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.

This year, the honoree is Irene LeFebvre, a member of the Boonton Town Board of Education, who was named the 2020-2021 New Jersey School Board Member of the Year in the fall.

A math teacher by training, LeFebvre developed a strong reputation as a problem-solver. She began her distinguished career as a board member after successfully chairing a citizens committee that helped save the local high school from closing.

She has served not only her local board, but also as president of the Morris County School Boards Association, as a member of the NJSBA Board of Directors, as chair of NJSBA’s standing Special Education Committee, as part of the Teacher Leader Endorsement Advisory Board, and as a member of NJSBA’s task forces on special education, mental health and educational opportunities for the non-college bound learner. She has earned the designations of Certified Board Member, Master Board Member and Certified Board Leader from NJSBA’s Board Member Academy.

LeFebvre has been a member of her board for 26 of the last 27 years, including serving as board president and vice president several times. She represents Morris County on the NJSBA Board of Directors, and her district at NJSBA’s Delegate Assembly. She is currently president of the Morris County School Boards Association, and acts as her board’s liaison to the Morris County Education Services Commission and the Morris Union Jointure. 

When she was chosen as Board Member of the Year by an independent, out-of-state panel, NJSBA President Mike McClure and Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod issued a joint statement, recognizing LeFebvre’s long list of achievements.

“Congratulations to Irene LeFebvre, who has been a tireless, dedicated and passionate advocate for children for many years,” McClure and Feinsod said. “At NJSBA, she is chair of the Special Education Committee, and she has been a member of the Task Force for Special Education, the Task Force for Mental Health, and the Task Force on Educational Opportunities for the Non-College-Bound Learner.

“Irene is a lifelong educator. She taught in the Boonton Town schools prior to joining the board, and was the director of education for the Passaic County Educational Services Commission before her retirement,” McClure and Feinsod noted. “Somehow, she has also found the time to be a loving wife and mother to seven children, and a grandmother to 12 grandchildren. She is extraordinarily intelligent, always well prepared, and a respected member of any committee she serves.” 

LeFebvre has also served on several ad hoc NJSBA committees, including Sending-Receiving Relationships, Strategic Plan Development, and the Executive Director Search and Nominating committees.   

In addition, she is NJSBA’s representative to the New Jersey Schools Insurance Group and currently serves as the chair of that group’s board of trustees.

Recently School Leader spoke with Irene, who shared her thoughts on her experiences serving on a board, the challenges that board members face, and how best to prepare for those challenges.

You had an unusual beginning to your board service. Can you tell us about that? 

It is a little different. I live in Boonton and at one point, the board of education made a proposal to the community to close the high school and send the kids out of district. There was a meeting and there were a couple hundred people there who were not in favor of the recommendation.

So the board decided to form an ad hoc committee to review their decision-making process and see if a committee of citizens could come up with a plan that was fiscally responsible that maintained the high school. I was elected chair of that committee, and when the committee gave a report to the board, it was right around election time, and there was an empty seat on the board. So there was a write-in campaign and I ended up getting my first seat on the board as a write-in candidate.

The funny addendum to that story is that at the same time my high school-aged son was running for president of—it was either his high school class or the student body—I forget. Anyway, our polling place for school board elections was the high school cafeteria, and then the students held their election the next day, so they could use the voting machines. My son had to take down all his campaign literature and posters throughout the school because it was considered an infringement of the election place rule. You can imagine the family dinner table conversation about that!  But he ended up winning his election, too.

When you first started serving on a board of education, was there anything that surprised you about board service?

I think that I was surprised about the variety of issues that come before the board. You go onto a board and think it is going to be mostly about education. But there was a steep learning curve.

Are there specific things you wish you had known when you were a new board member when you joined your board?

I wish I had known more about the finances, how a budget is put together, how the funding formula works, and the costs involved in different things.

I would tell any new board member that they need to make time to sit down with the BA in their district and learn how to read the financial documents that are handed out, and learn more about the process. Hopefully, somebody on the Finance Committee becomes the mentor and walks them through that first year. By the end of the year cycle, you have a pretty good feeling for what you know, and what you don’t know, and what questions you want to ask. But those first few months, it’s daunting to be handed a board packet with hundreds of checks that you’re approving.

