Superintendent search a key issue for Montgomery board candidates

All but one of seven hopefuls support budget

By: Jake Uitti
   MONTGOMERY — The seven candidates seeking election to the township Board of Education unanimously agreed that hiring a new superintendent is the top concern for the new year — and all but one supported the proposed school budget at a forum Sunday at Montgomery High School.
   During the forum, which was organized by the Montgomery High School Parent Teacher Student Association and moderated by the Princeton League of Women Voters, the candidates explained their positions on key school district matters. These included the hiring of a new superintendent, the budget, cooperation on the board and the transition from high school to college for older students.
   "The board needs to look at facts as they are and weigh their impact on the community at large," said Mohamed Kilany, who has been critical of the board and the "excessive" budget for the past year, to the 60 residents in attendance Sunday. "This was something that the people of Montgomery have missed because of very, very unfortunate policies," he said, adding that "the new superintendent has to gain the respect and support of the school district employees."
   Reginald Luke, who has 18 years of board experience and is the only candidate running for a one-year unexpired term, said the new superintendent should be someone open to students and not afraid to lead.
   Three remaining open seats, sought by the other six candidates, are for full three-year terms.
   Generally, all the candidates agreed with Mr. Luke. All seven said the new superintendent should be a strong leader, able to build consensus, be articulate, open to all the stakeholders and financially prudent.
   Saul Rubinstein, who is a professor at Rutgers University, noted that he has been frustrated by the lack of communication between the board and the public. He said he wants the district to appoint a superintendent who can achieve quality education through team-based communications.
   Mr. Rubinstein also noted that globalization will have an impact on the district, and the new superintendent has to lead given that trend.
   Lisarenee Benz, who noted she has been vice president on two PTA boards, added that a new superintendent should have experience with population growth, saying, "We have to maintain and control costs."
   Turning to the issue of the proposed school budget, all of the candidates except Mr. Kilany supported it.
   Christine Ross, who said she moved to Montgomery in large part for the schools, said, "It makes a commitment to quality education in the district."
   Mr. Rubinstein said that, while he supported the budget itself, he took issue with the budget process. "It could have started earlier, and could have had more cooperation within the community," he said.
   Mark Conforti, whose son graduated from Montgomery High School and whose daughter is still in the school system, said he strongly supported the budget. "Voting for the budget sends a strong message to the superintendent candidates," he noted, adding, "I don’t think they will be interested if we consistently vote budgets down."
   Wayne Fox, who has served on the board for the past year and is now running for a three-year term, said he supported the budget, which he and his colleagues have gone over meticulously. Mr. Fox added, though, that long-range planning should be incorporated more in the future to account for growth in enrollment.
   Mr. Kilany said the proposed budget is "inefficient," saying, "We can’t turn our back on seniors and the retirement community just because we haven’t done our homework with the budget."
   Because of Montgomery’s relative affluence, most of the money to pay for the schools comes from property taxes paid by township residents. When asked how she would speak to stakeholders in the district who are not parents, Ms. Ross said she would "speak to them in terms of the importance of education in their community. Children need to be educated because they are the leaders of the next century."
   Mr. Rubinstein said, if elected, he would look to outside sources of revenue to help offset costs.
   "We have a duty to educate our children," Ms. Benz added.
   The issue of increasing diversity in the district’s curriculum was raised, as well. Mr. Conforti said, "Once our kids leave this nice little cocoon of Montgomery, they will have a culture shock. Anything we can do to help that is critical."
   Montgomery has had the highest SAT scores in the state over the past two years. Despite this, the acceptance rate of students to the top-tier schools has been below other schools’ average, Linda Mather, the forum’s moderator, observed.
   Mr. Fox said the administration is aware of this, adding that there is a clear need to have more proactive guidance counselors.
   Mr. Kilany agreed, noting that parents should also become more involved.
   Ms Ross said, "There have been substantial changes in college admissions since we applied. There is a growing importance of early decision and sending out a large number of applications."
   The election, along with the public vote on the proposed budget, will be held April 18 at the Princeton Elks Club on Route 518. More information on the election can be found at the district’s Web site, www.mtsd.k12.nj.us.