New Jersey’s constitution famously requires school districts to provide a “thorough and efficient,” education to all students.
These goals, according to NJSBA’s new president, Don Webster Jr., aren’t at odds with each other. In fact, in school districts that are managed well, those two attributes typically go together. Capable management and governance and close supervision of finances enable a school district to operate in an orderly fashion and direct resources to student achievement.
Webster knows whereof he speaks. Elected to a two-year term as the Association’s president on Nov. 15, 2014, his experience straddles the worlds of both education and finance.
A 17-year veteran of the Manchester Township Board of Education in Ocean County, Don Webster currently serves as that board’s president. He has served on a wide range of board committees, including the finance (as chairman), negotiations (as co-chairman), policy, strategic planning, district QSAC, teacher of the year, and Achieve NJ District Evaluation Advisory (DEAC) committees.
A Master Board Member, Webster was NJSBA’s vice president for finance for four years, and the acting vice president for legislation/resolutions in 2013. He has also been on several NJSBA committees, including the Board of Directors, and the audit, finance, ethics, and ad hoc school finance committees. He was been a trustee to the Educational Leadership Foundation for New Jersey (ELFNJ), a trustee to the New Jersey Schools Insurance Group and was recently co-chairman of the NJSBA School Security Task Force.
At the national level, he has been a Federal Relations Network and Advocacy Institute member; the New Jersey delegate for the National School Boards Association Delegate Assembly; the state’s representative to the Northeast Region Conference of States; and a regional nominating committee member.
His professional career and training has been in accounting and financial management. A graduate of James Madison University with an accounting degree, Webster received his M.B.A. in financial management from Rutgers University. He spent 33 years in both private and New Jersey state government work, retiring in 2009 as assistant director of the Office of Budget Planning and Fiscal Monitoring in the New Jersey Department of Human Services. He also served as an adjunct faculty instructor of accounting and business administration at Ocean County College for ten years.
Don Webster and his wife Carol, a third grade teacher, have three grown children who attended the Manchester Township schools.
Recently School Leader spoke with Don Webster about his experiences as a board member, his plans for NJSBA and his advice to newly minted school board members.
What prompted you to first join a school board?
I joined the board in 1997; I was prompted to run because my district was going through a very difficult time. There were problems with both the superintendent and the business administrator. That year all the incumbents on the board were voted out. The superintendent ended up taking early retirement, and we hired a terrific superintendent, Dr. William DeFeo, who was here for 11 years. He retired and we lured David Trethaway from a nearby district. He is on his second five-year contract, and we feel lucky to have him.
Tell us a little bit about your school district and your community.
We have about 3200 students from grades pre-K-12. We have three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school with about 1200 kids. We are the receiving district for about 150 students from Lakehurst. We also manage the regional day school at Jackson for severely disabled children under contract with the state. We have been running that for about 20 years, since the state decided it didn’t want to operate these schools anymore, and asked local districts to do it. About 23 or 24 districts around the area send children to the school, and we have about six to 10 of our own students there.
Manchester Township has both a diverse working class population and a high percentage of senior citizens. About 70 percent of the population is senior citizens.
What is it about your schools that you are most proud of?
We’ve also improved student achievement since I was here; test scores have improved and we definitely outperform our peer group. That is very gratifying.
Our district has been awarded the Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting by the International Association of School Business Officials for the past 14 consecutive years, and our students routinely meet and exceed the academic standards set for both our DFG and state averages.
I’m also proud of how well our board works together and that, in our district’s administrative positions, we have the right people in “the right seats on the bus.”
What are the most important issues for your local school board?
Funding is always an issue for us. Under the new funding formula, the state provides only 10 percent or 11 percent of our budget. That is the case, despite the fact that two of our three elementary schools are Title I schools, as is our middle school. When the state used to classify district by letter, we were classified as a B district.
Part of the issue is that we have quite a few high-density senior citizen communities, and when the funding formula is run, it makes it look like Manchester is a wealthier community than it is. In some of these communities you can have anywhere from one to eight housing units on an acre of land, so if you have six housing units each valued at $50,000, it looks like you have a $300,000 valuation on an acre of land.
Your district just passed a building referendum in September. Can you tell us about it?
Yes, it was a $15 million referendum for improvements at five schools. We are getting $6 million from the state in ROD (regular operating district) grants. We’re doing HVAC upgrades, new roofing and we’re doing some security measures – construction of secure vestibules and entryways and security cameras.
You recently co-chaired the NJSBA School Security Task Force. What did you learn from that process and what do you think that it is important for school districts to know?
