For many school board members in the state, Sheli Dansky, New Jersey’s 2016 Board Member of the Year and a 26-year veteran of the River Edge Board of Education, needs no introduction.
They may already know her as the small group leader from their new board member orientation program. Perhaps they know her from her decades of involvement with the Bergen County School Boards Association, where she just completed her term as president. Or maybe as a member of NJSBA’s Special Education Task Force, the Legislative Committee, as a Workshop presenter, as a delegate at NJSBA’s Delegate Assembly, or as a fellow board member taking the kind of advanced Board Member Academy training that has earned her the designations of Certificated Board Member, Master Board Member, and Certified Board Leader. Or it’s possible they know her from a myriad of other education-related activities.
Her wide-ranging participation on her own board, in her county school boards association, and in the statewide organization speak to the dedication she has demonstrated. It is that dedication that earned her the 2016 Board Member of the Year honor. “To a remarkable degree, Sheli is devoted not only to the children of her district, which she certainly is, but also to the education of local school board members in the state,” says Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director. “She has contributed her time and her expertise to helping other board members for more than a decade. Sheli is truly a ‘board member’s board member.’ ”
NJSBA established the Board Member of the Year award in 2005 to honor local board of education members whose work has had a positive impact on the education of the children in their communities and throughout New Jersey. An independent out-of-state panel reviews the nominations and identifies the individual who will be honored.
The Back Story As with many board members, Dansky’s interest in school board matters was sparked by her interest in her children’s education. However, Dansky got an early start on the process. “When my oldest child, who is now 38, was three, there was discussion about full-day kindergarten. So I started going to board meetings and I thought they were interesting. By the way, it took us more than 20 years to do full-day kindergarten. My grandchildren benefitted from it, although my children did not.”
Then, when her children were in elementary school, she got involved in the PTO, another traditional route to board service. “They had a position for someone who attended board meetings and reported back to the PTO on what happened, so I started going to meetings regularly and doing that,” she said.
That led, in 1990, to winning election to the River Edge Board of Education, to advocate not just for her own children, but for all the students in the district. “I do believe you have to be part of the solution not part of the problem,” she says. “If you see things that might not be 100 percent satisfactory, you don’t complain, you get involved.”
When she first began, she took to heart the advice that a newcomer should do more listening than talking. “I had to sit back and listen initially, and figure out how to initiate change in a positive way,” she says. “That took a little time to figure out. We have seven members on the board and you can come in and be difficult and make people angry, but you can’t initiate positive change as an individual. So that took some time.”
Despite her familiarity with board meetings from having attended so many, there were some surprises. “The surprises are in the behind-the-scenes things that you can’t know when you are in the audience at the meeting – like negotiations,” she says. “There is no way to prepare for that.”
Challenges One big decision that came within Dansky’s first term was a search for a new superintendent, one of the biggest decisions for any board to make. But over the years, the River Edge board has had its share of other challenges as well. In the last two decades, River Edge’s population has grown steadily, and the district has had to grapple with all the issues that come with a rising enrollment , including adding space and instructional capacity to the district. “As our district grew, we had to do building projects, and getting those projects to happen was enormously challenging,” she says.
“I’ve also been on the board long enough that we had budget votes every year,” she recalls. “Those annual budget votes were gut-wrenching because they took so much time and energy and effort, administratively, and as a board. We had to be outside of the educational realm and dealing with politics and votes. So changing the district’s board member election from April to November and avoiding the budget vote, allowed the board to focus without interruption on educational issues.”
“It wasn’t that long ago, but honestly, a lot of my board members don’t remember it. We tended to have a community that passed out budgets, but when we had budgets that went down, that was painful. “
The other difficult time for Dansky is when the board has had to compromise on an educational decision. “Every board has to do that on occasion,” she says. “There are decisions that you know are better or right for individual students – but we have to compromise. Sometimes it’s financial, and sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. But you may know that some student is suffering in the process, and that’s what I personally find most difficult.”
One of the achievements that Dansky is most proud of in her two-plus decades on the board is the district’s “Building Bridges” program, which was created in 2007 to bring special education students with autism back into the district.
