With a new era of strategic planning in its nascent stages, budget complications for this year and beyond, and the question of funding long overdue capital improvements looming, members of the next West Windsor-Plainsboro school board will face some hard decisions.##M:[more]##
A year ago at this time Stephen Smith and Linda Geevers were the president and vice president of the school board. But now both have decided to move on to the next phase of their lives: Smith to spend more time with his family and Geevers to run for West Windsor Council.
Consequently, three newcomers — Richard Kaye, Adam Shrager, and Randy Tucker — are vying for the two open seats in West Windsor in the election on Tuesday, April 19. (In Plainsboro, Pat Bocarsly is running unopposed for her second term.)
The following are interviews with the three West Windsor candidates, in alphabetical order:
‘It is obvious by my career choice that public service is important to me,” says Richard Kaye. For him, education has been — and continues to be — a lifelong career. A resident of West Windsor’s Village Grande senior housing for the past five and a half years, Kaye spent 39 years working as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal.
But it was Kaye’s experience serving on the core team for the strategic planning initiative for the past two years that made him decide to run for the board. “That got me to know students, staff, and other community members very personally,” he says. “It’s increased my commitment to the community and school system.”
Kaye feels he can be of particular service in the implementation of the strategic planning process. “I believe I can be very helpful in taking strategic planning into the next stage,” he says.
“In the plan they talk about extensive creation of school/community partnerships and when I was principal at South Brunswick, our high school probably had the largest number of school community partnerships in the state. Our children were in the community one day a week learning so we had hundreds of partnerships. So I understand how to do that. “
A frequent complaint during the public comment portion of school board meetings has been the question of equity among the district’s 10 schools. Some have criticized the district for having been too intent on building new buildings such Town Center Elementary, Grover Middle School, and High School North, while the older buildings fall behind. According to Kaye, the issue of capital improvements is a problem that has been ignored too long. “I’ve attended all the board members in the last four years,” says Kaye. “You have to do ongoing maintenance so that it doesn’t build up and reach a crescendo when you are in trouble. It seems that didn’t occur as well as it should have under the previous superintendent.”
But the question of setting priorities and deciding what work needs to be done first is a critical question. “When you look at Dutch Neck and High School South, the equity becomes a critical issue because it means different things to different people. You’re never going to make South equal to North on every piece of the agenda. They’re different kinds of buildings. And when you build a new building and it is state of the art, you can’t bring everything else up to state of the art right away. It’s going to take time.”
But an open dialogue is essential, stresses Kaye. “It’s going to important for the board and the community to look at the needs of each building,” he says. “It’s not like we have any child in peril, but there can be major constrictors in the way of delivering program. If there are buildings that can’t deliver, then that has to be known by everybody and we need to look at all the alternatives. What would it mean if we had to fix it out of current expense? How long would it take? With new items entering the list each year, would we be abler to ever catch up?”
A further roadblock to capital improvement work getting done is the S-1701 state law, passed hurriedly last June. It limits each district’s ability to maintain extra funds. “This limits us tremendously because you don’t have the opportunity to take money out of existing funds for capital improvements,” says Kaye. “In the final analysis you are going to have to look toward a referendum because you don’t have the dollars available. Last year they tried to do the work with existing dollars, but now with the state constraining the money a referendum will have to looked at seriously.”
And things will only get tougher. According to Kaye, S-1701 will have even more of an impact on the district’s finances as it creates a budget next year. “We are feeling it a little now , but next year it is going to get even worse,” says Kaye. “Then we will be at the point where the capital reserve is so low, by law, that you wouldn’t be able to cover full payroll if you had an emergency to deal with, such as a roof replacement. That is something that is going to have to be looked at by all districts and the state. This was imposed by the state to help the state get out of a financial mess and pass the dirt on to the districts.” Kaye believes that school districts must become more active lobbyists with the state legislature.
