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>Readers 10 Questions : Sarah-Kate Maskin & Greg Lois

>Answers of Sarah-Kate Maskin & Greg Lois,
Candidates for Ridgewood Board of Education
To “10 Questions” Posed by The Ridgewood Blog
March 21, 2008

1) Would you support the expansion of the BOE from the current five member board to a seven member BOE?

Answer:
Ridgewood is a “J” district- that means that Ridgewood is one of 25 schools that falls into the highest categorization of personal income of its residents. Out of these 25 school districts, 14 have nine board members. Of the remaining eleven that we have data for, only four districts (including Ridgewood) have 5 members of the Board.

Given the size of our student population (second-biggest in our “J” category) and the small size of our Board one would expect that this small-decision making body would be more agile than a larger board.

Our experience in observing this board indicates that this “agility” which is born from “smallness” is wasted: we do not have a dynamic, quick-moving board. In opposite, we have a board that seems overwhelmed and which does not seem to question the administrators.

We would support the expansion of the Board from five to seven members.

[Our research on the other “J” districts follows:

Bedminster Township, New Jersey
K-8. 620 students. Nine board members.

Bernards Township School District
5,404 students. Operates K-12. Nine school board members.

Chester Township Public School District
K-8 only, approximately 1,500 students. Nine board members.

Cranbury School
650 students. K-8. Nine board members.

Essex Fells, New Jersey
K-8. 271 students. Five board members.

Glen Rock Public Schools
K-12. 2,472 students. Nine members.

Haddonfield Public Schools
K-12. 2,377. Nine members.

Harding Township, New Jersey
K-8. 321 students. (Bd of Ed website down).

Ho-Ho-Kus Public School
K-8. 650 students. Five members.

Little Silver School District
K-8. 802 students. Seven members.

Mendham Borough Schools
K-8. 650 students. Nine members.

Mendham Township Public Schools
K-8. 926 students. Seven members.

Millburn Township Public Schools
K-12. 4,573 students. Nine members.

Montgomery Township School District
K-12. 4,917 students. Eight board members.

Mountain Lakes Schools
K-12. 1,631 students. Nine members.

North Caldwell Public Schools
K-6. 731 students. Website down.

Plainsboro Township, New Jersey
Plainsboro and West Windsor are part of a combined school district, the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District. 9,016 students. Nine members.

Ridgewood Public Schools
K-12. 5,551 students. Five members.

Rumson School District
K-8. 986 students. Nine members.

Saddle River School District
K-5. 207 students. Five board members.

School District of the Chathams
K-12. 3,380 students. Nine members.

Tewksbury Township Schools
K-8. 753 students. Nine members.

Upper Saddle River School District
K-8. 1,344 students. Seven members.

West Windsor Township, New Jersey
See Plainsboro. Plainsboro and West Windsor are part of a combined school district, the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District. 9,016 students. Nine members.

Woodcliff Lake Public Schools
K-8. 895 students. Seven members.]

2) “In light of the unexpected departure caused by Mr. Brooks, what have you changed in your approach to a search for a superintendent candidate and what changes you have, if any, in the criteria for the superintendent candidate?

Answer:
We would start by conducting a search within our current staff to find a “home-grown” replacement.

Instead of simply “listing qualities” of a “dream superintendent” we think it is more important to (a) identify the problems we are facing and then (b) describe what type of leader we need in Ridgewood to address our problems.

(a) Problems – the challenges we expect our next Superintendent to deal with:

Our leadership staff (Principals) and teaching staff have had to endure a ‘revolving door’ of Superintendents. We need someone who is committed to Ridgewood – who will live here and become part of the community. This will inspire our staff and leadership and show that our superintendent is here to stay, and not just “passing through.” Permanence will lend credibility to our next Superintendent.

Ridgewood is heading into a crisis with the infrastructure in our schools. In the next 3-5 years our community-members (taxpayers) are going to have to face up to the years of neglect our lovely buildings and grounds have endured. This will be expensive. In the next several months and years not only does our Board have to show the taxpayers of Ridgewood they can exercise fiscal responsibility, but our superintendent must lead us towards the necessary reinvestment and rebuilding of our school infrastructure. This new Superintendent must demonstrate fiscal responsibility in order to convince the taxpayers that any ‘Second question’ or capital improvement monies will not be “frittered away”-the Superintendent must lead the way and build a community-wide optimism in rehabilitating our crumbling schools.

We have an instructional crisis in Ridgewood-our district has become embroiled in “Math Wars.” Our next Superintendent should have a strong instructional background so she/he can steer our district clear of “fads,” “experiments,” and “unproven reforms.”

