, with them being more in depth, you're not going to have enough time to teach them all those ideas. It's imperative that next year there has to be a full-day kindergarten. There must be something done so that kids get the education they have to get. I will guarantee, although I don't know it for a fact, that Grade 1 has more remedial students than any of the other grades.
Banta: I agree with good things said about full-day kindergarten, but it comes down to practicality. It's $1 million per year for all day kindergarten. Plus its one to two classrooms in each elementary school. May be able to do art on a cart or music in the all-purpose room, but where do you get the money? You have a 2 percent cap. It'd eat up three-quarters of your cap, and then how do you deal with increases in salaries, medical, utilities. It’s a great idea, we’ve been talking about it for 25 years. At one point there was a plan to make a super kindergarten at Edison School, but that was even more expensive because you have to get an administrator and bus the kids. It’s been looked at every which way, and I'm open to suggestions too, but $1 million per year is not chicken feet.
How do you measure your own performance on the Board of Education?
Barbarulo: I ran for the Board because I have a passion for children. I have three children and I wanted to give them the best education that I possibly could. I feel I've done an adequate job, maybe a good job the past three years. Other people might not think so. It’s been a learning experience. The challengers may think they're going to get on here and will know all the answers, they won't. I went to meetings for 5 years and I learned a lot the first year. I was on negotiating committees and that was a real good experience. I think I've done a good job and I hope to get elected for another three years to continue to grow the education system and save money for taxpayers. One thing with taxes – I always hear, it's board, the board, the board, we raised taxes. You live in New Jersey, you're going to pay higher taxes. Start talking to the governor.
Gillenson: I don’t know if our performance can be measured to the extent that your question hopes it could be. The answer is kind of a soft answer, but I think it’s measured by our understanding of what the district goals are, our ability to look at the superintendent and the job he’s doing in relation to those goals. We have a district focus. I can’t enumerate those goals in 90 seconds, but look at our website and look at district focus, it shows our goals and shows them by school. We hold the superintendent accountable to report that info to us on a regular basis, so our willingness and commitment to making sure those goals are adhered to and his performance is tied to those goals, so we each have to be willing to consider things independently. That we don’t come into a discussion with preconceived notions and can shift gears even if its uncomfortable to do so.
Banta: Look at the end product, which is our students. Our students learn, they learn well. They go to great colleges. They do great things once they get out of school. The leaders of tomorrow attend Fair Lawn schools today. Are our children getting outstanding education at a reasonable price? I submit they are. Our kids do everything right, not every kid every time, but for the most part, those kids graduate with honors and go to four-year colleges. That’s how you measure our success -- are students getting ahead in the world and doing so at a reasonable price.
Spindel: I don’t think you can measure the performance of a board member unless you know what the criteria is that makes a good Board of Ed member. The Board of Ed is entrusted with governing the entire school system. You can judge by whether or not it has implemented or monitored state mandates. Are they following that policy, long and short range goals of the school system? Are they hiring quality teachers, are the students learning, are the test scores being increased? Is the curriculum aligned to common core standards, are evaluations of teachers and administrators being performed in a timely manner, are facilities updated? It should all be taken into consideration and if you are going to judge a member, you must look at all of these things and see if they’ve been carried through.
Itkin: I think the performance of the Board as a whole could and should be measured. There should be two criterias with unequal weight. A smaller weight should be taxes. A larger criteria with more weight placed on it should be the quality of schools. This could be measured. This is very difficult to measure, but it could be done. Look at a variety of tests, SATs, NJASK, and other criteria not based on test. It can be written out and the board can look at it and see how they’re doing.
Klein: I believe that there are ways to judge the Board of Education. For one, I believe a board should be judged on student achievement. Also, they should be judged on whether or not they can bring a more active parent base. I believe they should be judged on whether or not they have a stabilized budget. I believe the coming board should be judged on whether or not they’re at that meeting or asking questions and not just going with the flow, but being a true representative of the people. What are their concerns? I believe this coming board should be judged on whether or not there is a full-day kindergarten in place.
Have you ever met with kids and asked them about their concerns, with kids directly, not parents, not PTA. For candidates, what do they think about this idea in general?
Banta: We have a committee which is made up of three board members, one or two administrators from the high school that meets every month, I know it’s a student council body. We meet with them every month and they speak with us directly, they say this is our concern. We meet with the high school kids. Obviously, meeting with fifth grade kids would not be as productive. High school kids are smart, it’s not always a big deal, but to them it is -- like new furniture for the lounge, to make that experience that much better.
High school kids are able to use an earned interest account. That money is used at the kids' suggestion, if they want something new for the stage, it’s usually related to electronics, knowing the kids, so we listen to them on a regular basis and they have a rep that comes to the board meetings every month.
Itkin: This is a very good idea and it should be done, and it is done. I think they’re doing it.
