After two-and-a-half hours of interviewing candidates during a special meeting Tuesday night, it still is not clear who will be filling the current vacancy on the .
The BOE’s newest member could be a biologist or an attorney, a literacy coach or a general contractor. It could be a retiree with experience as a BOE member, or a local volunteer seeking to shape district policy for the first time.
But a few things can be assured. First, BOE members will have no shortage of options this week when deciding who to tab as their newest colleague. Second, regardless of which interviewee the BOE eventually chooses, the district will benefit from the addition of a candidate whose experience, vision and motivation will seemingly have an immediate and positive impact on students, teachers and parents.
The BOE interviewed seven candidates at its first 2012 meeting last night, one week before it is scheduled to announce its newest member and fill a vacancy that has existed since former .
Each candidate was asked to give a short opening statement detailing his or her experiences and vision for the school district before answering a trio of identical questions from the board members. The BOE asked each interviewee what factors should be considered when attempting to help students succeed as well as how to best to handle a time of limited resources. Additionally, each was asked to describe an experience when they were part of a group or organization that was facing a tough decision and struggled to agree on a form of action.
(Patch had previewed most of the candidates in two pieces last week that can be read and .)
The professional experience and current occupations of each candidate are particularly diverse, but the themes of a strong interest in the importance of education and community activism were shared among all interviewees.
“My initial thought was to be a good citizen,” candidate Robert Whitehead said when explaining his reasons for running for the position. A general contractor and self-described “100 percent New Jersey product,” Whitehead advertised applying private sector experience to handle a school district environment characterized by increasingly dwindling resources.
“You can’t cost-save your way to profitability,” said Whitehead, a father of three graduates with more than 30 years of engineering and management experience.
The second interviewee, Gretchan Ohlig, said her experiences make her uniquely qualified for the position, including a background in the legal profession as well as her service as President of the PTO. Ohlig, who will have a child in each of the three school levels next year, also frequently referred to her experience on the board of Liam’s Room, a non-profit organization that she has helped guide since its inception six years ago.
“Being invested in the process but not having a specific agenda is critical to being part of the process,” said Ohlig, who also served as member of the district’s Strategic Planning Council that created the 2010-2015 Strategic Plan.
Most of the few members of the public who attended the special meeting left once Ohlig’s interview was complete.
Lucy Biegler, the third interviewee, demonstrated familiarity with cutting-edge classroom technology, and requested that the district become proactive rather than reactive to new applications, and advocated a more efficient use of funds. An educator for 20 years and currently a literacy coach in the Secaucus School District, Biegler said that instilling confidence in students is the key to ensuring student success.
“If you give students the self-esteem, the academics will follow suit,” said Biegler, a mother of two.
The fourth interviewee, Shelia Raftery Wiggins, advertised herself for the position by focusing on the skills she has developed as a litigation attorney and court-appointed mediator, including being able to identify the true sources of disputes and resolving issues in a cost-efficient manner. A mother of two and a former board member of non-profit music organization, Wiggins said her vision was to foster excellence by adjusting to the environment of limited state aid and using the funds available efficiently in order for the district to market itself as one deserving of additional state resources.
“We’re not just an affluent school system – we’re a school system that knows how to use funds wisely,” she said. Wiggins’ 15 minutes were more of a discussion with rather than interview by members of the BOE, as she had several questions for the board after they had finished questioning her.
Molecular biologist and cell pharmacologist Doug MacNeil advocated an academic focus on science and technology within the classroom and data-driven decision making by those appointed to making policy choices outside of it. MacNeil, who has resided in Westfield for more than 30 years and had two daughters graduate from WHS, spoke extensively of his career in science as well as experience on citizen advisory committees when discussing his vision for the district. He advised that decisions be made not on pure emotion or a mere desire to try something new, but rather because research and data have indicated that such a decision is justified.
“It’s about understanding the mission,” MacNeil said.
Attorney Peter Tsirigotis, who will have his third child enter the Westfield school system in the fall, spoke of the value that his immigrant parents placed on education and said the attractiveness of the district’s school system helped convince he and his wife to move here.
“Part of me feels it’s my obligation to give back,” he said.
Tsirigotis said academics are an important component of education, but ultimately are just one element of the overall equation. He advocated the importance of extracurricular activities, such as music and sports, and said the most important factor to ensure student success is to make students feel safe in their schools.
Keith Hertell, who last served on the BOE from 1995-1998, said the board must be willing to avoid applying short-term solutions to long-term problems. A retired financier and father of three WHS graduates, Hertell – who was a runner-up in the – advised against taking a cookie-cutter approach to education. As the only candidate who has previously served on the BOE, Hertell’s experience with controversial issues – such as the redistricting of Franklin School – provided him with firsthand knowledge with how to handle heated issues within Westfield.
The BOE attempted to interview an eighth candidate, Sona Jepsen, via video phone because Jepsen was in India. However, the two sides could not get in touch before the BOE began its private session.
A ninth candidate, Susan Dauber, withdrew from the running prior to Tuesday night’s interviews.
The BOE will announce its decision at its next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 10 at 8 p.m. The member will serve the remaining portion of Walker’s term before it expires in April, at which point elections for four of the BOE’s nine seats will be held.