Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 15
 
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
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Profiles in Education


(Photo by Linda Arntzenius)

Judith A. Wilson

Linda Arntzenius

In any conversation with Superintendent of Schools Judith A. Wilson, certain words pepper the dialog — community, family, service, and joy. "I like to think of the district as a very vibrant living organization that ties together everyone across the community," she said. "When I think of community, within the schools or in the wider context, much of it is about relationships and connections and understanding what it means to be a living organization, not just an institution. A lot of my job is listening, focusing on the essentials of people's emotions and questions."

Ms. Wilson began her career some three decades ago with a Bachelor of Science in English and education from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She followed that with a Master of Arts cum laude in reading education and then undertook doctoral studies in language and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Classroom teaching began in Camden County, in middle school English. She was assistant superintendent in the Southern Regional School District in Manahawkin from 1987 to 1995, and then spent a decade as superintendent of the Woodbury School District.

She joined Princeton Regional Schools on February 1, 2005, citing the size of the district as a draw — small enough for her to get to know her staff and students. Also in 2005, she was named New Jersey's Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.

Princeton Regional Schools

Now into her third year as superintendent in Princeton, Ms. Wilson is at the peak of her career and owns to having learned to roll with whatever comes.

"School days are often unpredictable and each day has to be approached with openness and the expectation that something new or different or even problematic will arise. If your mind is not open to that as part of the reality of the day, then I think it must bring a lot of unnecessary frustration, angst, or negative emotion. I have to go into every day knowing that not only will there be lot of work to do and challenges to meet but that probably before the end of the day there will be something that I didn't expect, perhaps something emergent or even urgent that I have to deal with. I have to be very open in order to be able to respond to that.

"I work with an incredible team of support staff, faculty, and administrators. The joy of the work is being able to tap their talents and build the capacity to direct people's energy and ideas so that it reaches our students. This is an explosive time for research and we are educating children for the 21st century to be global learners and global citizens."

While it's too early to think of her achievements as superintendent, she said, she is focused on the district's challenges. "The greatest challenge is to make sure that the spotlight remains on each child. There can be no looking at just the aggregate success and overall excellence. Each child who walks in with learning, language, or social needs in order to become a successful learner must get that support."

To this end, Ms. Wilson and her staff are engaged in efforts to coordinate programs across the district. "Our greatest efforts right now are on the coordination of programs, identifying best practices and having conversations across the schools to identify and counter islands." Her staff is used to hearing her say 'No more islands,' by which she means that pockets of excellence should be discovered and not remain isolated but shared to become the standard.

"We've made good strides in creating councils, organizing think-tanks, bringing people together around critical issues, creating roadmaps for our next captains. This is our greatest avenue for continued growth, productivity, and student achievement."

Right now the budget is very much in her mind (see Town Topics' Budget Q&A with Ms. Wilson on page 8) along with the need to raise revenue to offset the tax burden to Princeton's home-owners. "It can dilute our main mission since it pulls on our energy, time, and services, but if it ultimately serves our mission, then it's what we need to do. We are fortunate that our pool and the Princeton Performing Arts Center can raise revenue and we have to make the best of it."

During the last six months, Ms. Wilson has had numerous conversations about the new spaces and new multiple uses for them. People in the community are lining up, it seems, to make use of the high school's black box theater and state-of-the-art Performing Arts Center, from the leaders of the Arts Council to the Princeton Public Library. Asked whether there might be an embarrassment of riches when the Arts Council completes its expansion and the University adds its planned performing arts center, Ms. Wilson is convinced that there will be more than enough ideas from the community to make use of all of these spaces. "The key is flow," she said. "We should look at all of our spaces as one large group of resources, a set of venues. In that way the Princeton community is strengthened once again.

Family and Service

With her husband of almost 30 years, Douglas, and their two children Laura, 17, and Blair, 13, she lives in Barrington, a small municipality in Camden County that borders Haddonfield and Haddon Heights. She grew up in the area and attended the Haddon Heights public schools, which her children now attend. With an hour's commute to Princeton, she tries to travel early in the morning to avoid traffic. At the end of a long Tuesday night board meeting at around 11:30 p.m., when there is little traffic, she said she can zip home in 50 minutes.

Besides working with aspiring school leaders in a program through the New Jersey Principals and Superintendents Certification, Ms. Wilson is an elder of her church, where she is involved in outreach and service projects. She also takes part in PTA activities, and serves as a mentor for aspiring superintendents with the Center for Education Leadership at Seton Hall University, a member of the University of Pennsylvania's Study Council, and an advisory board member for the college's Center for Educational Leadership. She just joined the Rotary because of their work for children's literacy. "Much of my work has been about service and the greater public good. I do what I can in my church and I teach aspiring superintendents on four weekends each year through the University of Pennsylvania."