With his extensive experience in developing school budgets — 33 in his 39 years in education — Kaye says that there typically are two major questions facing the community in the formulation of school budgets: Needs and wants. Prioritizing and separating needs and wants within individual schools and collectively across the district is essential during the budget making process. “One of the strengths of (superintendent Robert Loretan) is that he talks to everybody about the budget process,” says Kaye. “He sets it up so that each person understands the steps in creating a budget and when you understand that you go in differently. Instead of a ‘mine’ attitude you go in with an ‘our’ attitude.
Kaye says that the budget created for the 2005-’06 school year, which calls for a 4.6 percent increase, is something that he can support. “They have done a very excellent job and they have reason to be proud of themselves,” says Kaye. “They looked at everything carefully, honestly, and openly. Even though West Windsor is fortunate to have a level of affluence that not every community can have, it is important to recognize two things: There are residents whose taxes are $10,"000 and more but who also have children attending colleges and universities. There are also things like the rising cost of healthcare. Money is an issue in every community. It is not something we are exempt from.”
Kaye also addresses an age-old question concerning the limited finances of seniors in the community. As a retiree, Kaye says that while seniors may have less of an opportunity to increase income, their costs are also limited. “Seniors have usually finished paying off college and university costs,” he says. “A senior can actually have it a little better than the neighbor across the street who has more income but is paying $300,"000 and more for his two kids going to an Ivy League school.”
Kaye, 66, was born in New York. He and his wife, Judy, have one grown daughter who works as a teacher in New Jersey. Kaye grew up as an only child. His mother was a stay-at-home mom until he reached the fourth grade when she returned to the work world, eventually becoming a manager of a major corporation that dealt with street lighting. His father was a civil servant for the federal government and eventually became a management consultant. “My mother was the president of the PTA,” says Kaye. “As a family there was always a strong history of community service and being a part of trying to improve the quality of life for others.”
He attended Stuyvesant High School in New York and only became interested in a career in education during his years at Queens College (now City University). “I started out thinking I was going to become a dentist,” says Kaye. “I had an affluent uncle who was a dentist and he invited me into the practice. But I was tutoring a blind girl in earth science during my second year of college. So I had to think about how you help someone without sight understand the concepts of earth science, through feel, through words, through smell. It started to intrigue me more and more. So I came to the realization that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life looking into people’s mouths. I really loved helping someone learn. I said to my family that I was going to become an educator. My family asked me if I thought I could live on the income. My answer was that I was going to try.”
He earned his degree from Queens College in history and political science in 1960 and then got his masters in social studies education from NYU in 1961. He worked as a student teacher at an all-girls high school in Manhattan. “There were 4,"000 girls and three guys in the building,” says Kaye. “The building also had an annex with 11 stories and one elevator, so when the elevator was late and the kids were late for class there was nothing much you could do. That was really a learning experience.”
Kaye then earned a second masters degree from City University in secondary school administration in 1966. After teaching in New York, Kaye became an assistant principal at Madison Township High School in 1968. He served as principal at South Brunswick High School from 1974 to 1994 and then five more years at Crossroads Middle School, officially retiring in 1999.
But even in retirement education has remained a cornerstone of his life. He has served as interim principal at Piscataway High School and the John Adams Elementary School in North Brunswick and is currently the director of school services at Kendall Park Learning Center.
In the next three years, Kaye sees some critical issues that could threaten the business of education in West Windsor and Plainsboro. In addition to financial hurdles, capital needs problems, the implementing of the new strategic plan, Kaye says that the district must look ahead to a successor to Robert Loretan as superintendent. “It could be that within the next three to five years we will have to look for an educational leader again,” says Kaye. “We have someone now who is among the best of the best. He has set a very clear course for the district and has shown outstanding qualities of leadership. Replacing him will be a major piece of work.”
‘I think that what I bring to the table is perspective,” says Adam Shrager, an eight-year resident of West Windsor. “I am a real community resident who desperately wants the high school to be as good 10 years from now when my son is there as it is today. If that is selfish, then I’m proud of it. I want the best education for my son and for the generations behind him.”
