Manchester Patched asked the two candidates running for as many seats in this year's Manchester Board of Education election to complete a questionnaire addressing issues impacting education and the town.
Donald Webster Jr., 58, is a recently-retired professional accounting, budget and financial manager who has worked in both the public and private sectors. Webster has lived in Manchester for over 34 years, served on the school board for 16 years and is currently its president. Each of Webster's three children graduated from Manchester Township High School.
Q: What do you see as the most pressing issue facing the Manchester School District and what are your plans to address it?
A: Short Term: The cleaning and restoration of the Middle School. Longer Term: Continued advancement of student academic achievement, Implementation of the new State mandated teacher evaluation system and the National Core Content Standards, preparing for the new PARCC Testing Program for students and the replacement of our aging physical plant mechanical systems that have exceeded their useful life (HVAC, water, sewage, electrical, etc.).
Q: During your tenure on the board, what is an accomplishment that has made you particularly proud?
A: The expansion of our High School, Middle and Whiting Schools several years ago to ease significant overcrowding in the district and the recent comprehensive State monitoring assessment that determined the Manchester Twp. School System to be a “High Performing School District” are accomplishments that I look upon with pride for both our school system and our community.
Q: Lakehurst has expressed an interest in possibly sending borough high school students to Jackson rather than Manchester. How do you feel about potentially losing these students?
A: Manchester has a long, successful history and relationship of providing a quality education to Lakehurst students. There is also a lot of interaction between Lakehurst and Manchester students related to youth sports programs, clubs and community activities. I would like to see this relationship continue into the future. Ultimately, if Lakehurst decides to send their students to another school district, Manchester will continue to focus and move forward with our goal of providing a quality education to all of our students at a reasonable cost to the community.
Q: How do you view the requirement for schools districts to adopt a new evaluation model?
A: I am supportive of initiatives to improve teacher performance and student achievement outcomes. The teacher evaluation approach chosen by the NJ DOE appears to me to be time consuming, labor intensive and quite costly. Similar evaluation programs implemented in other states have yielded mixed results, so only time will tell if the approach New Jersey has mandated for our public schools will have the desired results.
Q: Though it has been announced that the district was not at fault for mold a Manchester Twp. Middle School, has the incident made you reconsider anything in terms of the need for increased building and equipment inspection? Was has the incident shown about the district’s ability to adapt (by instituting a split schedule)?
A: Going forward I see us doing more training of our staff and environmental testing in our schools in order to help prevent and detect mold situations early on. The rebuilding of the Middle School will also incorporate new mold resistant flooring, building materials and furniture, and I see this approach as the standard going forward with all of our building and renovation initiatives. We currently have, and will continue to have in place, ongoing preventative maintenance/repair agreements with third-party facility specialists for all of our HVAC, mechanical and roofing systems.
My larger concern is the aging of our facility infrastructure systems and how to replace them before they deteriorate further and become unreliable. This is not an issue unique to Manchester or our nation as a whole. Our infrastructure is aging at a pace faster than we can replace it (roads bridges, utilities, school building systems, etc.). Most of our mechanical systems in our schools are original, and although they have been well maintained over the years, they now exceed their designed useful life.
Historically, the state allowed us to place funds in our fund balance (surplus) for the replacement of key mechanical and maintenance systems on an ongoing basis. However, that flexibility was removed several years ago when the state took away all surplus funds above 2 percent and lowered the fund balances to no more than 2 percent of the annual operating budget. Capital construction funding at the state level that we previously took advantage of for the expansion and renovation of the High School, Middle and Whiting schools has also dried up. Finding the funding needed to replace our aging mechanical and physical plant systems with more modern and reliable equipment and systems will be a significant challenge for us going forward. Finally, this incident has shown me that working together and with the cooperation of our staff, students, parents and community, we can overcome significant obstacles that are placed in our path and still be highly successful.
Q: Manchester school administrators and teachers always seem to be on the lookout for ways to save money. Given that the district does not receive substantial state aid, how do you look for ways to save? What else, if anything can the district do to save money without sacrificing education?
A: Historically, we have used a zero based budgeting approach that focuses directly on district needs and not prior year budget numbers inflated by some arbitrary percentage increase. This has saved the taxpayers significant money over the years. We also participate in numerous group cooperative-purchasing programs (insurance, office and school supplies, electric and natural gas, gasoline and heating oil among others) and shared services agreements with both our municipality and other local school districts (student busing, paving, school security, recycling, snow removal) in order to secure the best competitive pricing and bang for the buck.
Going forward, the district will continue to seek out cooperative purchasing and shared services opportunities that benefit the district and our taxpayers. I also see us continuing to expand our efforts to secure State, Federal and Private educational grant opportunities that our district may be eligible for. Finally, we will continue our ongoing efforts to press our elected officials to modify the current State Education Aid Funding Formula (SEFA) that unduly penalizes Manchester due to our large senior population. We will also press our Federal elected officials to fully fund Federal education programs that they mandate for our local schools. All of these efforts will reduce costs without sacrificing the education of our students.