The Superintendent must reduce our overhead and “flatten” the organizational tree. For example, why have the facilities supervisor report to the Business Administrator? The facilities manager should report directly to the Superintendent. This will “free up” our business administrator (and maybe we will not have to hire an assistant for our business administrator). Our next superintendent must reduce inefficient staffing.

(b) To adequately address these problems, Ridgewood’s superintendent should possess the following qualities:

Possess the highest standards and maintain the highest aspirations for Ridgewood – demonstrate a belief that Ridgewood can be #1;
Show a commitment to Ridgewood (permanence);
Be fiscally responsible and prepared to reduce waste; and
Have a strong instructional background.

3) What is your plan for ensuring Ridgewood kids receive a world-class education?

Answer:
The Maskin-Lois plan is:
(a) The Board must set the following goal for our school leadership and instructional staff: We must be #1 in Bergen County and #1 in New Jersey. Tolerance of other standards of success (such as the Board’s discussion of simply ‘meeting state standards’ and espousing success via state test scores) is a waste of time. Let’s focus on getting back to where we should be: #1.
(b) The Board must select and support an outstanding new Superintendent.
(c) The Board must create community-wide support for massive infrastructure improvement, including facilities, technology, and grounds. As set forth in our other answers, the Board must establish credibility within the community by demonstrating fiscal responsibility (doing more with less, identifying efficiencies, and cutting out the waste). The Board must come up with a sustainable and responsible plan to repair our school buildings in a timely fashion, involve the community, and secure the resources necessary to support the infrastructure development.

4) Do our HSA’s have a purpose beyond fundraising? If so, what is it and how can you help them achieve it?

Answer:
We have a talented, educated, and capable parent community that is willing to help our schools achieve excellence. To ask our HSA’s to solely fundraise diminishes the possibilities our parents can offer to benefit our schools, children, and faculty.

We believe the role of the HSA should be an avenue for parents to express their ideas, concerns, needs and goals within each school involving all topics that impact our children. The HSA’s in return can provide the parent voice by communicating directly to the principal at their meetings and then to the superintendent. This allows for changing that avenue from a one-way street to a two-way street.

5) What role should NJ’s state standards or lack thereof play in selecting our curriculum and do you agree with the direction the academic program has taken in Ridgewood Schools?

Answer:
Our goal must be to be #1 in Bergen County and #1 in New Jersey. That does not mean “#1 in NJASK, GEPA, and HSPA testing.” There is a need for improvement regarding our academic programming.

One example is the Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. Our model is effective in producing solid results for elementary student achievement in both reading and writing. However, grammar and language mechanics are missing from this model. We should include grammar and language mechanics into our program.

Another area of our academic programming that must be addressed is the methodology of instruction dictated by district administrators. Our children spend a disproportionate amount of time working in groups or partnering with other students throughout all academic domains.

Our district must unify our curricula throughout all of our schools. Unifying the curricula will save tax dollars, guarantee the same content is provided to each student, and eliminate the divisiveness felt among parents that “one school is better than another.” We all live in Ridgewood, and creating unity has powerful results.

6) Is a “state teaching certification” enough to satisfy our standards for teachers we hire?

Answer:
Of course not. By law, all teachers must be state certified. That is merely the “minimum” requirement. We must continue to recruit outstanding teachers and invest in our teachers (continuing education, workshops, etc.). Ridgewood traditionally hired only those teachers who had at least three years experience. We would consider a return to this practice to ensure our children have experienced teachers.

7) Would require redistricting our elementary and middle schools to lower the student teacher ratio?

Answer:
There are many things we could do to lower the student-teacher ratio in our schools.

For example, Benjamin Franklin Middle School has a very high student-to-teacher ratio. The ratio of students to teachers at Benjamin Franklin is nearly 25 to 1. The New Jersey middle-school average is closer to 19 to 1.

Principal Orsini took an innovative approach to this high student-to-teacher ratio: he looked at ways of re-scheduling the class offerings to maximize his student-to-teacher ratio. The school is moving to a different scheduling system and Principal Orsini expects that this change alone will reduce the student to teacher ratio at BF. Changing the schedule is obviously a more cost-effective approach than simply hiring more instructional staff and does not require redistricting.

The mission of the school board and their administrators, consultants, leaders, etc., is to find and encourage efficient and innovative solutions to district problems, like the high student-to-teacher ratio at BF.

8) How do you think the recently released report of the President’s Math Panel should impact and inform our current discussion of Ridgewood’s math curriculum?

Answer:
The recent math panel report does not support the adoption of reform math teaching methods in our schools. The Math panel found that knowledge of basic math facts (using standard algorithms to solve equations) is necessary to comprehend math concepts.

