Judith Bassford, New Jersey’s Board Member of the Year for 2019-2020, can pinpoint the precise moment when she knew she wanted to run for the Clifton Board of Education.
She was home, relaxing in pajama pants, slippers and a shirt, and watching the Clifton board meeting, which was being livestreamed via the local cable access channel.
“I was watching the meeting, and there was a lengthy discussion about a special needs student and the cost of providing services to the student, and one board member was outspoken against giving the child these specific services,” she says.
Bassford, the mother of a child with special needs, has passionate views on the need to serve those with disabilities. Rather than sit at home and fume about the ongoing board discussion, she jumped into her car, in her pajama pants, and arrived at the board meeting in time to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“I didn’t know this child they were speaking about but I knew someone had to advocate for that student and others,” she says. “That’s when I decided to throw my hat into the ring. I knew there was a need in our community for a person to speak for an underserved group.” The following year, in 2011, she was elected to the Clifton Board of Education.
In October, she was honored as the Board Member of the Year for 2019-2020. Each year since 2005, the New Jersey School Boards Association has honored a local board of education member whose work has had a positive impact on the education of children in his or her community. An independent out-of-state panel reviews the nominations and selects the winner.
In a joint statement, NJSBA President Mike McClure and Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod praised Bassford’s commitment to public education. “Judy exemplifies the spirit of public service and dedication to the health and well-being of public school students,” they said. “She was a founding member of Clifton PRAISE (Parents Requiring Assistance in Special Education), and she has worked tirelessly to fight drug abuse and increase graduation rates.”
Bassford grew up in Jersey City before marrying, moving to Clifton and having children. Her involvement in the schools began with her volunteer work for the Home and School Association (HSA) in her children’s elementary school. She served as a trustee, co-president and president of the organization before moving on to the middle school HSA, where she was recording secretary, and then the Clifton High School Parent Teacher Student Association, where she served as vice president.
But, as Mike McClure and Larry Feinsod noted, Bassford’s volunteer credentials are not confined to parent-teacher associations.
Along with two other women, she started Clifton PRAISE, which assists and educates parents of special education students on their rights, and teaches non-adversarial techniques and methods for advocating for services and accommodations for students.
She is active with her local municipal drug alliance, Clifton Against Substance Abuse in 2006, and helps with Project Graduation, which plans an evening of activities to keep students safe the night after their high school graduation. Project Graduation requires fundraising, community participation, event coordination, food, busing, and activities to engage nearly 500 newly graduated seniors.
She has also been involved as a volunteer with SPAN (Statewide Parent Advocacy Network), the Clifton Resident on Call Service, Clifton Recreation Department, Clifton Health Department, and the Girl Scouts.
In the eight-plus years she has served on the Clifton board, Bassford has immersed herself in Passaic County School Boards Association (PCSBA) and New Jersey School Boards Association programs and activities. She has been president of PCSBA since 2017, and was previously vice-president. She serves or has served on NJSBA’s Legislative Committee, Resolutions Subcommittee, Finance Committee, and Urban School Boards Committee; she has also served as representative to NJSBA’s Delegate Assembly.
In addition, Bassford has earned the following designations from NJSBA’s Board Member Academy: Certified Board Member (2013); Master Board Member (2014) and Certified Board Leader (2016).
She is employed by Berkeley College as a high school community relations associate; in that role she visits high schools, participates in open houses and college fairs, and does community outreach promoting the college.
Bassford is the mother of two grown children and lives with her husband of 39 years, Keith, in Clifton. Her daughter, who has a bachelor’s and masters degree from Pace University, currently works for Adelphi University in Long Island. Her son, who is dyslexic and has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), graduated from Centenary College and works for the Jersey City Police Department. He has recently taken the civil service exam and aspires to be a police officer. Bassford cites her son as one of the main reasons she got involved in public education; to be able to be a voice for students with special needs.
Recently School Leader spoke with Judy Bassford about board service, the challenges she has faced and public education in New Jersey.
Tell us a bit about your district and some of the challenges that your board is facing.
Clifton is a pre-K-12 district with close to 11,000 students and a $200 million budget. It is an extremely diverse district – there are 65 languages spoken in the Clifton schools. Our superintendent likes to say that our diversity is our strength.
Our state aid has decreased since 2008; our enrollment is down slightly and we are sending more money to the charter schools that are in the area.
One challenge is trying to increase parent involvement, which we are working on this year.