Ms. Wilson does confess to one weakness. "I have a secret passion for dark chocolate, which I much prefer over exercise, for which I'm a very bad role model. I wish I walked every day, but I don't. This is a time in my life when relaxation doesn't come so much in downtime. I love to read but I read mostly educational materials." Her areas of special interest are in student achievement studies, decision-making models, leadership studies and early childhood and middle school learners, as well as public engagement.

When she does relax it will be a day at the New Jersey shore at the small townhouse in Ocean City that her family shares. "It's a place of relaxation and solace, offering the chance to take great joy from my family and my children's activities."

As a child, Ms. Wilson was fascinated by libraries, books, and reading. In high school, she worked part-time in the public library after school and on weekends. When she first declared a major in college, it was in library science and she holds a New Jersey Media Specialist certificate that she has never put into practice. On her first day at work in Princeton, she went to the Princeton Public Library to get her library card and it's to the library that she admits to slipping away to once in a while, to the café and to browse the new titles.

When she thinks of her post-career years, her thoughts turn again to libraries, and literature, to perhaps volunteering in a library again.

———

Q&A With Judy Wilson

Princeton voters go to the polls next Tuesday to vote on the $76 million Princeton Regional Schools Budget for 2007-08. In this Town Topics Q&A, Superintendent of Schools Judith A. Wilson clarifies some of the issues surrounding the budget.

Town Topics: Why is NJ's contribution to education so low as compared to other states?

Judy Wilson: New Jersey is ranked 46 out of the 50 states in the nation based on the percentage of the public education costs paid by the state. In terms of results, however, New Jersey is placed in the top five in the nation. Our system of funding public education with property taxes combined with a decreasing percentage of aid to local non-Abbott districts has created an over-dependence on property taxes. Every state determines its own formula for funding schools. But the funding formula has been broken for years and not addressed at the legislative level.

I believe there is a keen awareness at the governor's and legislative levels that we've gone beyond tinkering with formulas and rebates; that these are bandaids that no longer address the issue. In the last 12 months, we've seen a legislature try to tackle some of this but in the end, truthfully, not get very far. Other states have gone through radical tax reform. We can no longer depend on property taxes alone and expect the level of services that we do. As a lifelong New Jersey resident, I think we sometimes lose sight of the fact that our services are of high quality, our infrastructure is strong, our school districts are exceptional when compared across the nation. In order for us to keep those standards high, it will take a radically different formula.

TT: Why are taxes continuing to rise in the Borough and the Township?

JW: Princeton is in the last phase of expansion projects and is clearly headed into a year marking the beginning of post-expansion. We can see stability and steadiness in the next budget year but must get through this last phase. I have described it as a great marathon that the community has been running. We are in the last leg, can see the finish line and need to complete the race. This is the last phase of custodial needs for new spaces, the last phase of recapturing the land occupied for years by trailers, the last phase of new energy use as we run air conditioning for the first time in the high school's renovated spaces. Our major cost centers of energy, insurance, and special education continue to outpace inflation.

TT: Can you explain the significance of the mismatch between the tax year and the school budget year?

JW: Business administrators and superintendents continue to struggle to explain this. Rather than the tax year and the school year running side by side, there is a 50 percent overlap from one year to the next. So, we carry forth half of the previous year's tax burden to the next year's property tax payment. As we look at 2007-08, we are carrying a much higher tax impact from the current school year with a much lower tax impact for 2007-08, but they overlap. Carrying forward half of the 2007-08 tax impact will be a good thing for the 2008-09 budget. In the 'post-expansion' years, we should be able to come close to the goal of hitting the CPI of the state even when the driving forces of contracts, health benefits, and energy costs are taken into consideration.

TT: What impact will the new Mercer Arts Charter High School (MACHS) have on the budget?

JW: MACHS has projected enrolling 32 ninth and tenth graders from Princeton High School (PHS), at a cost to the district of some $11,000 per child. We doubt that the school will be able to register that many of our pupils for a variety of reasons — the new school is not yet established and PHS has an incredible arts and performing arts program. So we have projected half that number in the budget and we are obligated to pay that for the first four months and then pay for the actual number enrolled after a count on October 15. Even so, that's a significant line item in the budget, as is the Princeton Charter School, which continues to grow. Under Charter School law, the local district must pay charter schools on a per pupil basis. We have had to set aside $172,000 in our 2007-08 budget to allow for enrollment, dollars we can't count on for programs and personnel serving the students on our rolls.

TT: What impact might MACHS have for arts teaching in Princeton?