Barbarulo: We do have a student dialogue committee that meets once or twice a month. Listening to younger kids, you’ll get different types of suggestions like candy and play time, but I do speak to middle school students also because they’re in that age. Why shouldn’t the children have a voice in what goes on? It’s not just what they want, but also programs they would like to see, programs we have, how can we improve them, and with some programs, why do we have them because they’re not that good?
Klein: I’m sure every parent knows that kids know a lot. They have an amazing insight and an amazing grasp on their world around them. I think that they have more to offer us than to talk about a snack machine or tables in a lounge. We can extract info from them and that comes from how we get answers from them. I believe it’s a good idea to be meeting with the student government, however, that’s only a small niche of children. They don’t represent the entire high school or middle school, nor do they represent the entire group of elementary students. We should go out of our way to meet a more representative group of students with their needs and concerns. Students do have more interests besides the very basic things that give them pleasure. It's incumbent of the board to seek those children and get those answers.
Gillenson: I don’t know that it’s a board member's responsibility to hear our kids. When I meet kids, I’ll talk to kids informally. As far as the student dialogue committee, I think one of their skills, the knowledge and intelligence they bring is that they do understand their student body. They’ve been brought into be those reps because they have taken the initiative to listen to their fellow classmates and represent their ideas at meetings. To do it at the younger grades could be useful. I don’t know how to do that, I would look to our principals and teachers and our guidance counselors at the middle school level to see how that should be done, but I don’t think the primary avenue would be to express ideas to board members. Not to say that it wouldn’t be useful to know those ideas.
Spindel: Ask meaningful questions and you get meaningful answers. What comes out of the mouths of children is never scripted, it's real, so you can find out what’s going on in the schools and in the household, as well. Indulging yourself in questioning children is always a good thing.
Candidate Closing Remarks
Barbarulo: I don’t have anything prepared. I’m just going to speak the way it is. I'm looking to get elected to continue doing my work to help the children of Fair Lawn.
I’m a plumber, a licensed plumbing inspector. I teach continuing education to plumbers. I feel I bring a different view to the board. I feel that I have some common knowledge of everyday things because I’m out there all the time and I listen to the people, not that other board members don’t, because they do. But I just have a general concern for our children and to continue to see what the children want to learn and accomplish within our district.
I’m very proud of our district. Notice our high school has gone up in rank. Top 1000 in country. We offer more AP schools than some parochial schools. We do offer a wide diversity of programs and are continuing to grow. If you have ideas come talk to me about full day kindergarten. It takes money, resources, but I continue to look at it.
I look at ways to continue to save money, going green, I'm big on solar with buildings, to improve buildings and see that they’re maintained. What some people don’t understand, we go under New Jersey QSAC, it's an evaluation of our entire school system, from the buildings, to people, to programs and we’ve done very well.
We do have to put money into the buildings also and upgrade them. I don’t want to take away from a program. I would rather see another program go back in that we lost because of budget cuts, but we just put all new seats in the auditorium because we don’t want someone falling through the seats. Our bleachers at the football field are getting replaced because someone actually fell through them. People ask why are you spending that much money on bleachers? Well if you don’t fix it, it’s like a hole in the roof, it affects the rest of the building.
I don't have a lot of fancy things to say. I tell it like it is. When I got elected the last time, I told Mr. Watson, don't expect me to agree with you or the board all the time, and I haven't, but I still have the respect of all of my fellow board members, as much as I respect all of them.
Itkin: Can I see a show of hands -- who thinks that the current board is doing an outstanding job? I think the current board is doing a good job, it is.
As a challenger, let me introduce myself. I was born and raised in Moscow, Russia. I graduated from Moscow State University, I went to Ohio State University for my master's for engineering mechanics and have been in Fair Lawn since 2003.
I’m an actuary. I do many things at work, including financial analysis and forecasting. I know how budgets work. These are the things you want to see in a board member. There's been lots of talks of taxes – certainly curbing taxes is a big item on my agenda. I think you need someone who cannot just slash an item, we have to know what we’re doing. You want a person with a financial background who knows what he or she is doing.
Some might say that this guy will just cut and cut . I have two daughters in Milnes. They just started their journey, do you think I’ll just cut and cut and cut? Of course not. I want the best education for my daughters and for every child in Fair Lawn. Good education is my primary concern, definitely. How do I achieve that? Many pieces comprise best education, really many. Two very important pieces are curriculum and teachers. We’re now in a big shift in curriculum and it's imperative that our curriculum aligns to common core standards successfully. It's not an option to lose in Fair Lawn and I want to make sure we align the curriculum the way it should be.
Fair Lawn deserves the best teachers and I believe they should be paid fairly. The last time union negotiations with the Board were not successful, to put it mildly. Teachers worked on an extensive rollover contract for months. The result was not a good thing. The main reason why it happened was the issue of health insurance. I work for a health insurance company and I calculate the value of health insurance based on deductibles, copays, etc. I suspect if a consulting actuary was involved in those negotiations they would be smoother. A few suggestions – I’m a big believer in surveys—students ,teachers, parents, the public, everyone has good ideas. We should be receptive to them and seek them out. I would like to implement that. I would also like to reach out to other towns. Why are schools in Ridgewood better than ours? Is it simply housing values or are there other reasons? I would like to see a school database of best practices in Bergen County.