But that was my concern. Maybe if I was an accountant joining a board that wouldn’t be it. The accountant might say they don’t understand the curriculum process. Everyone is going to struggle with the areas where they have no background knowledge; that is where a new board member needs to find a mentor.

What do you think helped you as a new board member? 

I believe strongly in the weekend [NJSBA New Board Member Weekend Orientation] training. I went to one of the early weekend training programs when I joined the board and came back excited and energized and informed and competent. And I gained confidence that I could fulfill my role as a board member.

But it is also important for each local board to have a good onboarding program for new board members that introduces the new member to the behind-the-scenes intricacies of a particular community. Because Boonton is not Camden, or Paterson or Mountain Lakes. Every community is unique.

NJSBA has all kinds of information available for new board members, but each board should also go through the process of figuring out what they want new board members to know.

What do you find most rewarding about being on a board of education? 

Locally, what I’ve liked most is watching the kids, and figuring out how to meet their needs. Certainly, what we’re doing today with virtual learning is nothing like what we were doing 27 years ago, and the issues have changed. But what never changes is that the kids are at the center of every board conversation and decision. Whether you put electric heat in the building, or replace the windows, or put turf on the field, or change the curriculum—each of these decisions is made in the interest of what’s best for the kids in our community at this time. What can we afford to do to make the education in our community the best for the kids who are entrusted to us? In every district and on every board, we may have our moments of aggravation and we may struggle with certain topics at certain times. But really, throughout the state of New Jersey it really is all about the kids.

What have you liked least about serving on a board?

Two things, I think. I hate saying no. If kids ask for something, or parents ask for something, or the superintendent asks for something, I want our board to say yes. But we can’t always do that. Because on the flip side of that is the taxpayer who’s asking us to take into account their limited financial reserves and the fact that they want to stay living in the community.

The other difficult thing is, as a board member, I don’t care what town you’re in, it is sometimes very hard to face the people in the town, when there are decisions being made, and for a variety of reasons, not everybody has all of the background information. Those are usually personnel decisions, and sometimes financial decisions.

People in Boonton are never mean, but it can be hard to go to the grocery store and meet people in the egg aisle and you have to take whatever lumps they want to give out.

Ultimately, they will support or not support you based on the facts. Boonton tends to be the kind of town where families live for generations, and there is a feeling from people sometimes — and they say—“I don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, but I trust you have a good reason for it.” And that’s a wonderful feeling.

What are some of the accomplishments of your board of which you’re most proud? 

We’re proud of our facilities. We have some old buildings, and we have been able to maintain them. In the last few years, we put an addition on one of the oldest buildings in the community and turned it into a really great elementary program. We are very happy this year we have a universal preschool for our three- and four-year-olds.  And this year, we are proud of what we have done to make sure that in the time of virtual education, all of our youngsters have access to devices and to the internet.

But mostly we’re proud of our kids and their accomplishments. Our alumni association has a “Wall of Fame,” and every year they induct people who have graduated from the school or staff members and they highlight their accomplishments. When you come in and see the names of the people who have become important in the world of sports or politics, or medicine or the arts, you say, “this is a pretty good place to go to school.”

What challenges have you faced during the pandemic? 

As I mentioned, all of our students have access to devices and to the internet. Therefore, this school year, when the decision was made to start out virtual and then stay virtual until the beginning of 2021, we have been able to provide our youngsters with all of the academic services that they are entitled to. They are getting their education, our teachers are able to be in touch with the kids, and our kids are making progress.

It was a brutal decision to conduct school virtually. We had a reopening plan that involved hybrid learning but there were a lot of concerns about the health of our students and staff and their families.

This is a community in which multiple generations of families live in the same community, and we said we have the ability to provide education virtually, and by doing so we can protect the safety of our community. We will never know for sure if it was the right decision. But we thought if we open prematurely and have serious health problems, we can never fix that. We decided to err on the side of safety, but it was a decision that caused us all great worry and concern. I think we ask ourselves the same questions that every board member in the state of New Jersey asks themselves.

What challenges is your board facing in the near future? 