JW: To think that it could begin to compare with our Spectacle Theater, orchestra, studio band, choir, or our venues and facilities is a stretch for me. Princeton Regional Schools have the finest visual and performing arts programs in the state and the facilities to support them. That level of excellence will not be compromised in any way. My own philosophy about charter schools is that they are necessary and appropriate when local public structures fail or do not excel. As I have said at board meetings, we are being sent conflicting messages from the state legislature, which urges consolidation and yet at the same time has a system in place that fairly easily approves the startup of charter schools even within districts that have public systems that are excelling.

TT: A lot has been said about unfunded state mandates. Can you explain what these are and the ways in which they impact the district's costs?

JW: Each time the Department of Education, the state legislature or federal government delivers another mandate, implementation of that mandate or law has associated costs. Testing, security measures, graduation requirements, nursing services, the number of students or the grade level span of students in a classroom are all examples of recent mandates which add costs to our budget. The issue is not whether or not the mandates are important or wise; it is that they are not funded. So the expectation is that existing programs of excellence must be cut and property taxes must cover the costs of the mandates.

TT: Are there ways in which the district could make savings?

JW: Yes, we are placing great emphasis on both conservation and revenues. Conservation will take many forms from energy conservation to lowering costs for housing district offices. Devoting energy to developing revenue is a higher priority than ever before. We can now generate revenue from the private use of our pool, our performing arts center and our turf field. Aside from facilities fees, we hope to generate revenue through new summer enrichment programs for students and from professional development centers for local and regional teachers.

TT: At the recent public budget hearing, one Borough resident described an elderly lifelong resident living on a fixed income and finding it hard to make ends meet. How do you react to such comments?

JW: I wanted so much to say it was my own father's story and all too familiar to me. My dad has lived in the same home in Haddon Heights for 58 years and it is so difficult to pay the taxes on a social security only income. I wish I could say that there is a single municipality in New Jersey without that same scenario. I do hope that all seniors in that circumstance have applied via their town offices for property tax relief.*

TT: Given the impact on property taxes, how do you justify costs for professional development for teachers?

JW: No matter what profession one is engaged in, there is a need for continual growth and professional learning. This is especially true for educators. We are in a time of rapid social and technological change; we know more about brain research and how it impacts the teaching/learning process; and we are preparing students to be lifelong adaptable learners who will need to perform well as workers, thinkers and leaders in a global community.

TT: Why has the district's guidance staff grown? Is this a result of state mandates?

JW: The growth in the guidance department came two years ago with the support of elementary guidance positions. These positions have been invaluable and go far beyond the realm of testing or scheduling. We have mandates and needs for character education, service work, conflict resolution, etc. Most importantly, though, the guidance counselors serve critical roles in the identification of students' learning needs and the provision of early intervention processes. We can only make headway in assuring every student's academic success when we know each child and his family well.

TT: Board of Education member Alan Hegedus has criticized the amount of tax-exempt properties in Princeton. What is the impact of this on the school budget?

JW: As the financial landscape changes and tightens, the burden of tax-exempt properties increases for taxpayers. In a built-out community with slow growth in rateables, large proportions of tax-exempt land are difficult to offset. Community infrastructure costs — roads, schools, sewers, and services — should be shared in some way by all users. I don't know the exact figures but I have heard that if these properties were on the tax rolls, the figure would be about 40 percent of the amount Princeton voters are being asked to approve on this ballot. Universities have developed different contracts with municipalities across the nation and I hear this as a growing conversation in the community.

TT: Does it bother you that the district has to think of ways or raising revenue when Princeton is perceived as a rich University town?

JW: It is not the perception issue that bothers me; it is the need to devote so much energy, personnel and time to the generation of revenue which is not our main mission. However, if it is what is necessary to support our main mission, then we will do everything we can to generate revenue and relieve the taxpayer as much as we can.

TT: Do you worry that the school district is inadvertently contributing to a change in Princeton demographics: squeezing out middle-income families? Is Princeton becoming a town for only the very rich?

JW: Princeton is a beautiful, eclectic mix of ages and races and economic status and ideas and passions, all of which contribute to making it special. This isn't just a Princeton issue; it's a statewide issue. Can anyone afford to live in New Jersey?

This is a great concern for the entire state as we struggle to provide opportunities for families of all ages and income levels to stay in New Jersey. There are many beautiful things about Princeton, but one of the greatest is its diversity. Another is the strength of the community's values that are deeply rooted in education and in care for neighbors. I see these values acted upon every day in selfless service throughout the schools and community. A town only for the rich would simply not be Princeton in all of its greatness.


* Residents can get information about various types of deductions — NJ Saver Rebate, Homestead Rebate, Property Tax Reimbursement, Property Tax Deduction / Credit, Senior Citizens Annual Property Deduction and Veterans' Deductions — from the Borough Tax Assessor's office at (609) 497-7607, and Township Tax Collector's office at (609) 924-1058.

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