Gina Damasco says her Ridgewood education has enabled her to succeed professionally. Now the education lawyer wants to repay the favor and bring her unique experience and skill set to advance the regarded school system.
"I think part of what inspires me to want to give back to the community is I've been able to benefit from growing up here," said Damasco, a 1993 grad working at the U.S. Department of Education. "I had an unparalleled education. I had a lot of doors open for me because of being a Ridgewood graduate and I'm eternally grateful for that. It made me who I am today."
Name a hot-button issue in education, and Damasco has probably worked on it. At the US DOE, the N. Maple Ave. resident works for its Office of Civil Rights, investigating cases brought by the public. She also deals in mediation and gives technical seminars to the public on education laws.
Prior to her job at the DOE, Damasco represented various school boards across the state. She's well-versed in teacher contract laws, collective bargaining and carefully scrutinizing construction-related contracts.
During an interview, the "Big Sister" volunteer taking on Vince Loncto for a three-year term, said she's here without an agenda, only an interest in offering her expertise to the district.
Ridgewood has many challenges in , grappling with high cost upticks in special needs, , all under a and.
"I'm offering to sort of bring that [wealth of experience] to the table without an agenda," she said. "I don't have children in who are attending the schools, but I was a child who attended the schools. I have friends in the town who have children attending the schools. My sister is a teacher. My mom was a school nurse when I was going through school. My dad substitute taught when I was going through the high school...I just thought it would be good to put my money where my mouth is and help out my community."
Damasco said she unquestionably supports the work teachers do at a school district she qualified as one of the nation's best.
"You've got to make sure your resources themselves are good – we have fantastic teachers but we also pay considerably more than other school districts. I think we're fortunate to have attracted the best and brightest and we want to retain them," she said, noting that there are economic realities with the in place.
Damasco said the district needs to carefully assess what staffing needs it has and if it can cut any fat elsewhere in the budget to reach a settlement that is equitable to both parties.
And if those cost-saving efforts in other areas don't yield enough money to give the teachers what they desire?
"We are then able to say, 'Look, we've done everything we can, we may not be able to get to that percentage you're looking for, but perhaps we can explore other ways of making the teachers feel valued and appreciated,'" she said.
Damasco remarked that her ability to critically analyze contracts across many arenas may help the board find some savings, though she wasn't bold enough to make any promises given the collaborative nature of school boards.
The education attorney said many construction contractors are savvy and can take well-funded districts for a run through change-orders or carefully worded contracts that often absolve them of responsibility if things go awry.
"In some of these contracts with the way they're drafted, there's nobody on the hook," she said. "We can look at making repairs to something we once paid someone to do in the past. Hopefully if I'm on that board, some future board will be able to look back and say, 'That board looked at that contract' and they have some recourse so taxpayers aren't paying for it again.'"
Her time as an attorney has prepared her to pore through ins and outs of special education, which has ballooned in cost over the last decade. The candidate said districts are often all too willing to send special needs students out of district. Any one individual student can cost upward of $100,000 depending on the needs, which must be paid for by the sending district.
Damasco suggested ways to house more students in district, while bringing in others through tuition.
"All of that money from out-of-district placements can be used to educate our students, in Ridgewood – one of the best schools in the country – and improve our program for the next students that come through," she said, prefacing it by saying she's not questioning what current district experts are doing. "That's the smartest way to address that. Even if it doesn't show promising results in the short-term, in the long-term it should because those resources will be there for future school students and we won't have to spend that money to send them out."
When asked, Damasco also suggested a greater analysis of the curriculum in the middle school, which officials have admitted needs some improvement.
"Test scores alone are a poor indicator but they are an important indicator," Damasco said. "It's a two-fold issue. There really needs to be some concerted effort to find out where the issue is." She suggested an independent assessment to discover if the curriculum had been designed to its best effect, and pointed to considering more internal teaching programs to embrace best practices.
"If there was a really quick solution, it would have already been found," she conceded. "It's not a one-shot deal. You really need to take a really comprehensive look at the issue."
Damasco said she'd like to lend her expertise in contract law to explore if the fine print may hold contractors responsible for some of the fields woes (she did note, however, it didn't seem likely given what she's heard). She's also expressed hope the district consider one technology provider to handle all tech issues, which she said could streamline costs and unify a vision.
Ultimately, Damasco said she knows the board currently has a good degree of representation from those with financial backgrounds, and candidates as well.
"I trust that the community that we live in is educated and has a good enough mind to pick the candidates that they feel will best represent their interests," she said. "Whether it’s me or opponent, that's up to them and I’ll respect that. I do think being an attorney brings with it a skill set and experience that will enhance our school. I’m no politician, I’m not very good at politics but I would be very happy to step up, do the best I can, and be there for the community."
Elections take place Tuesday, April 17. Damasco is running for a three-year term against Vince Loncto. Candidates Bob Hutton and Jim Morgan are vying for a one-year term. Voters will also determine the 2012-2013 school budget.