For Dan Sinclair, as for so many other school board members, it all started with a simple suggestion. “You should run for the school board,” suggested his wife Linda, “you’d be good at that.”
Some 18 years later, at the Delegate Assembly held in May, Daniel T. Sinclair was raising his hand to take the oath of office as the president of the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Sinclair is a member of the Lakeland Regional Board of Education in Passaic County. The district serves high-school students from Ringwood and Wanaque; its enrollment is about 1,000 students. He previously served on the Wanaque Board of Education, including six years as its president. With his service on both boards, Dan Sinclair has a total of 18 years of experience as a local school board member.
Sinclair had served as NJSBA’s vice president for county activities since 2014. Prior to that, he was a member of the NJSBA Board of Directors for six years, and he chaired the NJSBA Training Task Force. He has also served on numerous NJSBA committees, and holds the designations of Certified Board Member, Master Board Member and Certified Board Leader through the Association’s Board Member Academy.
He has also served as a group trainer at NJSBA orientation programs for newly-elected and newly- appointed school board members.
Sinclair graduated from Rowan University and received his master’s degree from William Paterson University. He is retired as a cooperative industrial education coordinator with the Bergen County Special Services and Technical School, a position he held for 39 years.
Sinclair, and his wife Linda, a retired speech therapist, have two adult sons and live in Wanaque.
Recently School Leader magazine sat down with Dan Sinclair to talk about his experiences in education, the challenges that school districts and NJSBA will face in the next few years, and his vision for the Association.
You have been a board member for nearly two decades. What accomplishments are your most proud of?
When I joined the Wanaque board, I felt that we needed to get the community more involved in what we were doing, by building better community relations. We did that by making sure we were transparent and completely honest at all times.
When it came time for us to try to get a referendum passed, people told us we were crazy to try it, but we went out, and provided details on what everything would cost, and the educational benefits that would come from what we were going to do, and we passed an $18 million referendum the first time it came up for a vote.
With the money from the referendum we did a lot to modernize the school; we upgraded technology, electrical systems, and the heating system; we installed new windows and air-conditioning – lots of things. That was an accomplishment we were all proud of.
What did you do to develop a good relationship with the community and build support for the referendum?
We went everywhere and talked to everyone we could. We talked about the referendum in churches, in municipal government meetings, in PTA meetings, in senior citizen meetings – we did not ignore anyone. We also held several meetings in people’s houses so the neighbors could hear about the referendum. We called up people and said “could you hold a neighborhood meeting?” That was very successful.
You were on the elementary school district board, and then moved to the high school board. How has service been different on the high school board?
This is my second full year on the high school board; and the experience has been different. I have enjoyed meeting people from the other community and seeing how the two communities pull together once the kids get to high school. It’s also been interesting to see how the curriculas work in the different schools and how they come together at high school.
There are also many issues and topics that are more applicable to high school. A high school athletics program is different, of course; and it is also satisfying to see kids transition to high-school-level activities, going, for example, from elementary school robotics club to high school robotics.
What challenges is your own district facing right now?
We’re facing the whole issue of integrating technology in the classroom; and we are certainly concerned with our IT system security. We always face curricular issues, making sure there is a smooth transition to high school from the two different school districts, and that there is articulation between the two. Rising special education costs are also a concern in our district – this year they are increasing by $1.7 million. We have worked through it this year, but it is still a concern.
We are also creating some high-level programs within our district – academy-type programs – to serve our students in Lakeland. And another interest of mine is programming for the non-college-bound student – statewide and in my own district.
In your speech at the NJSBA Delegate Assembly when you were elected, you spoke about wanting to have a focus on students who aren’t going to college, and the programs that serve them.
I was a teacher at Bergen County Special Services and Technical Schools and I helped kids get jobs. That’s why I am so passionate about this point.
Over the last several decades, financial constraints and other restrictions have greatly reduced, or eliminated, program options for the non-college bound learner. This issue affects a large number of students and must be addressed immediately if our schools are to prepare all of our learners to be job-ready upon graduation.
Vocational education isn’t necessarily going to look like it has in the past, but it is important. There are some kids who want to become plumbers and electricians, and we have to make sure we keep up with all the new technology in those areas. There are also so many new jobs that are being created now, that we have to be ready to accommodate changes – at a moment’s notice – in the training we do. We have to figure out how to best prepare kids for careers, and NJSBA has to be part of that.