It is a waste of learner’s time and taxpayer dollars to re-train our teachers and re-purchase new instructional materials to teach reform math.

We believe the traditional math instructional model, which has always been used in Ridgewood, best follows the math panel recommendations.

The report also recommends moving away from the spiral topic sequencing approach that reform math advocates espouse. The reform math currently in use at some of our elementary schools relies on a spiral approach and eliminates standard algorithms. At the middle school level, ‘Connected Mathematics Program 2 (CMP2)’ was rolled in for the sixth and seventh graders. It will follow them next year as they enter eighth grade. This middle school math program follows a spiral approach to learning and instruction.

After reading the President’s Math Panel Report, we strongly urge our administrators and Board to jettison all reform math programs from our district as not meeting the recommendations of the report.

We believe a traditional math program provides the necessary content and rigor to prepare our students mathematically and these suggestions are outlined in the Report. Any quality traditional math program inherently builds into its text both strategies and problem solving skills that reform math so highly promotes. Textbooks are a must. Sarah-Kate has sat on curriculum committees and knows it is absolutely possible to unify our districts math instruction with a top quality, proven successful program for this coming September.

For your information, below is a letter that Ms. Maskin emailed to our Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction on March 17, 2008.

Dear Ms. Botsford,

I am sure you have had an opportunity to read through the President’s Math Panel report that was released last week.

Now that it is published with its clear recommendations regarding K-8 mathematics, the district, I hope, will abandon its idea of partnering with a local university.

Short of the implicit response to re-train our teachers, I can’t imagine that this said partnership could possibly offer anything as insightful and detailed as outlined by the President’s National Math Panel. This august and inclusive assembly of experts spent two years researching and collecting information–something we could not do given our limited resources.

The guidance has been provided and I am sure that this report can truly help our district find a resolve to the current state of math programming here in Ridgewood.

Most importantly, do you still see any reason why delaying the implementation of a math program is necessary given its huge cost of another lost year for so many of our students. I look forward to your reply.

Regards,
Sarah-Kate Maskin

9) The BOE believes it has sought ways to improve communication with parents. Has it been successful and if not, what will you do to enhance this aspect of the board’s communication?

Answer:
70.6% of survey-takers said that the current Board does not “accept or want parent input” and 69.7% said that they “don’t feel well-represented by this Board.” (Source: web survey taken by Maskin & Lois for School Board – available online at https://www.OurRidgewoodSchools.com). Based on the results of our polling, the Board has not been successful in improving communication with parents.

Communicating with parents and the community is incredibly important because we are facing several challenges in the coming months: the hiring of a new superintendent, the restoration of a mission of excellence (we must be #1 in Bergen County and #1 in New Jersey and not accept anything less), and the fiscal pressures presented by our decaying infrastructure.

Our campaign exemplifies how to communicate with parents and the community: we have sent direct mail, sent email, created web surveys, drafted a website, and we have individually responded to questions presented by the community (in person at HSA meetings and through correspondence, like these responses). We do not think that the community’s communication expectations should have to change once campaign season is over and the lawn signs go to recycling.

We think the Board must do more to make their website responsive, to incorporate surveys and polling where appropriate, and to consider moving meetings away from Cottage Place and into the individual schools (The BOE has said they can’t hold meetings in the schools because of the location of the TV cameras . . . if the Orchard HSA can webcast their meetings remotely, surely the Board can too!)

Our district’s communication is one way and ineffective. The Board talks about being transparent but in reality, falls short. One of our goals is to provide the public with all information. Currently, the Board and administration impart carefully selected items that equates a partial picture.

There is a chain of command a parent must undergo when voicing their concerns about an educational issue. What has happened specifically regarding math could just as easily be about any issue. It is not the topic; it is the attitude of the Board that is of great concern and we would like that to change to truly represent the parent and tax-payer voice. It is our intent to make sure that no parent must experience the exasperating ordeal of being ignored. These are our children and our hard-earned tax dollars. Parents should be heard and respected in the process. Ms. Brogan does not share in this philosophy; her actions over the past few years demonstrate this point.

We would:

• Provide board minutes on the BOE website;
• Provide tallies of how Board members voted on issues before the Board;
• Hold Board meetings in all of the schools (on a rotating basis);
• Allow write-in (or emailed in) questions to be read into the record at public meetings if a resident can not attend;
• Continue our use of web surveys (see www.OurRidgewoodSchools.com) to include annual reviews of each school by the parents and community;
• Consider increasing the size of the Board to better address and represent taxpayer’s and resident’s issues (from 5 to 7 members); and
• Encourage community participation in the work of the Board committees.

