Attracting more than 8,500 members of the education community, Workshop 2018 shattered modern attendance records for the annual conference.

Participants in the annual training event, which took place Oct. 22 through 25 at the Atlantic City Convention Center, were able to take advantage of more than 250 small group learning opportunities on subjects including student achievement; school safety and security; education programs for the career-focused student; STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics);  cybersecurity; labor relations; health and wellness; school law, school finance; sustainability, and many others.

Attendees also heard keynote presentations by New Jersey Commissioner of Education Dr. Lamont Repollet and musician/actor/arts education advocate Steven Van Zandt.

At the annual Legislative Update, leading lawmakers—including Senate President Steve Sweeney and Jon Bramnick, Assembly minority leader—discussed issues affecting the state’s public schools.

More than 2,000 attendees entered the I-STEAM Green Command Center,  where they witnessed hundreds of students participate in the STEAM Tank Challenge before a panel of judges. Student performers from throughout the state danced and sang to loud applause, and the NJSBA honored the New Jersey Board Member of the Year, Sister Carol Adams of Salem City, and the Teacher of the Year, Jennifer Skomial, of the Morris County School of Technology in Denville.

“We met and exceeded all of our programming and attendance goals for Workshop 2018,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director of the NJSBA. “Workshop continues to be the premier training event for New Jersey’s public school leaders. I commend the NJSBA staff for their incredible efforts in making Workshop so successful.”

New Jersey Education Commissioner Dr. Lamont Repollet: Discussing his plans to “rebuild, retool and restore” the New Jersey Department of Education, Repollet said he would use some of the same techniques he learned as superintendent of the formerly “dysfunctional” Asbury Park school district.

“We had nowhere to go but up,” he said, describing the situation he faced in Asbury Park. He increased graduation rates, created new learning opportunities for students and earned the “buy in” of the local board of education and teachers by treating them with respect and collaborating with them.

“You cannot do it alone,” he said. He planned to implement Gov. Murphy’s “stronger and fairer” vision for New Jersey by creating a new organizational system that’s “progressive, adaptive and responsive.” He called the new system “NJDOE 2.0.”

He said he created an operational blueprint with the mission of becoming a model organization that emphasizes teaching, leading and learning while facilitating “equity and access for all.” He revised the NJDOE’s organizational chart to reflect his vision, and he said he planned to emphasize the NJDOE’s digital presence by using social media and videos to highlight the achievements of the department.

Steven Van Zandt: The day after his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation hosted a professional development program for Atlantic City-area educators, Van Zandt delivered a keynote presentation at Workshop’s first general session, telling the crowd on Tuesday that “this may be the most challenging time in the history of education.”

Van Zandt, an original member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, said that current troubles in the schools offered “an opportunity to evolve.” Testing students is not the answer, he said.

“Testing is not learning… We need to teach our kids how to think, not what to think,” he said. He urged school districts to “put the arts back into our school system,” which is what his foundation’s TeachRock initiative aims to do by mixing standards-aligned educational content with music.

“These kids are very into music,” he said, “and that is going to save the day.”

The Rock and Roll Forever Foundation also presented a group session, “Music Across the Disciplines,” on two occasions at Workshop.

Legislative Update: School district regionalization, controlling employee health benefit costs, and revising the state’s school funding formulas were among the topics discussed at a well-attended forum during which half a dozen lawmakers answered questions. The session was moderated by Mike Vrancik, the NJSBA governmental relations director. The annual program is co-sponsored by the Garden State Coalition of Schools.

Senate President Steve Sweeney told the crowd he would not post Senate Bill 2606 for a vote. The bill, which is opposed by the NJSBA, would have capped the amount that any public employee would be required to pay for health benefits. It would also have limited the right of school boards to negotiate health benefit payments.

Pointing to recently enacted legislation, Sweeney advised the school board members in attendance that they should prepare for changes in state aid levels, resulting from the School Funding Reform Act approved a decade ago.

Sweeney also said the state must fix its underfunded pension system by cutting costs, making hard decisions and solving problems without raising taxes.

School funding is the largest item in the budget and is at risk if the state can’t meet its obligations.

“Our pension payments should be $1 billion or less. They’re now $3.2 billion,” Sweeney said. In four years, they are scheduled to increase to $6.7 billion.

“We have to make decisions,” he said, that will get costs under control.

School district consolidation must also be considered, he said in a reference to a recommendation in the August report of the New Jersey Economic and Fiscal Policy Workgroup, created by the Legislature.

Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick expressed doubt about state-required consolidation that would create regional or county-wide school districts. Long-distance representation doesn’t work, he said.

“The more government gets away from people,” he told the crowd, “the more crazy stuff happens.”

In addition to Sweeney and Bramnick, legislators participating in the discussion included Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones (Legislative District 5); Senator Linda Greenstein (Legislative District 14); Senator Declan O’Scanlon (District 13); and Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (District 13).