Our research found that many factors go into a safe and secure school: the functions of geography, facility design and access to law enforcement result in different security needs in each district. One size does not fit all.
The referendum we just passed in our district includes several security measures, such as creating secure vestibules in our buildings to deter intruders, adding ballistic film to the windows to make the glass bullet-proof, and adding cameras and fencing in some places. But every district’s security needs are going to be distinct.
I was also struck by how important school climate is in security; as important as it is to spend money on door locks and cameras and physical security measures, it is equally important to spend time and money on school culture, and on training. One security expert told us that as far as he’s concerned, well-trained and observant students and school staff will make the difference in a school.
But I also want to emphasize that our report runs over 100 pages, and is full of specific recommendations for making schools safer places. I would urge all board members – and administrators, to review it. (The report is available at www.njsba.org/schoolsecurity2014.)
What have been some of the district’s recent challenges?
We had a bad mold problem at the middle school, and we ended up having to evacuate the school and keep it closed for several months while a company came in and did clean-up work. We moved the middle school kids to the high school and we held split sessions.
The mold happened during the summer in early August. We had bad storms, and the power was out for about ten hours, which allowed the heat and humidity to build up. We also think that a clean air inlet that should have closed when the system shut down didn’t close, allowing warm humid air in the building. When the system went back on it wasn’t able to deal with the humidity – and condensation formed in the building. A few days later, our cleaning staff said, “what’s this black stuff,” and we knew we had a problem. We had to replace ceiling tiles, paint, get new furniture, get rid of carpeting. Insurance paid for almost everything.
Since then, in the middle school and in one of the elementary schools, we have been running dehumidifiers in the summer because we didn’t trust the HVAC system, but when we get the new HVAC systems in schools, that ought to help.
What have been the most rewarding parts of being a board member?
I think it would have to be the referendums we have passed to make additions to our schools, our increased student achievement – and of course, getting to hand out diplomas at graduation. I handed diplomas to all three of my children – in middle school and in high school.
How do you think board service has changed since you first joined a board?
I think there are more complicated issues to deal with. For example, I think that replacing superintendents is now more of a challenge because of the superintendent caps.
And there are always financial challenges. With the 2 percent cap, we have done everything to save money: cooperative purchasing, solar panels, recycling, buying fuel through cooperatives; an energy management program that saved us more than $1 million over the last three or four years. We’ve done all the things that a lot of other districts have done and then some. It has certainly made negotiations with the unions more challenging. We keep telling them we are constrained by the 2 percent cap, but sometimes they seem to think there is money hiding under the table.
What advice would you give to a new board member?
I would say go to NJSBA training because there is a lot to learn. You’re not going to learn it all in two months, six months or even ten months, because education is a bit art and a bit science and it is ever-changing and evolving. As board members, we have to educate ourselves and evolve and change.
The New Board Member Weekend Orientation is outstanding; and the advanced leadership programs are also very good. I also recommend taking advantage of the Workshop programs. Just start the process of educating yourself. There are great resources you can take advantage of.
I would also tell new board members that they are not going to be able to do everything they planned to do before getting elected. They are only one vote on their board, and they need to work with the other members to get things accomplished.
What challenges will school boards be facing the near future?
There will continue to be economic pressures and challenges for improving student achievement.
I suspect there will continue to be controversy over PARCC and the Common Core.
Another challenge is the deterioration of school buildings. Although ROD grants are helping, I think that the age, condition and deterioration of school buildings around the state is going to be problematic.
If the state continues with the cap on superintendent pay – although northern New Jersey has had the most problems so far – I think you are going to see problems filtering down through the rest of the state. I know there’s one district in Ocean County that had trouble recruiting a superintendent, and they blamed it in part on the salary they were able to offer.
What issues will the New Jersey School Boards Association face in the near future?
We will face issues related to the increasing demand for services. There will be financial pressures, but there will also be demands for us to do more. We know staff capacity is an issue now.
As the legislative landscape is ever-changing, we are going to have to adjust to that too, and continue to get our point across to the Legislature and Department of Education officials.
What do you hope to accomplish as NJSBA president?
The Association is headed in the right direction, and I want to make sure we continue to advance as we have. I want to carry on the fine work of my predecessors.
We have developed, and the Board of Directors has recently approved, an ambitious and creative Strategic Plan to guide us over the next few years, and I look forward to the implementation of the plan.
I think the constant challenge is communicating with the membership and motivating the members to become more active participants, not only in the Association but in advocacy generally.
When I talk to the new board members I have a spiel where I talk about how our kids have to be lifelong learners … and so do we. That applies as much today as it ever has.