What are your other priorities for NJSBA in the next few years?
Training is one of my priorities. In my time as vice president of county activities, the thing I was most concerned about was: How can we improve our training? We board members need training as much as teachers and administrators do. At NJSBA we’ve brought technology into training with our online programming, and we have brought in a variety of experts from other fields to provide a wider spectrum of training. We should be working on improving our training.
We also need to focus on leadership training. We’ve gone eight years without providing intensive leadership training. This year, we had a one-day training session, held in three locations simultaneously, and people loved it. Once we saw how that worked, we knew we had to have a three-day training program where board members could come together for intensive training and networking – like the Weekend New Board Member Orientation programs.
Bringing back the weekend orientation programs is really one of the best things that has happened to us in recent years. I have been a group leader at orientation, and I love it.
At the last training, I was asked to sit in on a session because someone had to go home. At the end of the session, a woman came up to me. She was a police officer. She said, “I’ve been to a thousand different trainings in my career as a police officer and never have I seen a training as good and as comprehensive as this one. What’s next?”
She was happy to hear we were tentatively planning a weekend leadership conference to take place in spring 2018 and I know I will see her there.
I am also pleased that NJSBA will hold three school board leadership training programs this summer – one each in the north, south and central regions of the state.
You also spoke about the importance of NJSBA focusing on advocacy.
We’ve done a great job of bringing our legislators to our Legislative Day; I remember years when we had very few, and now it is well-attended by both board members and legislators.
We’ve also done a good job of attracting legislators to our county meetings. In Essex County last year, we had a meeting with several legislators; they had called us – instead of the other way around – and asked us to set up a meeting so they could speak with board members. That shows a great deal of progress over the years, but we need to do more.
We need to do more in the way of going to legislative offices and talking one-on-one with our legislators; we need to bring board members in, and parents and anyone who has a vested interest in education.
We also need to go in with suggestions and solutions, we can’t just go in and talk about the problems. The Morris County School Boards Association has the right idea; they’ve gone in with a white paper, so that when the legislator asks ‘ok, what are your solutions?’ Karen Cortellino (the MCSBA president) hands them suggestions and proposals.
What did you learn in your time as vice president for county activities?
I travelled all over the state, and went to well over 80 county meetings because I feel that the officers have to be visible at county meetings, and listen to what people have to say. We can bring that information back to Trenton.
I have learned that there are so many different issues around the state. Something that is very important in South Jersey isn’t even on the radar in North Jersey, and vice versa. That’s why it’s important for the officers to be there.
You are taking office as school boards are facing some difficult challenges. What do you think the major issues will be for school boards across the state in the next few years?
The biggest will certainly be school funding. When are we going to get a funding formula that is actually implemented?
Funding for charters and vocational schools is another important part of that question. We understand the importance of charter schools, yet the funding mechanism is really hurting traditional public schools. How can we resolve that? The state needs to resolve the pension system problems, too. The downgrading of the bond rating in the state costs school districts more in interest when they borrow.
The introduction of technology in schools is another issue. How can schools best use technology?
What are the biggest challenges for the New Jersey School Boards Association in the next few years?
NJSBA’s challenge will be to continue building bridges to other education stakeholders and organizations. We’ve done a good job of it, but we have to keep doing it. In the past few years, we’ve developed our relationship with the PTA, with the U.S. Army, legislators, NJDOE, NJEA and NJASA, and now we have to solidify those relationships.
What NJSBA services have been most important to you as a local board member?
I think the help we’ve received in setting district, board and superintendent goals, in the superintendent evaluation process, and in the superintendent search process, has all been extremely valuable.
It’s all about the training that NJSBA offers. For any topic you need help with as a board, you can have a field service representative come in and provide assistance. Boards should take advantage of these programs more than they do, and I would urge them to do so. They need to take a look at what’s offered and figure out what services they could use. In the way of training, I don’t think there’s really anything that NJSBA doesn’t provide that a district would need, and if there is, NJSBA can figure it out, and provide it.
What would you say have been the most rewarding times as a board member?
The most rewarding time for me is always graduation. As a board member, it’s when you look back and say, ‘This is why I am doing all of this.’” I also love hearing young people come before the board and talk about their programs and projects. Our board does that and it’s rewarding to hear.