Kendra Von Achen

Kendra Von Achen (File Photo)

1. What specific academic subject or technology would you most like to see changed or implemented in our schools?

I would like to see more coding opportunities at the elementary level. This is the key age for children to begin learning this ever-growing subject, and one that is important to future careers. We have started teaching our son, who’s in First grade, coding at home through an online tool that turns it into a game, and he’s enjoying it a lot.

Coding skills overlap and reinforce skills in all other subjects and may be as essential as reading in future careers.

2. Rank the stakeholders who you feel the Board of Education should be concerned with in order from highest priority (1 is highest priority)- taxpayers, students, teachers, the community at large.

I feel it is unfair to rank these key stakeholders in our school district. We need to balance our focus on all these audiences. Working to maintain and improve educational standards makes Parsippany an attractive place to live, increasing demand for and value of our residences, both homes and rentals.

3. What about your background makes you feel uniquely qualified to serve on Parsippany’s Board of Education?

In my career as a Business Analyst for the past 15 years, I help companies implement database solutions and improve business processes. A big part of my job is finding the optimal solution to my client’s problems, and that’s what keeps me passionate about my job. I love solving puzzles, and that’s how I equate the work that I do. I visualize their problem and think about various ways to solve them, then work with a team to come up with the best solution and implement it.

This experience makes me an excellent candidate for the Board of Education. Being one of nine members of the board, I would collaborate with my colleagues to look at each issue that came to us, analyze them for urgency, severity, and work towards the best solution while considering costs, effort, and other key factors. I will also bring new ideas and insights to the group. And when confronted with the answer “because that’s how it’s always been done”, I will push back and not just accept the status quo. I hear this phrase all the time in my line of business, and I challenge it every time, because it’s not enough to simply do what we’ve always done…it may be time for a change, big or small.

4. What cost efficiency might you propose to curb rising taxes?

One of the first things I want to do if I’m elected onto the Board of Education is to review the budget with existing Board members and the Superintendent’s office. I want to understand each aspect of the costs we have and determine if there are areas where we can find cost savings.

One key area that I’ve been focused on is the healthcare costs the district pays. I have been formulating a plan to significantly reduce the costs to both the district and the teachers/staff. The main complaint I hear from teachers about healthcare is they have been taking home less and less money in their paycheck, even when they get a raise. This is due to both the constantly rising healthcare costs in America combined with the Chapter 78 law in NJ that requires teachers to pay a higher portion of their healthcare costs as their years of service and pay scale go up.

In the current school year, the district is paying $25.9M for employee benefits. That is 18% of the school budget’s general expenses, and 30% of teacher salaries. In the current year’s budget, an amount of $320,503 had to be included to compensate for the increase in healthcare costs to the district. Imagine what we could do with $320,000 if we didn’t need to set it aside for rising healthcare costs!

5. As previously posted on Parsippany Focus, a petition has been circulating through town and nearly 1,000 people have signed asking for increased busing. How would you respond to residents?

I have engaged with several parents in the district on this very topic over the last few months, listening to their specific situations and thinking about how I would feel if my child were in the same situation. I have seen the petition circulating and have signed it. I feel there are two key issues when discussing transportation in the district — the distance we should set for those that automatically get busing; and how to support those families who live closer than the busing distance for both walking safety and alternative methods of transportation to school.

When I research Transportation Safety reports on the district website, the last report available is from 2007. If that truly is the last time one was done, I would let the residents know that my first course of action would be to determine how often other comparable NJ school districts conduct their transportation safety studies, and if we are behind, to conduct a new study for our district. I personally feel that 12 years is too long between studies, knowing how much the town has changed in that time. My second course of action would be to get bids on providing subscription busing to families that live inside of the current 2-mile limit to receive busing, so that those families can choose whether they want to receive busing for their children or not. The cost would be paid for by those families that choose to use the service, and not increase district budget costs.

6. Do you think Parsippany has done enough to address school safety? If not, what specific improvements would you propose?

In today’s society, we all live day to day knowing there is a risk that something awful may happen. This “something” can happen in any town. With that said, we shouldn’t live in constant fear for that “what if” moment to occur. I feel the measures we have taken to date are appropriate and adequate, even if I wish we didn’t need any of it. Every time I walk into a school building, I see the lock-down signs and the instructions for students to follow if in a bathroom stall. It makes me sad every time!

I think it’s equally important to focus on student’s well-being than it is to secure the buildings from outside factors. Teaching both students and staff to look for signs of kids in distress can go a long way to ensuring we do not have any serious incidents at our schools.

7. What do you think is best about the Parsippany school system and what do you think could use the most improvement?

I love how diverse our school district is, and it’s one of the reasons we chose to move to Parsippany almost five years ago. I grew up in a suburban town a little smaller thank Parsippany, but with a similar feel to Parsippany, except it was not nearly as diverse then. I didn’t learn about the various cultures. Here, my children are exposed to a wide range of nationalities in the classroom, giving them the opportunity to learn so many new things, to embrace openness and understanding, and to share the experiences together.

Where I see room for improvement is the level of effort each individual school’s PTAs need to put into fundraising. It used to be the district’s responsibility to pay for field trips, necessary equipment at each school, etc. Today, each PTA raises money each year to support field trips, assemblies, equipment such as concert risers or water fountains, and more. I’d love to see the district find a way to revise the budgets (without raising taxes) to include these items back into the budget and take the onus away from the parents volunteering countless hours to their PTAs.

8. What non-academic capability do you think is most important for today’s students to learn in preparation for the future, and what is the best way Parsippany can assist them in learning this?

So many people enter the “real world” not knowing how to formulate a basic budget. It would be great if we can incorporate life skills into the middle school and high school curriculum (if it’s not already there). Life skills would include creating a household budget, balancing a checkbook (physically or online), how to detect a scam, safety skills, and more. This can be achieved by a new-age Home Economics class – no longer the place you learn to sew and cook, but instead used to prepare our children for a life on their own.

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