In March, Kevin Ciak, a board of education member from Sayreville, and the former president of the New Jersey School Boards Association, became president of the National School Boards Association (NSBA).
For Ciak, who first joined his board as a 19-year-old Rutgers college student in 1994, the position marks the next step in a noteworthy career as a board member and advocate for public education, first at the local, then the state, and now the national level. Ciak is the first NSBA president to hail from New Jersey since Glassboro’s Ruth Mancuso, who was elected NSBA president in 1967, after having served as NJSBA president from 1962 to 1964.
The NSBA counts the state school boards associations, including New Jersey, as members. Ciak wants his fellow New Jersey board members to think of NSBA as “their Washington office.”
“We are their voice in Washington DC,” he says. “We focus on the three pillars of advocacy – legislative advocacy, legal advocacy, and public advocacy.” As Ciak explains, on Capitol Hill NSBA has been instrumental in lobbying Congress on behalf of public education; the organization had significant input into the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
In the courts, NSBA files amicus briefs on issues that either involve public education or affect employment. “Many school boards don’t realize that collectively, school boards are the nation’s largest employer,” notes Ciak. “When you think about all the employment issues that come up in legislation, or go before the courts, that is another area that NSBA weighs in on.”
The third pillar, public advocacy, involves reaching out to the American public to build support for public education. “We help inform them of the benefits of a strong public school system across the country; NSBA’s “Stand Up 4 Public Schools” campaign has done that,” he says. Another part of the NSBA’s public advocacy is carried out by the National School Boards Association Action Committee, or NSBAC. As a 501(c)4 organization, NSBAC is permitted to expand its advocacy powers on behalf of public schools. Ciak led the creation of NSBAC.
A Long History of Education Advocacy Kevin Ciak was NJSBA president from 2006-2008; at the time he was elected to that position, he was the youngest state school boards association president in the nation. Prior to that, he was NJSBA vice president for county activities and vice president for legislation/resolutions.
He has been active in his county school boards group, and was president of the Middlesex County School Boards Association. On the Sayreville board, he served several stints as board president (he was first elected to that position at age 23) and as vice president. He has also earned the designations of Certificated Board Member and Master Board Member through NJSBA’s Board Member Academy. Ciak was also chosen as New Jersey School Board Member of the Year in 2013.
“It is not often that you come across someone as strong in belief, and as committed in principle, as Kevin,” says Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod. “That belief is the value of public education, and the principle is the effectiveness of local school board governance.”
Professionally, Ciak works as finance manager of General Electric Measurement and Sensing in Piscataway. He says that his training in engineering and his work in finance has allowed him to help at the National School Boards Association level with financial forecasting and other fiscal issues.
At the national level, Ciak was first elected as a northeast region director to the NSBA Board of Directors in 2011. He has served on numerous committees, including the Finance, Student Achievement, and New NSBA committees. He was elected as secretary-treasurer in 2015, and then named president-elect in 2016.
Making the transition to thinking of the needs of school boards and students across the country has meant keeping issues in mind that aren’t necessarily significant in his home state, according to Ciak.
“Years ago when I attended my first national delegate assembly as a New Jersey officer in 2004, there was an issue that I thought would be approved with little or no discussion,” he says. “I thought it was not at all controversial. But then a delegate from a western state, who showed up in full tribal dress, spoke about the impact of the proposed policy on the Native American community, and we ended up amending the policy. It was never our intention to adversely impact that community. It struck me then how diverse our group was, and how powerful it was that all of us came together on a compromise solution once we realized the proposal would affect a group of people.”
Public Education Today It’s an interesting time to be taking over at the National School Boards Association. With a new administration in the White House, and a new and controversial secretary of education, the NSBA is concerned about, as Ciak says, “all of the alternatives we are afraid are going to be proposed in lieu of public education, from vouchers to charters to cyber schools – all things that will ultimately end up diverting funding from America’s public schools.”
