Participants had a chance to learn from professionals about the importance of understanding how politics must be navigated at the state and local school district levels.
Meaghan Haugh

Alexis Ryan spent four years in the federal government working for Rep. Rush Holt (NJ-12) and later, for Rep. Bob Filner in San Diego (CA-51), before she decided to return to school to pursue an Elementary Education Certification in Rider’s Graduate Level Teacher Certification Program. Ryan may no longer be involved in the political spectrum, but that does not mean that politics will no longer shape her new career.

Recently, Ryan and 13 other Rider students — mostly education majors — had a chance to learn from professionals about the importance of navigating politics at the state and local school district levels. It was all part of the Dinner with the Elite: Exploring New Jersey Politics and Education, sponsored by the Center for the Development of Leadership Skills and the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics on Thursday, April 7, at the Trenton Marriott.

Laura Seplaki, associate director of the Center for the Development of Leadership Skills, and Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, organized the dinner event.

“As educators, you must broaden your understanding of how politics shapes your career,” Dworkin said. “In every profession, there will be leaders who emerge.”

The event featured Sara Tracey, a fifth-grade teacher at High Mountain Road School in Franklin Lakes, N.J.; Dr. Mark DeMareo WCC ’78, superintendent of the Plumsted (N.J.) Township School District; and Ginger Gold-Schnitzer, director of Government Relations for the New Jersey Education Association.

During the informal dinner setting, Tracey, DeMareo and Gold-Schnitzer each shared their personal backgrounds, the paths they took to careers in education and their experiences dealing with politics, both at the local and state levels.

Tracey, who serves as a union representative in her school, gave the students some tips on surviving their first couple of years before being granted tenure. She advised the students to have open, crystal clear communications with parents, and to always keep their principals informed about a situation.

“My biggest advice is to get two people on your side — your principal and your parents,” Tracey said. “I e-mail parents all the time with homework assignments and reminders. They really appreciate it. Get them on your side. Call them when something is good and introduce yourself. So, if you call with something negative later, at least you started with something positive.”

Tracey also expressed the importance of staying involved with the school’s union even though it’s hard for non-tenured teachers to find a balance. “Whenever you’re in doubt, talk to your representative,” she said.

DeMareo, who will retire in June 2011 with 30 years of experience in education, is a 1978 graduate of Westminster Choir College and a member of the Rider University Board of Trustees.

He said that there are a number of political appointments that influence education. For example, the governor appoints the Commissioner of Education and Executive County Superintendents. School districts are also controlled by a budget. As a district superintendent, he said it’s also important to not play favorites with one board member in order to ensure transparency.

Some school districts are also affected by federal impact aid, where school districts are given aid to help supplement the costs of losing acreage of township to military bases such McGuire Air Force Base or Fort Dix, DeMareo explained.

“We are very dependent on that funding,” he said. “It’s like the musical Oliver! Please don’t forget us in Plumsted. We are grateful for the money.”

Meanwhile, Gold-Schnitzer, who has 14 years of lobbying experience, said educators have to care about politics because of funding. When a company, such as Microsoft, is in the red, it must sell something, Gold-Schnitzer explained. However, a school district cannot sell anything. Instead, taxes must be increased.

“I love taxes. Taxes pay for 1.4 million students, teachers, janitors and school buses,” she said. “Teachers have to be involved in politics because politics decide the resources available to their districts to allow them to do their jobs effectively.”

During a question-and answer-session, the dialogue focused on No Child Left Behind, merit pay and the importance of voting for federal and state representatives, including school board members, who shape policy and influence the state budget.

Participants included undergraduate students Jonathan Capocci, a senior Elementary Education/Integrated Science and Mathematics; Wendy Granados, a sophomore Behavioral Neuroscience and Political Science; Natasha Harris, a sophomore Political Science and Global Studies dual major; Brieanna Inzillo, a senior Elementary Education and Psychology dual major; Anthony Maddaluno, a junior History and Political Science dual major; Amanda Matticks, a senior Elementary Education and Psychology dual major; Melissa Mulrine, a senior Elementary Education and Psychology dual major; and Charles Rotunno, a sophomore Elementary Education and Psychology dual major. Participants also included Graduate-Level Teacher Certification Program (GLTP) students Kelly Dissinger, Elementary Education Certification; Stephanie Madden, Secondary Education Certification in English; Samantha Mahar, Teacher of Students with Disabilities Certification; Hardevi Shah, Elementary Education Certification; and Nick Wright, Secondary Education Certification in English.