When my children were young and I was involved with their schools, even before becoming a board member, it seemed like there was a lot of parent involvement. But that has changed because of the economic reality that everyone has to work. You don’t have as many stay-at-home parents.
So we are trying to get more parents engaged in the schools. We have math night, science night, special activity night, and the superintendent has worked hard to get all our information translated into all languages so there is no breakdown in communication.
We have hired a social media expert who does a lot of outreach, and our parents have been talking about how wonderful it has been. Our Twitter, Instagram and social media sites are timely and accurate.
Another issue in our schools is space and the building infrastructure. We have a lot of buildings that are more than 100 years old, and we are facing the prospect of making repairs that we don’t have the funding for. We are going to have to come up with a way to get the money we need to fix our infrastructure.
We are also working on closing the gap on graduation rates in our district, and taking a look at opportunities for the non-college-bound learner.
We have an excellent staff at Clifton; they work hard and they do great things with fewer resources.
What were some of the toughest decisions you have had to face as a board member?
This year we hired a new superintendent, and it’s always difficult to choose the person who is so crucial to the success of the district going forward. We started last February and what made it especially hard was that we had a board election in April, right in the middle of the process, and gained three new board members. We might have had to start all over again, but I think everyone saw that Dr. Robertozzi was the right choice for the Clifton public schools. We made a decision in June and the whole community has been so upbeat about it.
The other tough decisions are when you have to make cuts in personnel because of funding. We lost our media center staff and have never replaced them. That was a big loss to the Clifton community.
What board accomplishments are you most proud of?
Our work with the Policy Committee is one of our accomplishments. With the help of the New Jersey School Boards Association, we recently reviewed our policy manual and updated it to include some crucial policies we were missing. That updated policy manual gives the superintendent the tools he needs to be successful.
What have you enjoyed most about being on a board?
I really enjoy being on the policy committees; we have to do a lot of research for our discussions on how policy changes would affect the district. People don’t realize, and even a lot of board members don’t realize, that every school district is run by policy. And if it were taken as seriously as it should be we’d all have better schools in New Jersey.
I have served on most of our board committees — on education, negotiations, finance –just about everything but facilities. But policy has been my mainstay.
You have been very active in your county association. How has that experience been?
It has been a wonderful experience. When I first started on the board, I began going to county meetings, and I met people who have supported me in such a profound way. I will never forget those people and those friendships I have gained in the last nine years.
I was vice president for two terms, and I am now in my second term of being the president of the Passaic County School Boards Association. We have a wonderful group of people on our executive board, and we’ve worked together to improve attendance and to improve the quality of our workshops.
For example, in March, we are going to bring the Unsung Heroes program to the county association to honor students who have overcome obstacles.
How did you improve your skills as a board member?
Through training — the NJSBA training. Going to the different training opportunities that NJSBA offers opens and expands your mind and your perspective. I hope people take advantage of what is out there. The professional development you can obtain is incredible.
This year, after we got back from Workshop, my board decided to pursue board certification. So Kathy Helewa, our field service rep, is going to work with us on that.
What would other board members be surprised to learn about you?
There’s probably not much people don’t know—I’m kind of an open book! But I think they’d be surprised to learn I was extremely shy growing up. I had a lisp when I was young and I am still very careful about saying particular words that give me difficulty. I also have a learning disability, ADHD. When I received the award at Workshop I mentioned that I didn’t have the tools and the financial support to go to college right out of high school. I have always been bothered by my lack of formal education, even though I have a lot of life experience. But I am doing something about that. I am starting classes to complete my bachelor’s degree!
Were you surprised to be named Board Member of the Year?
Yes! I would like to thank the New Jersey School Boards Association for giving me this honor of being school board member of the year. I am completely overwhelmed at the support and the outreach from people around the state.
It was an honor to receive the award and have my board all there to support me. I am the second person — and the second woman — from Clifton to receive the award. Marie Hakim was the first, in 2006, She was like a mentor to me, so it was very meaningful to get the award. (Editor’s note: Marie Hakim died in 2008.)
What would your advice be to new board members?
My advice to new board members is to get to as many county meetings all around the state as you can, because sometimes the people that you meet there will form the support system you need to make tough decisions. It is great to be able to hear about the experiences of colleagues from out-of-district, and talking with them can help you reason through decisions.
I would also say get every certification you can through NJSBA; the training is very helpful.
One of the things about being a board member is that you have to remember you are building a legacy for students, and this is a serious commitment. So board members need to look for ways they can improve themselves. Try to get to as many school functions as you are permitted. Make time for NJSBA training — knowledge is power!