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In Your Opinion: Vote For LaCorte, Singh And Jackson For BOE

By David Burns.

Several years ago I was elected to the Franklin Township Board of Education.

Before I ran, I told myself that, with my experience as an educator and my personal stake in public education (our twin daughters were enrolled), I could help make a contribution to raising standards, achieving better academic outcomes, and improving the “return on investment” that I and my fellow residents were making in the public school system. 

I’d like to think that I had some modest success. But that’s hard to measure.  What I do know for sure is that I learned a lot from service on the Board. I hope to share some of what I learned with you in this letter.

During my three years on the Board, I met and worked with some extraordinary people, among them, Nancy LaCorte, who was a fellow member.  We were both about 15 years younger then!

While I decided to leave after one term, Nancy, the consummate civic-minded volunteer, soldiered on.  Given what I know about the legal obligations and limitations attending to Board membership, and looking at what Nancy and her fellow Board members have accomplished, I can say that Nancy’s contributions are remarkable.

Nancy’s leadership abilities have been recognized and celebrated by her fellow board members.  Over the years, they have elected her to positions of increasing authority and influence.  Nancy justifies their confidence in her.

Nancy has steadfastly served in these most difficult times.  She has done so with her usual blend of being a down-to-earth, open-minded, critical thinker who is always open to listening and learning.  She couples and models these dispositions with what I regard as her greatest virtue: Nancy genuinely and deeply cares for the well-being and development of every student in our large, richly diverse, and complicated district.  

She also cares genuinely about Franklin’s educators, our teachers, who truly belong among the class of folks we now call “heroes” during these COVID times. 

And she cares about the overall purpose of “public” education: the formation of citizens who can make significant contributions to their communities, to our economy, and to our democracy.  

Think about it:  these are not easy tasks or trivial purposes.  Achieving even a modicum of success requires sober discipline, a commitment to engaging with others, and just plain hard work. 

I know from personal observation that Nancy works hard at being a good Board member.  That is saying something given the volume of materials and the complexity of some of the analyses used to propose new and evaluate existing programs, and to assess the impacts of new and recurring expenditures.  

Board service often requires learning new specialized vocabularies and new ways of thinking, along with mastery of regulatory and budgetary details.  You need to read a lot!

It’s perhaps comforting to think that the goals of public education are reducible to reading, writing and arithmetic.  These are certainly essential skills.  But they are really just tools—very basic ones at that—to be used to acquire much more sophisticated tools (like algebra, calculus, statistics, for example) that enable deeper learning. 

And the same goes for reading: as the old saying goes, “first you learn to read, then you read to learn.” 

The point is that, as a country, we found out long ago that “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” (leaving aside for now “the tune of the hickory stick”) were necessary, but hardly sufficient to meet the challenges that had emerged by the middle of the 19th century.  Back then, a Republican-dominated US Congress passed the Morrill Act to establish America’s Land Grant College system to support agriculture and mechanical arts (engineering), among other things.  This led to all kinds of new knowledge, whole new fields of inquiry, life-saving discoveries, and unprecedented economic development. 

Many other educational reforms followed.  One of more recent memory was the ramping up of science education following Russia’s successful satellite space launch in the late 1950’s.  Still more recently, we’ve turned our attention to coding, computer literacy, robotics, and so on and so on. 

I had my own rude awakening on this topic when, as a Board member, I learned that Franklin had added classes in “keyboarding.”  I was encouraged that so many students were studying the piano.  Imagine my surprise when I learned my colleagues were speaking about another type of keyboard … like the one I am struggling to use right now as I write this!    

Today’s world demands instruction in a sophisticated array of vocational and technical fields, extraordinary attention to global challenges, and the mastery of a set of personal skills and development of personal dispositions that enable citizens to function effectively in our own country and in a world of almost indescribable diversity. 

This complexity and these challenges might make us wish for simpler times.  But, as my grandmother used to say, “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”   

And there’s more, of course:  we all know that learning is something that happens when conditions support learning.  People can and sometimes do learn under extreme stress (and distress), but these are not ideal conditions for deeper, durable learning.  While our school systems aren’t in positions to address all that students face in the world and sometimes at home, schools are in a position and do indeed mitigate some of these corrosive conditions with programs that address and promote resiliency and competency. 

