Compared to the municipal governing body, Fair Lawn’s board of education has traditionally flown under the radar.
Despite the fact that school taxes account for a majority of the residential tax burden, board of education candidates rarely campaign, elections are only sometimes contested and voters generally skip the polls.
This year, one school board candidate is hoping to change that.
“The foundation of your country’s future, your community’s future lies in the hands of the people who are sitting in those meetings, yet it doesn’t get any attention,” said Jeff Klein, a first-time challenger for a seat on the board. “I hope to change that. To grab some attention from people, and at the very least, I hope that people are engaging in conversation about how the community becomes a greater part of the school and the school a greater part of the community.”
Unlike the other challengers in the field, Klein isn’t shy about criticizing the current board’s record.
“I don’t think that the sitting board members are bad people,” he said during a recent campaign stint at the River Road Street Fair. “But I’m not comfortable with them running my school system. And instead of complain, I’m going to do something about it.”
Klein, a special education teacher and private tutor, has repeatedly characterized the current board members as “tired” and out of touch with the community.
“The idea that no incumbent has bothered to campaign, and being that Fair Lawn has a changing demographic and the nature of education has an enormous shifting paradigm right now, I don’t understand how they plan on representing people they don’t know,” he said. “Why would people vote for people they don’t know? And how do you represent constituents that you don’t know and who you don’t understand what their needs are?”
Klein, a Fair Lawn High School alumnus who has a 7-year-old daughter at Warren Point, said he believes the district has slipped academically since he graduated in 1988.
“I want my daughter to have the best, I want all these kids to have the best and I’m not quite sure they’re getting that right now,” he said.
For Klein, turning that around begins with reshuffling priorities and where the money is spent.
“I don’t buy into the idea that more money means better schooling,” he explained. “I think that more thinking and more creativity means better schooling. I think that you can be fiscally conservative and be pro-student.”
Priority No. 1 for Klein is bringing full-day kindergarten to the district.
“Full-day Kindergarten is an absolute priority,” Klein said during the candidate debate. “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.”
As kids who need extra help get older they become more expensive to educate, Klein said, noting that if a student’s remediation is taken care of at an earlier age, the district can save on costs down the road.
In addition to bringing its remedial students up to speed more quickly, Klein said the district also needs to raise the bar for its high-achieving students who aren’t being challenged.
“I’m happy to see that we have kids in the proficient range, but they should be, it’s not that hard of a test — the high school exam,” he said. “We need to have a change to that next column over, it needs to be the advanced proficient.”
Klein recognizes it won’t be easy coming up with the money to launch an all-day kindergarten program or increase the rigor of the district’s curriculum, but he said the ex-military man in him welcomes the challenge.
“I like the idea that whoever’s on the board next is going to be facing significant challenges, most likely more budget cuts from the state,” he said. “I think that I have that kind of strength, like when I was in boot camp, to pull me through the difficult times with a can-do attitude.
“This is difficult, this is hard, this sucks, we don’t like the budget cuts, we don’t like the economic downturn that we’re in, no one does,” he continued, “but we deal with it. There’s no complaining and there’s no excuses. I don’t want to hear excuses anymore and I’m not going to make them.”