Finally, we remind you that the ultimate communications tool is your vote: if you do not like the direction the school system is heading, vote for change!

10) Where would you rank the quality of our facilities and fields on a scale of 1 to 10? How would you handle the responsibility of ensuring that our facilities and fields are maintained?

Answer:
We give the quality and quantity of our recreational facilities a “5” out of “10.” Given that 1 in 4 residents of Ridgewood is a child (25%), versus a national average of 18%, open space and recreational opportunities are very important for our youth.

I direct you to the ‘Ridgewood Comprehensive Parks, Fields, and Recreation Master Plan’ (2nd Draft) (available here: https://www.ridgewoodnj.net/main.cfm?ArticleID=498). This plan provides a ten-year incremental map of recreational facilities development. The plan anticipates a ‘sharing’ of costs between the BOE and Village for fields and facilities (tennis courts, basketball courts, etc.).

The allocation of field resources (as opposed to the maintenance and creation of new resources) can be done more efficiently. A greater sharing of facilities between the BOE, the Bergen County park system, the YMCA of Greater Bergen County must be explored in addition to the sharing of township resources. The village has 16 parks and the BOE operates and controls 11 ‘active recreation facilities.’

Our Master Plan calls for the acquisition of additional properties over the next ten years. This is a joint plan involving the Village Council as well as the BOE.

We would fight to fully fund our infrastructure maintenance plan and improve our recreational fields. We do not think that we must “sacrifice” one part of our system (facilities, fields) at the expense of another.

The issue of field maintenance and recreational expense is really about the overall budget. Here is Greg Lois’ Letter to the Editor published in the March 21, 2008 Ridgewood News:

Dear Editor:

I asked Board Member Brogan whether she agreed with the statement that “The proposed 2008 budget does not include full funding for the infrastructure maintenance as presented in the LAN Associates district plan and does not include full funding for the recreational facilities maintenance and upkeep as set forth in the Schoor DePalma master plan.”

Ms. Brogan agreed with that statement.

She then went on to speak at length about why our district did fully fund the maintenance and recreational facilities plans. She specifically said it was problem of “allocating resources” and that the infrastructure needs had to be balanced with instructional costs, etc. The answer was quite lengthy and there was no time for other questions after the long response.

I am writing this letter because I do not want the attendees to get the wrong impression from Ms. Brogan’s response. Specifically, I want your HSA members to know that I do not subscribe to Ms. Brogan’s “shrinking pie” theory of the school budget, where we as Board members can do nothing better than just “slice up the pie” between competing school needs. I want your Association members to know that there is a more realistic and optimistic approach to addressing the district’s financial needs.

It’s not a static pie. The pie expands when efficiencies are found.

In order to most easily understand my approach to the school budget process I will provide an example of it in practice.

Benjamin Franklin Middle School has a very high student-to-teacher ratio. The ratio of students to teachers at Benjamin Franklin is nearly 25 to 1. The New Jersey middle-school average is closer to 19 to 1.

Principal Orsini took an innovative approach to this high student to teacher ratio-he looked at ways of re-scheduling the class offerings to maximize his student-to-teacher ratio. The school is moving to a different scheduling system and Principal Orsini expects that this change alone will reduce the student to teacher ratio at BF. Changing the schedule is obviously a more cost-effective approach than simply hiring more instructional staff.

In the BF example, the application of a different scheduling system (a time management system) “expanded” the budget “pie” and the school district is able to provide a benefit (lower student to teacher ratio at BF) without significant cost increase.

The mission of the school board and their administrators, consultants, leaders, etc., is to find and encourage these types of efficiencies. In relation to the budget, this really should be “job one” for the Board members. Not to throw their hands up, say “well this is all we can do” and give up. Not to lead us to believe that every added benefit (like lower teacher to student ratio) comes at the cost to some other district aspiration.

I was hoping to confront Ms. Brogan’s “shrinking pie” budget theory at the meeting. I am sorry we ran short of time because I really think that focusing on efficiencies and the application of technology (like the new time-scheduling system at BF) will be more successful for Ridgewood.

The question really becomes “how much more pie can we find?” in the current budget. I think there is plenty of efficiency to be found.

I have not given up on fully funding our infrastructure maintenance plan and improving our recreational fields. I do not think that we must “sacrifice” one part of our system (facilities, fields) at the expense of another (according to Ms. Brogan, “everything else”).
Very Truly,
Greg Lois

Please visit our website (www.OurRidgewoodSchools.com) for more information and information about our platform. Please contact the candidates with any questions regarding these responses. Sarah-Kate can be contacted directly at Sarah-Kate@OurRidgewoodSchools.com . Greg can be contacted at Greg@OurRidgewoodSchools.com.

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