I remember being in a meeting with the man who first led Head Start, Julius Richmond.  He said, if I may paraphrase, “we thought we were creating an education program.  We found we needed to create a feeding program!  When we did, we could get on with the education.”  We’ve come a long way in the last 50+ years. 

The point is this: sometimes things are as simple as we think they are and wish they were, but most times they are not!  There are almost always “mountains beyond mountains.”

To navigate all this we have elected Boards of Education. BOE’s are odd political entities:  they occupy a unique and precarious “space” between and among the County, State, Federal and other regulatory and policy making bodies and experts, on the one hand, and citizens and voters (and especially the citizens who are also parents), on the other. 

And there are third and fourth hands, too:  there are the BOE’s employees (educated and credentialed professionals, like teachers, nurses, counselors, doctors, administrators) and those with whom the BOE contracts for services (and there are lots of them).  These are the boots on the ground, you could say. 

And foundational – and, above all at the center of the enterprise – are the students.  In Franklin’s case some 7,000 of them are entrusted to the Board’s care.

It takes a lot of time and a serious commitment to study to learn what one needs to know to fulfill faithfully the oath one takes before being seated as a member of the BOE. 

Nancy has made that commitment.  Given her distinguished service on the Board and in our community, she has earned our support and merits our votes.

Now if you’ve read this far – and I thank you if you have – you will have noticed that, of the candidates for the BOE, this letter has focused on Nancy LaCorte.  This is easy to explain: of the three folks on her team, I know Nancy the best and longest.

But I can say more:  While I was on the Board, I also got to meet and come to know Ardaman Singh. 

Ms. Singh, a Franklin parent, was a regular attendee at BOE meetings.  Back when I first encountered her, she made an impression on me as a thoughtful and respectful questioner, a calm and persistent advocate for students, a devoted PTO member, and a dedicated promoter of both high academic standards and prudent budgeting. 

I was so impressed with Ardaman’s thoughtfulness, reasonableness, and dedication that I recall asking her to consider running for election to the Board.  I know other members also urged Ardaman to become more involved. 

At first, being the humble and unassuming person that she is, Ardaman demurred.  We Franklin Township residents should be very glad she changed her mind!  She has been an effective team-member and leader. 

Re-electing Ardaman is, for me at least, a classic example of a no-brainer.  We need her on the Board.

Before October 30, I had never met Walter Jackson.  That turns out to have been my loss! 

Nancy told me what an extraordinary contributor Walter has been to the progress the BOE has made in the last few years and what a pleasure it has been to get to work with him. 

I thought I should at least reach out and speak with him.  I am so glad I did.

Walter took my call and graciously gave me a half-hour of his  time.  We had a lively conversation.   

Walter described his experience as a Franklin parent of three daughters, one still in school here. 

Walter expressed his commitment to continuing the progress in educational outcomes initiated under the leadership of the current superintendent. 

I was encouraged by his interest in “adding value” for every student in the District, those who are struggling surely, but also those who, with appropriate encouragement and support, can take the most challenging courses and programs.  (Franklin was lagging behind on AP course development and enrollments when I was on the Board.  I am happy to see that that trend is being reversed.)

One impression I gleaned from our conversation was Walter’s vision for Franklin as a place where we might learn and practice a genuine empathy for one another.  Walter sees this development of empathy as being not only a good in itself but also conducive to improved learning.  This is perhaps another way of describing and advocating for the elusive concept of “community.” 

For those who might be inclined to discount these values as “soft” (I don’t), let me mention that it was also especially encouraging for me to learn that Walter’s career has been in the compliance area with a major bank specifically focused on 529 accounts (these are the wonderful savings vehicles that allowed our family to afford college expenses for daughters). 

The “hard” job skills Walter has honed are extremely valuable assets for a Board and for us as taxpayers. 

I came away from my call with Walter impressed with his candor and commitment.  I regard as especially valuable the areas of expertise and specific life experiences that he brings to the Board.  I look forward to our next conversation.

I can now see more clearly why Nancy is so proud of her team.  I appreciate now more clearly why we voters need to express our confidence in what her team and the Board can accomplish in the years ahead. 

With all this in mind, I respectfully solicit your support for Nancy LaCorte, Ardaman Singh, and Walter Jackson.  We need them on the BOE to continue the forward progress in this most vital public function, primary and secondary education.

Thank you for considering my thoughts on this important election.

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