Banta: I've been a board member for over 20 years. Some people may say, 'You’ve been here long enough ,you should go.' I respectfully disagree.
Over my time on the school board we’ve accomplished a tremendous amount. We re-opened TJ and made additions to other schools. Fair Lawn is now in the top 4 percent of high schools in the country, and was also named Best Education Bargain in New Jersey at some point. Students have also won awards – whether it is band or volleyball or math team. There’s been so many that I can't even keep track. School report cards have been and continue to be excellent. Students are proficient or advanced proficient in the 90th percentiles for math and language arts. SAT scores are well above state average and other like school districts. The graduation rate has been 99 percent since I’ve been on board. The special education program is one of the best in the state, recognized by many. Our kids go to great colleges, our district has a reputation second to none. Our results are at the top, our property taxes are in the middle.
I can’t take all the credit – we make decisions collectively. What we have done is hire the right people to watch over the district’s finances and programs, create policy and lead the district into the future. If you want experienced, dedicated leadership and you want it to grow, vote for me.
Gillenson: Gene Banta has articulated our successes very, very well. I guess he did my homework for me. We’ve got a gifted administration who have taught me much. Also my fellow board members, the amount of knowledge they have, it’s mind boggling. The amount of knowledge they have without looking at a piece of paper is mind boggling. People who have looked at my background see I have a background in special education, I have a master’s in social work, I have worked with children. I know special education laws and have experience with proposal writing. While I bring that to the table, what’s been far more important is my history on the board and the years before that when I was an active parent.
The three challengers are here for change, and maybe the assumption is the rest of us are not. I’m amenable to change and have changed. Every three years I seriously considered whether or not I should run again and I’ve come to look at my own development as a work in progress and me as being on a learning curve. If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would actually give a thumbs up to cut the special education school year by a third, I'd say you’re dreaming, but because of the circumstances I realized it was something that needed to be done and could be done, and was able to listen to a gifted director of special education and see that it could be done without harming children and convey that to the community.
I have a life in non-profits, on the edge of being a public employee, so contract negotiations with unions are something I shied away from. The notion of privatization was complete anathema to me. Do I wish there was another option? Yes. But the fact that I was able to listen and accept the possibility of privatization as being useful in the current climate told me that I was continuing to change and be open to ideas that haven’t always been comfortable.
I'm a process-oriented person, I'm a relationships person, when people meet me they know I'm an active person. Earlier when discussing grant writing, I gave short shrift to the members of the staff involved in grant writing, and also failed to mention the great teachers who have gone out and found grants on their own. Truly the most important people are the teachers, not the board members.
Klein: I think we’ve heard some good rhetoric here, but I would challenge that some of it by the incumbents is not totally true. I also want to ask a question about the kindergarten. How is starting students a half-year behind or in first-year remediation practical?
Fair Lawn has done a lot for my family and done a lot for me. I’m compelled to work for my community, to see it still represents our town and our children. I want the responsibility to provide our kids with the requisite experience and skills so they come and talk about it, and bring their own kids into our school system. I want colleges to look at our applications and know students have experienced top rigor. I want to bring back discussion, debate and transparency for the sake of an even stronger and better school system.
The culture of the board dictates the school system. I have dedicated time to meet people to show I am a serious member. I have found from people that this current Board seems to be disconnected and I feel as a representative you must be responsible to your constituents. The status quo must be challenged to contribute to the discussion and come up with new ideas.
Spindel: In a few days, you'll be going to the election polls to elect officials across the state and country who will have a direct impact on your life. It's the same with Board of Education election, which not only impacts taxes but also on your child’s education.
An educator of 40 years and a retired principal, instructional and managerial leader, these are my credentials. These experiences well qualify me for a seat on the Board of Education. I have worked extensively with school budgets, negotiations, development of curriculum and compliance with state mandates. I'm not beholden to any special interest groups or party.
Personally, I am extremely ethical in my personal and business lives and have always given 100 percent. I would continue in a similar vein as a Board of Education member. Some of the common themes I heard from stakeholders were that many felt the budget process lacked transparency and afforded no ability for citizens to provide input prior to the budget hearing. I will work strongly with the administration for a formulation of a budget process. I will continue to develop connections with institutions of higher learning and local businesses. We must explore ways to share services and seek additional ways to save money and protect the environment through solar power.
It’s time for a change. I am asking the residents of Fair Lawn to give me the opportunity to serve as a Board of Education member. Let me offer a new perspective on solving problems. Enable me to see things in a new light and entrust me as you have entrusted the others for so long.