A former Wall Street executive and currently a math and social studies teacher at Hopewell Valley Central High School, Shrager says that serving the community was a vow he made to himself shortly after settling down in West Windsor in 1996. “The board of education needs to be responsible to the community, particularly the community of parents and students,” he says. “The board should serve as a proxy for the community and for the students. Children count on us to make decisions that will directly impact their lives. That’s why I am running for the school board. You don’t run for the board to get rich.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Shrager attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. An only child, his father worked as cab driver and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. He earned his bachelors degree from Tufts University in 1988 and worked as a sales manager at Macy’s. He was then hired by Barnes & Noble to work as a buyer. “That was when they were first opening superstores,” says Shrager. “I was one of the guys instrumental in the decision to put coffee shops in the stores. That was a very radical idea at the time. They were unprofitable at first and the thinking was that the space would have been better served with magazines, which were very profitable. But I was very pro-coffee shop and that was one of my first big executive decisions.”
Shrager and his family moved to Princeton in 1994 when he was accepted into the graduate program at Princeton University, earning his master’s degree in political science in 1996. (He currently is working toward his PhD as well.) Shortly after moving to West Windsor he wrote a book on Star Trek called “The Finest Crew in the Fleet,” which has been translated into several languages. “It’s an entertaining, fun book in which I was the first person to write that the Next Generation was better than the original Star Trek,” says Shrager. He has also written articles for financial publications.
Shrager briefly worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange before getting a job on Wall Street for Knight Securities, a Nasdaq market-maker. He commuted to New York by train each day from Princeton Junction. “I eventually became a corporate training manager,” says Shrager. “It wasn’t fun, but I did that for all the right reasons: To make money.”
He continued until the events of September 11, 2001 forced him to reevaluate his life decisions. “I missed my son and I didn’t want to miss him growing up,” says Shrager. “All the right reasons for working on Wall Street were suddenly becoming wrong reasons. I realized that what really fulfilled me was teaching.” (He does continue to occasionally train Wall Street workers on the efficiency of domestic equity market.)
With previous work experience teaching at Princeton, Penn, DeVry, and the New York Institute of Finance (he teaches statistics and political science at Princeton during the summer), Shrager decided to go through alternate route path toward earning his teaching certificate to teach in the public schools. His first job was teaching social studies and math at Somerset County Vocational Technical School.
“Some of my students were very troubled kids who did not fit into the mainstream.” He now teaches at Hopewell, a district that gives him an insight into the workings of WW-P. “It is very similar to West Windsor-Plainsboro in a lot of ways,” says Shrager. “The students are very dynamic and every child is a gifted child with hopes of Ivy League educations in their futures. The parents, teachers, and administrators are very dedicated.”
Shrager is a member of Temple Beth El in East Windsor, has coached Tee Ball, and has done volunteer work at Princeton University. His wife, Lisa, is a member of the PTA. Their son is a second grade student at Maurice Hawk Elementary School
While he admits that the board has done an outstanding job in doing its part to elevate WW-P to one of the state’s best public school systems, Shrager sees room for improvement. “I have been impressed with the quality of education at the elementary levels in this district,” says Shrager. “My son’s teachers have been amazing. The schools are safe. You don’t have to worry about metal detectors in the high schools. There are concerns, but we have to address them head-on. You can’t have mold at Maurice Hawk School. That problem should not have existed for as long as it has.”
But Shrager says that the fact that the district can put its resources toward education is a blessing that shouldn’t be ignored. “When the residents pay that painful property tax bill four times a year, it hurts,” he says. “Although we know that money is going toward quality education, we also need to know that the district can become as efficient and creative as possible. Otherwise we’ll lose programs and the system will not maintain the quality of education.”
According to Shrager, one of the biggest challenges the district faces is how to become more efficient with tax dollars as these dollars become more restricted by state regulation and increasing costs. “We’re not going to wake up and find a pot of gold,” he says. “I live in a modest home in West Windsor and the reality is that West Windsor residents won’t pay any more property taxes. We have reached a ceiling. There comes a point that if you raise taxes much more, people will flee. They can’t pay any more. But they trust that since the bulk of the money goes to the schools the schools will use that money properly.”
