Think back, remember the year. Bill Clinton cruises to his second term as president. Deep Blue claimed victory over Gary Kasparov, who then returned the favor. Freemasons in Montana waged an 81-day siege against the federal government. Muhammed Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta and bombs burst in Bosnia. It was 1996. Locally, that’s when Sheila Brogan first took her seat on the Ridgewood Board of Education. And she hasn’t looked back since.
She’s served as president, vice president and chaired numerous committees in a district that is in the running as one of New Jersey’s top public schools. But times have changed as budget belts tighten, class sizes rise and public scrutiny over some of the board's decisions over the past few years has garnered headlines.
Brogan is running for a one of two three-year seats on the Ridgewood Board of Education, along with incumbent Laurie Goodman and challenger Christina Krauss. Brogan and Goodman defeated the pair of Sarah-Kate Maskin and Greg Lois in 2008, each by about 500 votes. While Brogan represents the status quo in many respects, she said her experience is a benefit to the district, as is her passion and community involvement. In short, she's not resting on her laurels.
“What I bring in these challenging times is experience, knowledge of the district, law and advocacy skills," she said. "It’s still a great interest of mine and I can’t think of a better volunteering opportunity than serving on the board of education.”
Other candidates have run with the goal to improve the district’s communication with its voting citizens, and Brogan too admits it's something that could be strengthened. She admits there is certainly a perception the school board isn’t always in touch with residents, particularly at school board meetings where residents often voice their concern about an issue only to hear, “Thank you for your comments,” a message many say should be changed.
“We don’t always have the answers to the questions,” Brogan said. “For a while we’ve brought answers back at future meetings,” she said, adding that administrators and board members answer resident questions directly through e-mail. “It doesn’t always show up” in perception she said.
The board has proposed a taxpayer funded $86.77 million general budget that includes some state money returned from last year’s state slashing, but a reduced tax base and high costs in health care and potentially, teachers salaries.
Given that school taxes comprise 65 percent of a villager’s local tax burden and 93 percent of the school budget–$86.77 million plus the referendum–Brogan said she recognizes some are struggling in the village. “I think for some they are near that" critical mass, she remarked.
"I think for some we are near that level which makes it even more important that we are communicating with our community."
She noted, however, that the district is very sensitive to taxpayers, citing the district’s recent decision not to apply for a waiver on health care, which would have raised taxes further. “It wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen,” she said. “We heard the community.”
With a wide diversity of responsibilities for a school district, Brogan says taxes aren’t everything. There’s a lot more to say about Ridgewood schools. Homework, for one, has been a hot-button topic lately.
Various building heads have eased homework as a reaction to parent concerns of over-scheduling of youths. Brogan said Ridgewood is investing in pragmatic solutions.
“We’re looking to see if expectations [of homework] are realistic.”
The district’s recent parent survey revealed, well, a Goldie Locks problem. Some parents said there was too much homework. Others? Not enough. The rest? Just perfect. Brogan said she didn't believe changes in homework at B.F. (which allows for parents to sign a note that the children spent time on the homework and can stop) were an indication the controversial math program has been a failure, however.
She said it's a good move for the district to take stock of what's working and what isn't.
"I think it's a good exercise and I hope at the end of the year we evaluate the data. That's why you do something like this. What's the response from parents, students and teachers?," she said.
Brogan herself said she had no stance on Valley, but said pertinent information should be posted if the process moves forward while council deliberates.
"I have been and will continue to be an advocate for the safety of our kids," which includes bullying and other safety issues, she said. Brogan drafted a letter of testimony read at the planning board during Valley proceedings.
"I think we were thoughtful in our comments at the planning board," she said.
"To find a balance between our student athletes and the neighbors" is what the district needs to do, Brogan said. A member of the village safety committee, she said parking changes at N. Irving were something she supported, which the council amended in ordinance. "There's no doubt about it that there is a change in the increase volume of people using the fields."
She said communication "can always be improved" with residents. "At the time you think you're doing well . . . 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing."
She said that the decisions to add turfing and lighting were not made in haste. Brogan admitted the fields will be prone to flooding but added the March floods were not normal. "We were never of the view it would not flood. This is more expensive than what I've seen other than Floyd. And Floyd was huge."
"What I know is we approached it carefully, we cleaned the fields, we tested the fields for contaminates...those fields were up and running," she said. Brogan said there was still more cleaning that needed to be done but said "they're being used and that's a positive."
"There are a lot of factors at play here," she said of the overall conundrum the village faces collectively–there aren't enough playing surfaces for participants. "Will another field be opened?" she asked. The answer, of course, is unknown. And what if the council decides 10 p.m. is too late for lights to be on?
"The board is going to really have to talk about that," she said.
Brogan said "at this point" she was not worried that sport groups would withhold funding for lights, which they'd pledged when the district signed a five-year lease for around $525,000. "I think we're all after the same [thing]. It's about creating opportunity for our students."
The board is currently looking into offering naming rights, which she said could help offset some associated costs of the fields, such as flooding.
"I think that I bring experience, open-mindedness, I think I'm a clear communicator," she said in her pitch to voters.
"I really have the interest of our students and our community in mind when I make decisions on the board for students and taxpayers," she said.
On April 27, Brogan is hoping to party like it's 1996.