In talking to people around the country, Ciak has noticed apprehension about the new administration’s vision for public education. “There’s a lot of fear out there – not just among school board members – it is among teachers and parents too –about where public education is going in this country,” he says, “NSBA needs to play a critical role in turning that fear into a productive dialog, and seeing that the organization has a seat at the table in making decisions about education.”
Those potential changes are in addition to the existing challenges that public schools in the United States have been grappling with for years, such as funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When it was enacted, Congress was supposed to pay 40 percent of what is historically considered to be the additional cost of educating students with disabilities. “Currently the federal government only pays 16 percent of that cost,” says Ciak, who cites the issue as one that NSBA is advocating for.
Looking Ahead to 2030 Ciak’s term as NSBA president lasts one year; during that time he hopes to inspire local school boards to think more strategically.
All NSBA presidents choose a theme for their year in office; Ciak’s chosen one is “Vision 2030,” which he hopes will help school boards across the country focus on the future. “The kindergartners entering America’s public schools this fall will be the high school graduating class of 2030,” he says.
“I want to encourage school boards to think more the way a corporate board would think in terms of long-term strategy,” he says. “We have these students who are entering our schools now, and while we know the world as it exists today, we need to be teaching them and preparing them for the world as we think it is going to exist in 2030, which is a tall order.”
Ciak is hoping that boards will undertake the type of reflection and research that is necessary to develop a long-term strategy.
He suggests that local boards talk to local colleges and universities to learn how well-prepared the students entering higher education are, how many students need remedial courses, and what the five-year graduation rate of those colleges is. “How do universities see the landscape shifting over the next 10 years, and how can schools adjust their curricular programs?” he asks. School boards also need to engage their local business community. “What do businesses think their workforce needs will be for the next 10 or 15 years?”
Focusing on the graduating class of 2030 will also help boards – and their superintendents – to see a broader perspective, Ciak hopes.
Meanwhile, Ciak wants to encourage the various state school boards associations and the National School Boards Association to think similarly. “We have to ask the question, how do the state associations need to adapt programming and training in order to prepare school board members to think like that and ask those questions. How does NSBA adapt, and how do we work with Congress to provide the tools school boards need in order to achieve this vision long term?”
Building Support for Public Education Another mission that Ciak feels all board members should be engaged in is helping to engage the country to rally around public schools. “I think people need to be reminded of the value of public education,” says Ciak. “Recently I was talking with NSBA’s executive director, Tom Gentzel, and he made the point that public education in this country is a birthright, but it is not guaranteed in perpetuity. It is something we need to constantly defend and support.”
The benefit of public education, noted Ciak is that regardless of a child’s ability, or his or her economic station in life, public education gives students the same opportunity to be whatever they want to be. “That doesn’t exist in so many of the other alternatives.”
“Public education isn’t perfect – there is no organization in the world that is – but it will support and look for the opportunity to get the most potential out of every child, regardless of his or her background.”
Reflecting on the path that Ciak’s own life has taken brings him back to a unique educational experience he himself had as a high school junior –and one that changed his life.
“When I was a junior in high school, I was selected to participate in the American Legion New Jersey Boys State program,” he says. “I had no idea what it was, but it’s a program geared to getting kids involved in government and politics. I attended for a week, and when I got back I decided to attend my first school board meeting. So Boys State took my life in a direction I never dreamed possible. “
As we now know, it took him from Sayreville all the way to Washington, DC. But Ciak says school board membership has also enriched his life in ways he would not have thought possible.
“Beyond the impact I have been able to have and the experiences I have had, the people I have been able to meet along the way have been phenomenal. So many of the close personal friendships that I really value in my life are the direct result of public education and being a local school board member.
“I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I never ever took that first step, so it’s really with extreme gratitude that I thank my local community for electing me for 23 years. I also am grateful to all of the NJSBA staff and New Jersey school board members I have worked with who helped shape me into who I am and have enabled me to get to this level.”