There will be the same challenges everyone will face when schools completely reopen — what do the kids need then? Also, we always have facilities issues because we are a district with older historic buildings.

But I think the biggest issue that we face in our district, and it’s not just us, is preparing our kids to be not only college and career-ready, but to have the skills they need to be good citizens and be able to be ready to take up their roles as the next generation of parents and community leaders.

So we look for leadership opportunities for our kids, and we look for “adulting opportunities.” Those are the skills you need to be an adult — like a knowledge of personal finance, and a sense of responsibility — that sort of thing.

We are also a community that appreciates differences among people — religious and cultural and racial differences — and the kids all accept each other and work well together. We don’t have big bullying problems or anything like that.  We want our students to carry that into their future lives, and be the kind of good citizens who recognize each other’s strengths, and have learned that we are stronger as a team than as individuals, and that our differences make us stronger.

What challenges do you think boards of education throughout New Jersey are facing?

I think that one of the things that we face as a community of boards is our need for state and federal funding, and state and federal programs. But we need those programs to be developed and administered in a way that doesn’t interfere with the local voices and the local priorities.

All kids need the opportunity to have a wonderful educational program, one that’s academically superior, one that offers extracurricular, and co-curricular activities and offers opportunities for involvement in their community. But at the same time, there has to be a way to share the expense of that across a broader population.

You have been an active volunteer at the state level for NJSBA — as a small group leader, on NJSBA committees, and as an officer of your county association.  Why has this been important to you?

I think it is so important to be involved.

When the opportunity to be a group leader came up, I was happy to do it. I had the opportunity to attend the weekend program, and I came back with both excitement and knowledge about the role of a board member. I also learned what was available through New Jersey School Boards Association, and how important it was to continue my education as a board member. I have loved every minute of being a group leader. The people you meet — both the other leaders and the members attending — have been amazing.

Through NJSBA, I also came to see how important it is to be involved at the state and federal level, and how much what happens on those levels impacts what local board members can or can’t do and how successful we can be. It is important to us to educate the people who are making decisions as to the unintended consequences of legislation that they may be considering.

The county association has also been very rewarding. When I first got involved at the county level, meetings were a chance to get together, meet board members from other communities and compare notes. And that was valuable. But now, we have that, and we have the opportunity to attend a training program, and learn from the speakers, and chat about the programs with fellow board members. In Morris County our meetings include a time for sharing information about programs we are especially proud of, so that inspires you to undertake new programs in your own district. 

I went to a county meeting a couple of years ago and saw a robotics demonstration, and watched the middle school-aged kids struggle with the demonstration a bit, then fix the robots and get them to perform. I was very excited by what I’d seen and it turned out a teacher in my district had just suggested starting a robotics club. So we supported it, and now the Boonton kids are into engineering and robotics, and I think part of the support they received was due to the fact that we had seen another district be successful with it. 

What else would you like people to know about NJSBA?   

The training and resources offered by NJSBA are amazing. You can call and talk to a lawyer, or get information on different topics that you know is current and is applicable to the state of New Jersey.

I want to remind people of the wonderful task forces — and their reports — that the school boards association has been involved in.

Over the years there have been reports on shared services and special education and school security and it’s all available on the website and open to anybody.  Sometimes we forget it’s there, but it is a great resource. You don’t have to go to a training program — it’s just there for anyone who wants to look at it.

You are an educator by profession. Tell us a little about your career. 

I taught math at Boonton High School before I took time off to raise seven kids. Then, when I went back to work, I was at Passaic County Educational Services Commission in their alternative education program. I taught math, then I was an assistant principal, principal and then director of educational programs until my retirement.

Did your educational expertise contribute to the knowledge you bring to your own board? 

Yes, I think it does. But that’s why I think it’s important that the board has a variety of people on it.

I think a board works well, when you have some entrepreneurs, and you have some businessmen and women, and you have people who have served on other types of boards, and you have people who are parents, so they can see what’s going on in the schools, and they can bring up those concerns and issues. So your past PTA person is just as important on the board as the entrepreneur who runs his own business in town, as is the person who was once an educator. It is that variety of perspectives that allows the board to be successful.

Janet Bamford is managing editor of School Leader magazine.