Ron Mueller, Line 3F
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When you talk to prospective voters about what the Board of Education can—and cannot—do, what do you tell them?
I say that right now I’m learning that as I go because we just had an NJSBA [New Jersey School Boards Association] briefing or training session that I’m going to be attending next Tuesday for just that exact reason. For me, it’s about educating myself about what the Board can and cannot do, but also understanding exactly what is within the rights of the Board, that I may or may not see happening now or may or may not need to see happening in the future. So you know for me it’s first about getting the proper training which I’m going to be doing next week on Tuesday, like I mentioned, and fully embracing all the resources that are available. As soon as I announced my candidacy I was contacted by a number of members throughout different organizations that offered up the kind of webinar or training that I’ve been just ingesting right now. So I would say my goal is to get up to speed with all of that. Obviously, adhere to the rules and the guidelines of the Board of Education and roles and responsibilities, but also fully understand what is the full rights of a Board member and what they can and cannot do going forward.
The BOE is the most demanding community position in Verona, often requiring upwards of over 10 hours per week of unpaid time from its members, and you all have day jobs. What in your current job roles and responsibilities might prevent you from fully carrying out your duties on the BOE? And how will you find time to commit fully to the work of the Board?
I think that everybody has this issue they have to deal with, especially if they’re holding down a full-time job as well as being a member of the BOE and I know that some several current members have full-time jobs. I’ve made that commitment with my wife, who would be a huge support structure for me to enable me to be able to give that time commitment to this role if elected. I feel that it’s extremely important to become a member of the BOE now as we’re in this transition for a new superintendent and for a lot of the budget issues that we’re dealing with now and that we may have to deal with in the future.That’s one of the reasons I stepped up, and one of the reasons I’m really keen on becoming a member of the Board of Education because it is a crucial time for this town, and for the for the children in our schools, of which I have two and of which I, am fully invested in their futures, to make sure that we put ourselves on the right path and that we are ready to accept the challenges that lay ahead. So I had a long discussion with my wife about it and I said you know if we do do this there will be some time involved. I have the flexibility in my job to work flexible schedules as needed to make sure that I fulfill all of the duties that are responsibilities for the Board of Education members. And between that and my very supportive wife and my children, we definitely will do what we have to do to make sure that I have the time needed in order to fill this role.
Do you support Gov. Murphy’s COVID mask mandate for schools and the vaccination and testing requirements for teachers and staff? How then will you help the BOE to carry out any future directives to prevent the spread of COVID from the state or health authorities that might not be what some parents want?
As a local BOE, we have to follow the mandates from the state, and we have to clearly communicate to our, our parents and citizens of our town that you know we are having to facilitate whatever the state hands down to us as mandates in order to receive the funding that we receive from the state and in order to, you know, fall in line with where the state is headed. So, I would say, if our school district is strongly against or our town is strongly against mandates headed down from the state, that it’s in our rights to inform the state that we disagree with the mandates that are being handed down, but that if that is what is required then that is what we have to support and follow.
Tell prospective voters about a time you failed. What was the failure and what did you learn from it?
For me, failure comes from not being able to accomplish your goals by not working together in a format that is respectable, but is also inclusive of various opinions. So what I would say through that is that in my current role or in my professional life we embrace the fact that everybody can bring something to the table and everybody’s ideas should be at least considered. And I think that, in the cases where I have failed, it’s where somebody comes in and tries to shove an idea or concept down the rest of the team’s throat that led the team to not succeeding in a good way. And I also think that being transparent to the end customers is also very key in understanding the things that you’re trying to do, and the actions that you’re trying to take to meet the overall global or community or corporate objective, whatever you want to call it. So, not being transparent and not embracing opinions through everybody that comes to the table and works together on a project I think leads to failure. It wasn’t me per se saying this is the idea and you have to do it my way. It was basically, this is what we think is the common good and somebody else having that objective that led us all in the failure, but in that failure we said okay we learned from this that not only one person has the end-all be-all answer and that everybody should bring something to the table. And getting going back to the to the drawing board and having that discussion and addressing all the opinions and then understanding what the needs are of all the various groups that were coming to the table allowed us to find a more acceptable solution and something that in the end was overall successful I would say, as you know the the solution set included the needs of more people than just the one person who was the loudest in the room.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]I feel that it’s extremely important to become a member of the BOE now as we’re in this transition for a new superintendent[/perfectpullquote]
What has the Verona public school district done well over the last four years? What areas need improvement and how will you build consensus in those areas to make change happen?