The program is located in the New Bridge Center, a facility adjacent to one of the elementary schools. “We were able to keep our students in district, and we were able to take tuition students because we created a program that other districts could send to,” says Dansky. “So there were cost savings, but the bigger social issue is that students who live in River Edge can go to school in River Edge. They’re there with their siblings and their peers and that’s critical. Districts need to recognize that it’s not just about the finances. It’s about the benefit of the child being accepted in their own town and supported and educated in their own community with their peers and siblings.”
The Secret to Longevity Why has she stayed on the board for all these years? According to Dansky, the variety of topics boards handle is endlessly interesting. “There is always something new and challenging happening. Just when I think I have seen it all…,” she says. “Seriously, at our last board meeting, something came up that I can’t give you specifics on but I thought – first, how is it possible we’re talking about this, and second, I thought I’d seen everything after 26 years.” Being a board member is never boring.
But she has another motivation for staying on her board: her involvement as a group leader at NJSBA’s training sessions. “The other thing that has kept me on the board in moments when I was really ready to leave is the ability to be a group leader,” she says.
As a group leader, Dansky spends two weekends a year training small groups at the weekend NJSBA New Board Member Orientation programs, which are held in January and March. The sessions, which are free to members and are limited to an attendance of about 100 at each session, feature both large group lectures, and then small group sessions where in-depth discussions are easier, and where leaders conduct various training exercises.
“There have been lots of times when I’ve said to myself I’m done [with board service], but I can’t be a group leader if I’m not a board member,” she says. “I love that so much that in challenging times on my own board, I’ve been willing to stick it out just to do that because I love training new board members.”
Part of the appeal is the interaction with her fellow group leaders, from whom she feels she always has something to learn. “I have met so many brilliant people, and learned so much from them,” she marvels. Her interaction with the new board members is similarly stimulating. “I’m never sure if I have taught more or learned more.”
“It is energizing for me. You need something like that as a long-time board member because it is easy to get burnt out. For me it was my connection to training other board members.”
For small group participants and leaders alike, the time spent helps members build an informal network among fellow board members. “I am in touch with lots of people from my groups,” Dansky says. “If they have a problem or question, I refer them to their NJSBA field service rep. But if they just want to talk something through, board member to board member, they can talk it through with me. Over the years, I have had a lot of people in my groups, including people who ended up being NJSBA officers and field service reps.”
Similiarly, Dansky says she relies on her fellow group leaders as an informal network. “When I want to have a conversation with another board member on how I should approach something, I have my group leader network.”
Sheli Dansky’s professional life also involves helping children. She is a school-based physical therapist for two districts in Bergen County. She previously oversaw a staff of physical and occupational therapists in her own business, but now just works solo.
She grew up on Long Island, and moved to River Edge in 1973 as a young wife, where she has lived ever since. Her children all went through the River Edge schools, and now three of her grandchildren are students there.
Being chosen as Board Member of the Year was both gratifying and humbling, according to Dansky.
“It’s very humbling, because I know that there are so many deserving people out there. But I got notes and emails from a lot of people who had been in my groups, and that was wonderful. One of the other lovely things about this is that I have five grown children, and my adult children have been impressed by this. It’s not often you can impress your own children!”
Dansky’s children came in for special thanks when she accepted the award at Workshop 2016. “ My children spent many nights helping each other with homework and having pizza for dinner or, when they were young, sitting in the back of the board of education meeting doing their homework because I didn’t have a babysitter. Our families are the heroes in this because they sacrifice a lot in order for us to do this [serve on a board]. ”
What advice would she give to new board members? Her advice reads like a list of new board member commandments. “I would say listen more than you speak at the beginning. Be patient and don’t forget why you are there. Don’t run your personal agenda – look at the big picture. And never forget your constituency is the students, not some other group you think you represent.” She also counsels board members to have persistence. “The slow pace of change in education is an important message and one I try to give new board members,” she says. “Change in education happens at a snail’s pace and you have to be patient. It’s worth it.”
Sheli Dansky cites a quote that she thinks is perfect for a board member to always keep in mind. It was attributed to Albert Einstein, for whom school did not come easy when he was young. The quote is: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” She has spent the last 26 years living those ideals.