Marie Bilik has earned a lot of bragging rights, having formerly served as the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, deputy executive director and chief operating officer of the National School Boards Association, a member of the Green Township Committee and the first female mayor of Green Township – on top of her years as a board of education member with the Green Township School District.
But what she might be most proud about is that her grandson, Christopher Michael Bilik Jr. – who goes by “CJ,” was elected to her same board of education in 2021, taking his seat in 2022 at age 20.
A senior secondary history education major at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, CJ Bilik is minoring in political science and will graduate with a master’s degree. He hopes to get his start as a teacher at a high school or community college.
“In all my years of serving and working on school boards, I have never heard of it,” Marie Bilik said. “I’ve heard of a husband and wife serving on a board or siblings, but I’ve never once heard about a grandparent and grandchild serving on the same board of education.”
While CJ Bilik ran in an uncontested contest, he was the top vote getter in the election for the K-8 district, which serves about 380 students, joining his 76-year-old grandmother at the board table.
“Age doesn’t matter,” Marie Bilik said. “Here we are grandmother and grandson, years apart but focused on the same outcome. To be a good board member is to be a good board member, and it doesn’t matter how old you are. I am very proud of my grandson and that he has taken this responsibility on.”
Serving on the board appealed to CJ Bilik as a way to give back and, as a future teacher, he wanted to learn more about how schools operate.
“Politics has been a recent passion of mine, and I always wanted a gateway into it,” CJ Bilik said, noting his ears perked up when his grandmother, who is the board president, mentioned a board member was resigning. He asked about the deadline to declare his candidacy, knowing that he’d have a different perspective as a board member, having attended school as a student in the district.
For CJ, serving on the board continues a family tradition of service that has been running strong for generations: In addition to his grandmother’s board service, his grandfather (Marie’s husband), also served on the board of education. His father, Christopher M. Bilik Sr., served on the Green Township Committee.
While she knew her grandson was interested in politics, Marie Bilik said she was still shocked when he walked into her house with a fistful of papers on a July afternoon talking about how he was going to run for the board. He very thoughtfully left a spot for her to sign his petition, she said.
Initially, she was surprised and said, “No, you are going to college,” but he quickly responded that Green Township was still his official residence, and he was confident he could fulfill his board duties.
“He has done everything he was supposed to, he took his training and he had not missed a meeting until last week, as he was in Prague as part of a study abroad experience for school,” Marie Bilik said.
While they don’t always see eye to eye on issues, Marie Bilik said it is great to have someone on the board who was so recently educated by the district, which sends its students to Newton High School once they graduate from Green Hills School. Having his view represented has been beneficial in making decisions about curriculum, she said. “He brings inexperience in life but experience in education – and specifically local education – so it is a value to us,” she said. “He is matter of fact in his discussions and is a good contributor on the board. I am very proud of him and of the fact that he feels he should give back to the community.”
They did have to agree to some ground rules, however, including that under no circumstances is he to call her “Nana” at the board table. “He must call me Mrs. Bilik,” she said.
So far, CJ Bilik has enjoyed his time on the board, but he regrets that he had to be sworn in virtually as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s looking forward to seeing what a live ceremony is like when new members join the board.
“There is something very unique about standing there and raising your right hand and looking into the faces of your constituents to take that oath rather than standing and looking at a computer,” Marie Bilik said.
While the Bilik name is well-known in Green Township, CJ said he never thought about the family’s tradition of activism as a reason to run. “But I enjoy being able to do this with my grandmother,” he said. “We are definitely able to keep work and our personal relationship separate – as well as not take the other person’s opinion personally.”
Marie Bilik admitted, however, that she felt a certain level of discomfort when CJ joined the board as she worried that other board members might worry she’d give him preferential treatment as board president or that they’d think his board service was won through nepotism. “But I believe he has won the respect of other board members,” she said.
CJ Bilik said he’s been “kind of surprised” at how democratically curriculum is written. “It was something I had never thought about beforehand,” he said.
He added that he views his age as an asset, as he has a better understanding than other board members of how much technology is weaved into instruction. Also, as a former student in the district, he knows its strengths and weaknesses, he said. He’s particularly passionate about improving the quality and amount of the Spanish language instruction the district provides students, he said.
Marie Bilik still gets a jolt from doing her part to look out for students.
“I tell my board members that the most exciting thing they will do annually is sit in the front row at graduation when our eighth-grade class graduates,” she said. “It brings all those hours of discussions and deliberations to fruition to see the success of our students. I enjoyed it with my own children and my grandchildren as CJ and his sister both went through Green. It is fantastic to see the success of the children.”
Gov. Phil Murphy has proclaimed January 2023 as School Board Recognition Month in New Jersey. NJSBA has posted a copy of the governor’s proclamation. You can also find resources and information on celebrating School Board Recognition Month in New Jersey.