The alternative to efficiency is cutting programs and Shrager say this is an unacceptable choice. “We fail to think about efficiency sometimes,” says Shrager. “We’ll think that we can cut a vocational program, but that to me is a gigantic mistake. You need to serve that community. I think West Windsor felt the pain of that recently with the giant bill they got from the Mercer County Vo-Tech. Suddenly they have to come up with almost a half a million dollars.”
“The reason that resonated with me is that the lowest bill in the county belonged to Hopewell Valley. Rather than ship a kid out to Vo-Tech, they have to figure out how to maintain the vocational program in-house in order to teach that child. The school hasn’t suffered, the child has flourished, and the big bill isn’t there. Hopewell, about half the size of WW-P, has a bill from Mercer County that is 1/20th the size of West Windsor’s. We can learn from that.”
While he recognizes equity issues between the district’s older and newer buildings, Shrager says that a level of common sense must prevail. While the older buildings must be brought up to the same level of technology and infrastructure as the newer buildings, the question of whether the schools in the district are equitable is sometimes absurd. “WW-P is a super successful district and everybody acknowledges that,” says Shrager. “One of our high schools is rated as first in the state and the other is fourth. Can you say that we’ve failed with the school that is rated fourth? That is insanity. With money always an issue, we have to set our priorities in making decisions about equity.”
As a member of the teachers’ union, the NJNEA at Hopewell Valley, Shrager would be prohibited from serving on the negotiating committee with the WWPEA. He does not see this as a liability. “There are certainly plenty of other committees that I could be a part of,” he says. In addition, he says that his role as a teacher gives him a valuable insight into the needs of the students. “I teach 130 students every single day,” says Shrager. “I know how much they care. I teach everyone from the kid who is failing gym to my AP statistics student who is going to Cornell next year, and every kid in between. This is public education and that is what we need to provide.”
“I don’t just have a passing familiarity with education as a community resident or a parent,” says Shrager. “I am ensconced in that experience eight hours a day. The kinds of issues that Hopewell Valley and West Windsor students face are similar. I have the experience in terms of the daily classroom experience as well as the experience of managing millions of dollars. On Wall Street I had many traders working for me. I oversaw how a series of people managed their millions of dollars. It is not that dissimilar from the way a board has to oversee various administrators make their decisions.”
“We need to stay as good as we are in a fiscally sound way. I think the most effective policy makers are those who have a stake in the decisions they make. I am a property tax payer, I am an educator.”
For Randy Tucker, the time is now. “In the back of my mind, I have always intended to someday get involved with the school board,” he says. “I believe that the issues the district faces now are very well aligned with the experiences that I have in industry.”
The question of equity between the buildings is an issue Tucker says he routinely tackles in his job at Ortho Clinical. “The issue of the renovation of some of the older buildings and bringing them up to parity with the newer buildings is something that I have a lot of experience with,” he says. “I deal every day with a whole list of wants and a very limited budget that I must figure out how to apply successfully to manufacturing facilities and corporate buildings, some of them old and in need of some reinvestment. These are skills that transfer very readily to the school board.”
The implementation of the new strategic plan is also something that Tucker has experience in. “I am excited at what the district has done and I think it has taken a very progressive approach in identifying the need for a strategic plan,” says Tucker. “The key to making it work will be the community involvement of local businesses as well as taking the opportunity to redefine what excellence really means. I think we need to look across the country and see what is the standard of excellence in education today. We can then bring back the metrics so that we can measure our district’s performance. That is another area I do on a routine basis in my line of work.”
A resident of West Windsor for the past 10 years, Tucker was born and raised in Texas. His mother was a school administrator and his father was in the insurance business and he has one brother and two sisters. He attended the University of Texas at Austin, earning his bachelors degree in chemical engineering in 1984.
After having lived his entire life in Texas, Tucker was recruited by I-Stat Corporation (a company that also once employed Plainsboro board member Henry Wieck), a medical device company based in Plainsboro and Princeton, to run its manufacturing operations. “What sold us on living in West Windsor was the quality of the education,” says Tucker. “We had multiple choices of where to live but the reputation of the school district was the deciding factor.” He says that he has a vested interest in the quality of the education in WW-P: His daughter Natalie is a seventh grader at Grover Middle School and his son Preston is a freshman at High School South.
