Millburn School Board Candidates Tackle Special Education Student Inclusion, Infrastructure Needs, Administrator Accountability
Friday, October 26, 2012 • 6:45am
MILLBURN, NJ—An incumbent and three newcomers running in the Nov. 6 election for three seats open on the Millburn Board of Education honed in on a variety of issues at Thursday’s forum sponsored by the Millburn Short Hills Special Education Committee (M-SPEC).
The lone incumbent seeking reelection is three-year board member Eric Siegel, a dermatologist with a practice in Millburn who currently is vice president of the education body. His children attend the high school, the middle school and Hartshorn Elementary School.
Newcomers include Rupali Wadhwa, a six-year resident of Short Hills who is an orthodontist with a private practice in Morristown and South Orange. The director of more than two dozen graduate courses has two children, one a three-year-old and a second grader at Deerfield School.
Also running for the first time is Raymond Wong, a mechanical engineer who graduated from West Point, served in the Army and is a former Fortune 500 executive. He has two children.
The third person who is new to the race is Elliot Cahn, a 21-year educator currently a fifth-grade teacher at South Mountain School in South Orange and the former manager of the Millburn Municipal Pool. His two children attend South Mountain School in Millburn.
Cahn promised to use the experience he has gained by spending “six hours a day, 180 days a year” in classes that contain a number of special education students to bring the outlook of a classroom professional to the board.
Siegel, citing his experience in helping bring a new superintendent and new leadership team to the township’s schools and the school budget under the 2 percent cap limit, noted he has coached many of Millburn’s children in baseball, football, basketball and soccer. He is the son of a New York City school teacher and has two sisters who have master’s degrees in special education.
Wadhwa, who compares her school board race to the New York City Marathon, in which she also will run this year, promised to bring an independent voice and more fiscal responsibility to the school board. She focused on accountability and transparency and said she wants to prepare Millburn-Short Hills children for the 21st century with its globalization, automation and technology.
Wong, who emphasized he is the only candidate with a Fortune 500 background, said he can relate to the challenges facing special needs children partially because he has designed schools to meet their needs.
He would like to see more in-district options for special education students, greater state support for classroom aides and more effective training for teachers.
Asked about the current effectiveness of township schools, Siegel said the district’s special education program was the only such program in the area to meet state QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum) review standards.
Wong said, however, that many parents are not happy with the current special education curriculum and feels there should be more realization that IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) cannot lump all children together.
Cahn wants general education programs to be “tweaked” to improve them and he wants to see more efforts made to measure special education students by the same standards as general education programs along with a closer look at teacher qualifications and the tracking of the acceptance rate of special education students into college.
Student and teacher evaluations and what effect they have on revising IEPs as well as tracking special education students’ progress through middle and high school were supported by Wadhwa. She said the Millburn schools also should look toward “benchmark” programs such as those in Bernards Township for better ways of conduct township programs.
As for improvements, Wong called for more inclusion of special education students with general education classes, but with a greater emphasis on advancing entire classes.
Cahn called for more use of updated software programs such as Book Share and programs that can help students understand better by speaking to them in different languages.
Siegel, however, said although most parents think the majority of special education students are doing well in Millburn they feel not enough is being done for the high performing students. He called for increased elective choice for special education students.
Wadhwa called for increased training for special education teachers with better goal-setting and more inclusion of special education students in extra curricular activities.
“We also have to look at the academic programs and determine how many of these students really are suited for college,” she said.
Siegel noted, however, that Millburn has a 75 percent rate of special education students included in general education, whereas the statewide average is 44 percent. He added the district tries to keep as many special education children as possible in the district, but it is limited by special behavioral problems and fiscal constraints.
Wong called for more effort to keep up the self-confidence and esteem of special education students. He also called for more early identification of learning challenges with the help of mental health professionals, greater inclusion and proper supports for IEPs.
Cahn noted that, as Millburn pool manager, he had involved many special education students as staff members and they were excellent assets. He called for more cooperation and dialogue with parents.
Siegel and Wong both agreed the role of board members should be more limited to setting policy than to actually trying to administer the schools.
Wong said, other than making staff members accountable for their professional performance, he would use his engineering background in upgrading the aging infrastructure of Millburn schools with “many hot classrooms and roofs in need of repair.”
One of the problems with the infrastructure, increasing programs and dealing with increases in student population in some schools, according to Siegel, was that school boards of 25 to 30 years ago did not act with enough foresight.
He pointed to the closing of the Short Hills and Washington Schools.
A statement and question relayed by Laura Bencivenga, the M-SPEC moderator of the forum, however, took the candidates by surprise.
Bencivenga asked what the candidates, as board members, would do to more carefully evaluate potential school district employees.
She made note of a lawsuit filed in Warren Township, the former district of current Millburn Superintendent of Schools James A. Crisfield, allegedly involving Crisfield and resulting in a $500,000 settlement with parents.
Siegel praised Crisfield for bringing great improvements to the district and cited his background as a Stanford University and ROTC graduate. He said the district was aware of the allegations, had thoroughly “vetted” Crisfield and the search agency that recommended him and had found the lawsuit to be frivolous.
He said he would always consult board counsel if confronted with legal questions regarding a superintendent candidate.
Wong said he had met Crisfield, was aware of his Stanford and ROTC background. Not being aware of the accusations, he said, he too, would consult board counsel to determine the suitability of any candidate.
He added, however, if he found any candidate unsuitable, as in business, he would “cut him loose,” after following the proper procedures.
Cahn said he would hesitate to “cut someone loose” if they had a five-year contract guaranteeing them $215,000 per year for which the school district might be responsible.
Wadhwa said, however, she would ask any search firm looking for administrative candidates for the Millburn district specific questions about their experience involving lawsuits before hiring them.
All of the candidates promised to promote transparency and open communications with the public.
Siegel said, however, he believed this was done and he answered the many emails and in-person concerns that had been addressed to him about the board.
He added, however, the public did not realize that many of the matters on which the board voted on it public were routine or had been thoroughly “vetted” at board committee sessions prior to public meetings.