Joseph Baldofsky is keeping busy.
Not only is the 25-year-old seeking to earn a degree from Rutgers Law School, but he is also a student attorney at the Rutgers Federal Tax Law Clinic, an associate editor of the Rutgers Law Record (an online publication) and he recently completed his first year as a member of the Fair Lawn Board of Education.
Fair Lawn Public School District is a K-12 district in the New York City suburbs that serves about 5,500 students at 10 schools.
In this School Board Member Spotlight, he shares what he’s learned on his school board member journey.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a lifelong resident of Fair Lawn and proud product of the Fair Lawn School District – Fair Lawn High School, class of 2015.
As a student, I was elected student body president and served as the student representative on the board of education. After initially pursuing a degree in secondary education, I graduated from The College of New Jersey with a Bachelor of Arts in history and a minor in political science. Following two years working in government, I decided to return to school and am currently pursuing a Juris Doctor degree at Rutgers Law School in Newark.
When do you expect to graduate – and tell us a little bit more about your college activities.
I expect to graduate in May 2024. Afterward, I’ll take the bar exam in July, which I hope to pass.
In my role as a student attorney at the Rutgers Federal Tax Law Clinic, I assist low-income taxpayers in New Jersey with cases involving disputes with the IRS. We provide free legal assistance and receive class credit for our pro bono work. After taking a federal income tax course last semester, I was eager to gain practical experience in the field.
The Rutgers Law Record is a student-run academic journal committed to publishing scholarly legal work in a paperless format. It was the first online law journal in the United States. I am proud of our accessibility and sustainability.
What made you change your major from secondary education to law?
I was a secondary education major through my junior year as an undergraduate. I did observations in classrooms and a handful of courses, but I realized my interest lies more on the policy side of education than the instructional side. That is when I shifted my focus to law.
I have always been interested in history and planned on being a history teacher, but I think history lends itself to a legal career as I am interested in policy and law. I still have a passion for education – but I enjoy the background of it instead of being front and center.
Why did you decide to serve on your local board of education?
My decision to run for the board of education was based on my desire to give back to my community. I am extremely grateful for the education our district provided to me, and I wanted to ensure we continue to provide an exceptional education to future students. Seeing areas in which we could improve, including CTE programs and sustainability efforts, I wanted to bring a new perspective to the board – the perspective of a former student and lifelong resident who hopes to raise a family in town one day.
I am passionate about improving the services available to our students, especially mental health resources, enhancing the integration of technology in the classroom and addressing the environmental and fiscal sustainability of our district. As the first member of GenZ (those born between 1997 and 2012) elected to serve my community, I have been eager to show that all community members can have a voice, regardless of age.
How did being a former student representative on the board of education play into your decision to seek a seat on the board?
Being a student representative was my first interaction with the board. It really helped me set my sights on one day serving the community. It was one of my first introductions to government, and it was during that time – about 10 years ago now, my junior year of high school – that we were talking about student email addresses. That is what we wanted at that time. Now, we are a one-to-one district – we have student devices across the board. That just shows you how quickly we’ve progressed.
I won a contested election – there were eight candidates running for three spots. I was beyond humbled to have received the most votes in that election – and surprised. Both incumbents who ran won alongside me, and I often joke with the one incumbent who has been on the board 30 years about how he’s been serving longer than I’ve been alive.
I think it is important that we have different voices and perspectives on the board. That includes veteran members with institutional knowledge. To have a board member who has been here since the early 1990s helps to provide insight into prior decisions and how we got to where we are now.
But I think it is equally important to have younger and new voices on the board as well. I am glad that the state recognized the importance of student representatives by mandating they be on boards. Fair Lawn has had dialogues between the board of education and the student body since the 1960s, so we were ahead in that area. Being a student representative certainly impacted my direction moving forward.
What has surprised you about being a member of your local board of education?
The number of meetings! While I do find myself busier than expected, I genuinely enjoy every moment serving on the board. As much of my professional experience has been in government, I am surprised by the uniqueness of BOE governance.
What major challenges have you faced as a school board member?
Some challenges I have faced have included being the only new board member and the youngest board member. Also, as a board of nine unique personalities, it has been challenging to find my own voice among the veteran members. Understanding how to properly respond to the community has involved a learning curve. I’ve also had to remember that the board does not “run the district.” Luckily, our board and administration were extremely helpful in navigating the challenges of my first year.
What particular issues are you most passionate about as a board member?
My number one issue is mental health.
A lot of people have said how the pandemic brought this to the forefront, but this has been an issue well before the pandemic – but I think now, people are more willing to discuss it.
With the advent of social media – platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram – students today have such a different experience. The school day does not end when they leave school. Their connection with their classmates continues. That can be positive, but it can also be negative when it comes to matters of bullying and setting unrealistic expectations. Our district has been proactive in ensuring counselors are available and that we have mental health experts who can assist with any issues.
I’m also passionate about technology. We were a one-to-one district before I joined the board and I want to continue to enhance that. Many of our smartboards are becoming outdated, so we are slowly replacing them with new boards.
I also have a deep interest in sustainability, which involves more than the environmental side of it. I am a member of the Open Space Committee in town. I think we need to be cognizant about preserving space, and that goes for the school district as it is one of the largest landowners in town. We need to ensure we move toward renewable energy, and we need to make sure that the windows we put in are energy efficient, etc. All that ties into fiscal sustainability as well. If we do it right now, hopefully it will provide savings down the line and mitigate the cost of repairs that may have to happen.
I also would like to see more trees planted. We need to replace the aging trees that have been cut down throughout the district.
How has your school board responded to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic?
While my time on the board did not coincide with the start of the pandemic, our board has made great strides in returning to a new normal. Due to the pandemic, many of the student/board interactions were limited. This year, we returned to meeting bimonthly with our high school student government, which includes students sharing reports at our monthly meetings, and recognizing teachers/faculty members in person. This is such a priority that our board made one of its goals this year to increase our engagement with students, families and the community to respond to the multiple years of physical and social distancing.
How does the New Jersey School Boards Association help you carry out your duties as a school board member?
The New Jersey School Boards Association has been a tremendously helpful resource during the course of my first year – especially in understanding my role as a board member. I have found both the mandatory and optional training enjoyable – and the networking opportunities have also been valuable. The NJBSA provided the resources I needed as a new board member and has made me feel like I am making the most of my time on the board.
You have interned at all levels of government – from Fair Lawn’s Borough Hall to the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute outside Washington D.C. What has stuck with you – and do you see yourself staying in government or seeking a higher elected office?
All I know is that I want to serve my community. Right now, that’s as a member of the board of education. As long as the community allows, I’ll continue. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I have enjoyed my time in government.
My professional experiences in government have shown me that there is a lot of potential to truly assist the residents and to make a huge difference in the community. However, a lot of things people say about government are also true. At every level, there is red tape or bureaucracy that slows things down. But there are usually reasons for that. A lot of times, it’s easy to look from the outside and question. But there are rationales and purposes behind the procedures.
I do see myself staying in government, even if I sometimes get frustrated with the slowness of it all and occasional pencil pushers. My passion lies in working for the people – it’s what I want to do.
Baldofsky noted that the views expressed in this article are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Fair Lawn Board of Education.
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