Tucker has also been heavily involved in community activities including chaperoning for school functions, PTA participation, and serving as a soccer coach and for Pop Warner football. (His daughter, Natalie, was a part of the cheerleading squad that won third place in the nation last December at Disney World.) Tucker and his wife, Lisa, have also been involved with West Windsor Recreation, the Fresh Air Fund, as well as serving as host for inner-city children during the summertime for the past four years. “We’ve had kids from the Bronx stay with us for two weeks at our home,” he says. “The difference between the city and what they consider the country is really incredible. The cultural differences provided a learning experience for the whole family.”
Equity will continue to be a major challenge during the next few years, according to Tucker. “From everything I’ve studied, the administration and board have come up with a sound approach at addressing growth,” says Tucker. “It looks like there is relative balance in terms of numbers across the district. But now there is the need to make sure there is proper attention applied to our older facilities. We have to ensure that we have equity in opportunities for all the schools.”
According to Tucker, the budget that the district is offering the voters on April 19 is a fair one. “The administration is really looking at ways to try to control the costs,” he says. “We still have a 2 percent increase in enrollment that is projected for next year and a 4.6 percent budget increase. That also takes into account inflationary adjustment of wages. I think it is a very prudent budget and I support it.”
Next year’s cap imposed by S-1701 will make creating the budget even more difficult. “We are going to be limited in how much the budget can increase,” he says. “We will need to find innovative ways of saving money and that is not going to be easy.”
But Tucker feels that his business expertise will help in managing these future budgets. “My experience in looking at a corporate budget, looking at operational budgets for start-up companies, mid-sized, and larger companies that really have to do more each year with less and less money will help me take a hard look at the budget,” he says.
Tucker also says that the district must not allow itself to become complacent despite being rated as one of the top districts in the state. “We have to challenge ourselves on what things we should be doing to push forward in order to be one of the best in the state and the country,” he says.
According to Tucker, strategic planning could draw on a great untapped resource to help boost the district toward its goals and objectives. “We are blessed with a very well educated and talented community and we should be drawing upon the wealth of resources we have and try to incorporate that into the success of our district,” he says. “It’s more than paying your taxes and being proud of the accomplishments of the students. We need to provide the opportunities for business and community representatives as well as parents to become involved in shaping the district.”
As an example, Tucker points to a program run by his engineering department at Ortho Clinical that offers life-changing opportunities for students. “Every year we sponsor a robotics competition at Somerville High School,” he says. “We take a fairly large team of students all the way through the brain storming, planning, designing phases, to building a robot, to marketing, creating promotional materials, entering competitions, planning competition strategies, and in the process we teach what it is like to design a product, build it, take it to market, execute it.”
But one of the secrets to its success is that the program is inclusive. “This is not just for the students who are naturally inclined toward engineering and science,” he says. “We try to draw in people who aren’t or have never necessarily thought of themselves as being interested in the sciences. Lo and behold, they become energized by the process and many begin to consider careers based upon these experiences. They would never have done that otherwise. That is just one example how a school district can really benefit by allowing the community to get involved.”
The question of the middle school curriculum is another major concern for Tucker. “I think the district has a good approach with the comprehensive study, but there will be some decisions that need to be made as to what are the appropriate actions that need to be taken,” he says. As far as what would be the best course of action in terms of the middle school schedule and the question of how best to include language arts in the middle school schedule, Tucker prefers to reserve judgment until he sees all the facts.
He also has some progressive ideas of his own. According to Tucker, how a school district measures excellence should go beyond the traditional method of simply measuring test scores. “We need to redefine what excellence is,” he says. “There are surveys that indicate that many kids feel that overwhelming pressure to achieve on SAT tests and things like that. Although those tests are important, I think every educator would agree that is pretty one-dimensional.”
Redefining excellence is going to be a challenge for any school district, according to Tucker. “Communicating a vision and value and providing opportunity for all students, not just those at the top and the ones that need special assistance,” he says. “That is going to take time. Right now the easy way is to measure things traditionally, but I personally feel it doesn’t give you the whole story.”