I think what Verona has done well over the past four years, is that they have tried to mitigate risk, not only to the students and to the staff, but to the public in general, to the point where it has led a little bit, in my opinion, to an issue of paralysis. I spent a lot of time on the Verona Kids In Classrooms Facebook group just listening to what people had to say, but I also spent time in the parents reopening committee. I was a member of the parents reopening committee for the Brookdale school district. And, we put a lot of time and effort in during the pandemic to understand exactly what was the issues concerning students and what was the issues concerning parents and then what were the possible outcomes of trying to address those needs, especially at the elementary school level of getting kids more exposure to their teachers directly, and in-person classroom training. And I think that there’s a great ability for Verona to come together and work together as a community to solve those issues. But I think that it is a concern for a lot of different groups in the town to understand that there’s various needs across different groups. So just because one group feels passionately about something, there’s another group in town that may not feel passionate about that, but coming together for the benefit of the common goal, which is to make sure our children are educated in a good manner and also that they have that support structure they need from from the school system is something that I feel is paramount.
And that gets me to what I think we are going to be facing going forward. Right now we’re looking at hiring a new superintendent, which I think is the single biggest role of the Board of Education. I personally spent 20 years of my life managing multi-million-dollar budgets and hiring people. I’ve done that as part of the corporate world, but it also means that hiring the right person for the right job. I believe that that’s something that the new Board of Ed is going to need to understand what are the key issues that you need to address and understand. The person that’s going to develop that skill set, both in the cultural sense, and also in the technical sense or professional sense to achieve that.
I also think that it’s going to be key to work together with the town. I think one of the issues that we’ve had as the school district is that there has been, in my opinion, an apparent split a little bit between the school district and the town that can be seen in some of the sort of tax issues that we’re having and some of the issues that we’re having with getting some of the funding out of some of the programs, some of the developments that are happening at town, and then now having to deal with a lot of possibly new incoming students that could have a strain on not only the town but on the budget that the school board faces. So I definitely see that working together collaboratively with the teachers and the admin is one side but also the town is another very important thing, and understanding where these people will be, how we’re going to fund the needs of these of these people that are coming into town as new students or as new families, and fully giving them that experience that we have now.
We’re for our children in this school district. So I think that, overall, looking at the budget and understanding where we’re at with the budget now and understanding that we may have impacts and stresses on that budget as more people come into town and the fact that we have to hire a new superintendent, that will be able to manage those budget issues as well extend that kind of relationship to people within the Town Council is going to be paramount and it’s something that I think we need to focus on as we go forward.
Verona Public Schools current strategic plan runs through 2023. Which of its six strategies should be emphasized, which are lacking and which, if any, are no longer needed?
I have to be fully transparent with you that I don’t know the six strategies of the strategic plan that’s still now through 2023. I think for me, what I mentioned before is that the issue of hiring the right superintendent to enact the next plan is going to be very important. And I also think that the next biggest thing is handling this potential of anywhere from up to 150 new students coming into our school district through the sort of state requirements is going to be a challenge as well. So to be honest, I would say that the 2023 plan as it stands now may need to be discussed earlier than 2023 or may need to be discussed as early as next year if these new impacts to our overall strategic plan become apparent. You know, if we’re starting out with a lottery this year or at the end of this year and we’re having to you know start working with all of this incoming new impacts to our school districts with all of these new families that are coming in with children. We’re going to have to address that sooner than later so I would say that, you know, in my world, the world I live in now, you cannot actually look five years out anymore.
In today’s world if you plan five years out you’re changing your strategy two years later, three years later. So I would say that a five-year plan is something that is probably locked in stone for the first 18, 24, 36 months, tops, and then it starts needing to be restructured and readjusted as you get into that fourth and fifth year for sure. I also think that whoever we hire as a new superintendent probably is going to have their own opinion about the strategic plan and the way forward, versus what was already decided upon and that will probably become a point of discussion after the new person takes office. So I would say that I fully would expect that people would at this point say, five years ago, we didn’t know what was going to happen to us and what’s happening to us now is not the same as we thought was happening, five years ago, so we need to sit and readjust our strategy. And I would fully support that because there is a lot of things that are coming at us now that we probably hadn’t seen before and that we’re going to need to address. One of those as well to me is what I was just mentioning, the idea between what’s going to happen with income tax or tax revenues to the school district from new developments in our town is going to be a key point of discussion and something that we’re probably going to have to address not only with us but like I said, building those relationships with the town and understanding how we’re going to address all of the impacts to the school, given what’s going on with with all of this new sort of incoming residential development that we have going on in town.
Verona’s five-year strategic plans are created with substantial input from school and community representatives. The current plan, developed with 1,250 hours of input, is here.
