Paul Breda has served as a board member for three different boards of education over the past 18 years, and he prides himself on serving his community.
He currently serves on the Wharton Borough Board of Education in Morris County, which is a small K-8 district that serves 700 students and their families in a town of about 6,500 people.
“Many of our families are recent immigrants, which adds both challenges and rewards,” he said. “The rewards are greatest whenever we hear from a student of the month how proud they are to have come to our schools as a stranger, often with poor English skills, and were accepted and flourished and became part of our school community.”
In this School Board Member spotlight, Breda shares more about his district and what he’s learned on his school board member journey.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I moved to New Jersey almost 30 years ago with a young family and a budding career in the transportation industry. As my daughters grew to become adults with their own families and professions, my personal and professional life just gravitated toward K-12 community service and education. School board service has been central to a range of volunteer activities and prompted a work history of service to educators as a provider of related products and services.
Can you tell us a little more about your professional life?
I work for The Princeton Review/Tutor.com, offering academic services to school districts that support college and career readiness. Our board is already engaged with alternative vendors and needless to say, I cannot solicit my home district.
I also am a former field service representative for the New Jersey School Boards Association, serve on the NJSBA board of directors and have served in other jobs connected to education over the years.
Tell us about your school board service.
I’ve served on the Wharton Borough board for nine years. However, I’ve also served on two other boards for an additional nine years – I was Mine Hill’s sending representative to Dover Public Schools.
Why did you decide to serve on your local board of education?
There were a few hot topics in the local district I served – Mine Hill – when my kids were younger. Namely, the family-life curriculum and our district’s send/receive relationship. I joined citizen committees that were examining these issues and quickly learned that what seemed fairly simple and straightforward to me at first was actually far more complex than I had realized. Not long thereafter, I was tapped to fill an unexpired board term and really never looked back.
Have you had to run campaigns, and if so, what has that been like?
The closest I’ve come in recent years to a contested election was running as a write-in candidate to get on the Wharton Board. There was one other person also seeking write-in votes, but I was relatively new to the town, knowing only a handful of people from having coached soccer and baseball. I printed business cards to hand out with a link to a blog I wrote to introduce myself. My “platform” was basically to be an engaged, transparent board member who would ensure that the board became more goal oriented. This being a friendly town, I wanted to set myself apart without being resented by my fellow board members if I got elected, which I did by a few votes.
What has surprised you about being a member of your local board of education?
I hope all board members are ultimately surprised by the ripple effect of their collective actions on people they may never meet, and by the amount of work to be done. All of society’s hopes and fears ultimately make an appearance in our schools, and the climate we create and provide these children will have an impact long after we’re gone.
What major challenges have you faced as a school board member?
The toughest challenges I recall, especially in my time as board president of the Mine Hill Board of Education, involve when relationships were strained and had to be mended. Education is a very emotional area, and there’s such a fine line between the need for continuous improvement and the expectation that the educational experience will remain similar to what we adults experienced as kids. That probably sums up about 90% of the challenges!
Our biggest challenge as school board members is to step outside of ourselves and try to imagine the school experience from the eyes of our students, or of families from a different background. Especially on boards without the diversity of the communities we serve, we have to ask if we’re meeting their needs as well as we could.
What school board accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
The greatest accomplishments for a board come about whenever the board wants to propose a new direction or concept for the schools, and – knowing it’s the right thing to do – comes together to overcome initial obstacles and objections. Looking over the past 18 service years, I can think of arranging the sharing of superintendents with a neighboring district; developing new district revenue sources; and moving to standards-based grading.
I’m most gratified when identifying opportunities to make important changes that reflect the values of our board. These include improving communications with our Spanish-speaking families; proposing policy language that reflects the board’s high regard for diversity and inclusion; rethinking homework and grading policies; and evaluating and adapting our school security practices to minimize the potential for unnecessary trauma. I haven’t always persuaded my fellow board members to see things my way, but fortunately I’ve almost always been on boards where members will listen with an open mind.
How has your school board responded to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic?
We are a very fortunate board to have a superintendent and administration that are intensely tuned-in to the challenges of this pandemic, and in honesty, we’ve been more than willing to let the administration take the lead. I would venture that their biggest challenge has been navigating wildly changing and often conflicting guidance from the state in dealing with this. It’s been unfair to them, but both administrators and teachers have demonstrated true professionalism in spite of everything, and they have my enduring respect and admiration.
How does the New Jersey School Boards Association help you carry out your duties as a school board member?
I’m a self-described “board geek” – because anything worth doing, is worth doing right! NJSBA is my primary source for staying informed and up to date on statewide matters impacting education. But more importantly, while we can all become impatient with the rate of progress sometimes, the NJSBA focus of training has, to me, always been about the importance of gaining consensus. Until you understand that, it can be frustrating being a board member, and I understand why some good people give up on it. But NJSBA training on boardsmanship has stretched me to become a more collaborative, goal-oriented team member.
Breda noted that the views expressed in this article are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Wharton Borough board.
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