According to Verona Township Manager Matthew Cavallo, there will not be a lottery for the apartments to be built on the west side of town on the former Cameco and Poekel lots. Lotteries are common in Section 8 low-income housing but not in tax credit affordable housing, which is what is coming to those properties. Instead, PIRHL, the project’s proposed developer, will have what is known as an affirmative fair marketing plan, which will involve outreach in media and information sessions to create a list of interested renters. When the project is 60 to 90 days from completion, the developer will send an application to the names on the list and process responses in the order in which they are received. PIRHL is not close to beginning work on the project. Cavallo says that he does not believe that Verona will even close with PIRHL on the properties until August 22. MyVeronaNJ.com has written extensively on affordable housing, including this explainer on the differences between Section 8 housing and affordable housing. Superintendent Dr. Rui Dionisio addressed the potential impact of the development in a column two years ago.
In your candidate bio, you say that you are a founding member of the Verona Backyard Beer Club and that it “has made philanthropic contributions to local charities and businesses.” How is your participation in the club relevant to serving as a Board of Education member?
I wouldn’t say that it’s relevant to serving as a Board of Education member, I would just say that it’s a social group within our within our town that has done a lot of good things for other organizations locally that I’m a member of that people may recognize right because they’re in this town. So you know us raising tens of thousands of dollars for the REED Foundation for Autism or for Newman Cares is something that I believe I feel passionate about and that I’m very proud of. It’s a group of people that are mostly from Verona and other neighboring towns that is just a member of my bio. I don’t look at my bio as something that prepares me to be a Board of Education member; it’s just sort of my background and who I belong to. I also am the current president of the Brookdale SCA and my wife before me was the president of Brookdale SCA so I spent the last five years doing in the trenches in the school districts, fully understanding what are the needs of the elementary students, and we’ve raised lots of money through that as well, obviously to support Brookdale as a whole. There’s numerous other groups that that we support, be it other school districts and their tricky trays and all their events, Being a member of the community is part of what I would say motivates me, as well as motivates my family.
You’ve been very temperate in your discussion of issues and positions tonight. But you’ve posted remarks on social media since you announced your candidacy that seemed to question the integrity of district administrators and board members alike. How is that behavior helpful to the district?
I expected this question. I fully expected it. I got a very well thought-out and very long email from a Board member, as well. I got a couple of phone calls from other Board members. What I would say is that it was an observation that was made on social media. What I would also say is that I was fully surprised by them sort of eating up some time in a Board of Education meeting to go through what it takes to hire somebody when they say all the time that anything that the Board of Ed needs to do its job they handle internally, and that they do that in their closed-door sessions. So I disagreed with that agenda topic being on the Board of Education public meeting. And at the time I was making a reference to a lot of people and I never said it was a Board of Education member but there was a lot of people on that stage that I felt probably were having the same reaction that I had, You know that this was something that they didn’t need to pay attention to for that that period of time.
I didn’t call anybody out from a Board of Ed member. I didn’t call anybody out by name or person, I just made an observation. And what I would say to that is that you’re in the public, you’re in the public position, and if somebody makes a comment about something that you’re doing, and makes an opinion of something that you’re doing as being in a public position, and you take that much offense at it that you’re going to take that much time out of your day to basically, explain to me why you’re not happy with the comment, I would say that you’re probably not utilizing the time in an appropriate manner to focus on the bigger issues that are happening right now.
We still don’t have construction complete in a lot of elementary schools right now. We still don’t have HVAC in our school, in our classrooms. We still don’t have kids that can turn fans on and they’re sitting there with 90 degree heat in the classrooms, but instead I get three, four or five paragraph emails about a comment that I made in social media about an opinion that I had. Instead of people beating down doors and trying to get these things done, you know, to me it seems to me like they’re focusing their energy in a manner that is not something that they should be focusing on. If somebody came to me and I was in a public office and they made that comment to me, I would laugh and move on about my business because I got other business to attend to. But one slight comment on a private social media board has led to a lot of this discussion that I’ve had probably over the last two to three weeks, and it kind of, kind of shows me what the Board of Education right now is deeming as very important to them versus what’s happening with our schools in our classrooms, and one of the three key reasons I’m running as a matter of fact.
As Mueller noted above, the largest responsibility of a board of education is to hire a superintendent. Only one current member of the Verona BOE—Jim Day—was on the board when Dr. Rui Dionisio was hired in 2014, and many members of the school community now were not Verona residents then. At its meeting on August 31, the BOE hosted a presentation on the steps involved in identifying, vetting and hiring a new superintendent. Mr. Mueller said that he has not asked any of the BOE members present at the hiring presentation whether they had the same reaction to it that he had.
As for the referendum projects, Legacy Construction Management has been giving regular status reports to the BOE and the public in BOE meetings and updating the punch list on the school district’s website. The construction manager’s October 1 update shows that all Verona projects are complete except an HVAC project at HBW, which is expected to be completed this fall. Many construction projects, in Verona and across the country, were delayed by the pandemic as companies struggled with materials supply and workforce issues.