Vice President, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Family: Gulnaz Batliwala, Certified Public Accountant (CPA); Saniya, 16; Zoya, 10.
In His Words:
Q: What do you consider to be the three most important challenges facing the Montgomery School District at this time? Briefly, how would you address these issues?
I believe the three biggest challenges Montgomery schools are facing are:
1. Montgomery residents want trust, transparency, responsibility, and better communication from their elected representatives – there is a feeling in the community that board’s decision making is not transparent enough and, at times, doesn’t reflect the needs of the students and parents. It exudes a sense of authority rather than representation. Communication with the community is infrequent and it lacks clarity.
If elected, I will work with full transparency to serve parents and students with empathy. I will do whatever is within my limits to be transparent in communicating with the residents (such as conveying why a certain decision was taken by the board), whilst making sure that the decisions made address the community’s needs and concerns. I will also address the problem of racism and discrimination by making the necessary behavioral changes to our policies and instituting, in place, measures to prevent that.
I will never forget that I am elected by the residents to serve them on the board. I will be responsible and accountable to those I am elected to serve, the community. I will make sure that decisions I make are made responsibly, not merely my own personal thoughts but rather reflect the needs of the community and for the betterment of majority of our students.
I will open up the communication channels to be the students, teachers and parents ‘voice. I will make myself easily reachable via email or any media to address community concerns. I will work on improving the public comment section of the board meetings. I will, in fact, work on receiving community feedback and suggestions electronically as currently, it is not possible for all residents to attend public meetings. And vice versa, I will introduce monthly BOE newsletter to inform the community.
2. Student stress and empathy – there are concerns around lack of empathy and excessive stress among students, particularly, high schoolers.
This is something I have experience with, as at work, it is necessary for me to help my team cope with the stress.
Similarly, I will try to help students cope with the immense pressure that comes with going to school by taking steps to increase the availability of resources, introduce better counseling, work on parent-teacher-student relationships, etc. I know how some students say they were not aware of certain resources available to them and, in not knowing so, haven’t been able to use them to their full advantage, whether it be regarding studies or extra-curricular activities. This could possibly be because of a lack of communication, clarity, and infrequent updates from the school websites.
I would also ask for a behavioral change when it comes to dealing with students by listening to their concerns and speaking with empathy towards them. I think school counselors play a big role in this. However, currently, there are only eight counselors for all the high school students. It is very difficult for a counselor to personalize their assistance to each individual student when they have such a big number of students to whom they must contribute and guide. I will advocate for more school counselors to have a manageable counselor/student ratio and provide more focused counseling to students.
During this COVID-19 pandemic, when students are mostly homebound, the school needs to find innovative ways to involve and engage students, particularly during the fall and winter season when outdoor activities and exposure are most likely to be limited. This is very important as it concerns the students’ mental health.
3. Stability in the board of education - there have been multiple resignations almost every year, including 2 board presidents this year itself. These positions are being filled temporarily simply by interviews and there is no consistency.
If elected, I can surely perform and handle the rigors and pressures of being a board member. I can make a big difference as a board member along with my slate teammates Patrick, Victoria and Zelda. We are running together as “Champions for Students” for four open positions to bring stability, new voices and ideas to Montgomery Board of Education."
Q: What professional and personal experiences have prepared you for serving on the board?
I love to volunteer in my community and participate in social activities. I currently volunteer as an Emergency Response Team member, certified in giving CPR and Defibrillator. I helped organize an Interfaith dinner at the Blawenburg Church with Mayor Sadaf. I am also leading a group called the Career Advancement Program which provides career counseling and tech training for high school kids and adults. I founded a networking group of tech professionals in Central Jersey that has now more than 250 members. I have also volunteered to be Mayor Sadaf’s election campaign treasurer.
I work as vice president at Bank of America Merrill Lynch where I worked for many years in Wealth management, and now in the Human Resources Division, managing a diverse global team.
Using my strong volunteering background, interpersonal skills and solid work experience leading a diverse global team, I will bring together our large, diverse group of students, teachers and administrators to provide the best education. I will use my financial background to review the school budget and will work towards a shared collaboration with township to find avenues of savings.
I get involved in school activities, and during these years, based on my observances and discussion with various parents, I have formed several ideas around our curriculum, as well as, policies that would benefit the schools."
Q: Why are you running for the board?
People move to Montgomery to educate their children in a quality public school and to live in a nice community. I fully understand how important it is for us to maintain the high standard and reputation of our school. I consider establishing our school’s future vision and setting a good curriculum and policies for students, a priority, and I care for that.
I, therefore, want to run for the board of education to restore full trust and transparency between the board and the community and want to serve the parents and students with empathy. I want to open up the Communication channels to be the students, teachers, and parents’ voices.
I want to connect the board with the community and to advocate for the needs and concerns of the community. I will use my strong financial background to review the entire school budget and make sure taxpayers money is spent wisely. I want to work together with our students, teachers and administrators to revisit the curriculum and policies to make our schools even better.
I am genuinely interested in working to make a positive contribution to the school board and our schools and ultimately our students."
Q: The success of Montgomery Schools impacts everyone in Montgomery and Rocky Hill, whether they have a student enrolled in the district, have a home whose value is impacted, or both. What role should the community play in forming policy and monitoring the school district? Is the current structure adequate? If not, what do you propose to improve transparency and community involvement?
Maintaining the high rank and good reputation of Montgomery schools is of paramount importance. It not only serves our kids but also drives our property values and local economy. Essentially, it impacts everyone in the community and, therefore, community involvement and feedback is crucial in making the right decisions and, in turn, making our schools better.
I will try my best to be fully transparent with the community by relaying decision making and board actions. Decisions made in the past, can always be revisited and modified if the circumstances have changed, therefore, better meeting the community needs; for example, the debate around “should we allow outside AP courses to be recognized,” “can we change the MHS timings,” etc.
To further involve the community:
I propose sending a monthly newsletter to the community from the board of education, summarizing the month’s activities and highlighting the upcoming events of the next month. This will keep the community well informed in a concise and accessible way, instead, of expecting families to watch hours of meeting videos on the school website.
Likewise, I will work on establishing a process to receive community feedback electronically, as it is not possible for all residents to attend public meetings. Or to possibly have monthly zoom meetings for residents to share their opinions, concerns, etc.
All board members school email ids should be public info to make them more accessible to residents.
Form a sub-committee, with members from the community, to provide feedback in curriculum modification efforts."
Q: Should Montgomery offer in-person classes during the pandemic? What about sports? What parameters would you implement?
First of all, whatever decision is made, it should address the primary, most important concern: the health and safety of our students, their parents, teachers, and the school staff. There are parents who would like to open up the schools for in-person teaching, and there are parents who would opt for online schooling. I also believe not all teachers will be comfortable going back to school.
There is no one solution to this confusing predicament created by the pandemic, however, it is clear that the final decision should be made by consulting community, teachers, staff and township, keeping in mind their safety, wellbeing, and the impending fall flu season which can worsen the situation. The last thing anyone wants is an outbreak in the schools, causing a complete shutdown, re-ensuing anxiety amongst the already pressurized students. On the other hand, this would affect parents, for whom it isn’t easy to request for working from home, as their children will be at home.
Therefore, I believe a hybrid solution should be adopted with the option for students and teachers to decide if they want virtual learning or in-person learning. All tests should also be taken at home so that both virtual and in-person students give their exams in the same environment (no advantages to either group).
Having in-person learning will require our schools to stock up on PPE for the safety of the students and staff. And the schools should look into newer, better software tools to provide a cohesive, informational virtual learning experience.
I believe we can still have some outdoor sports like track and field, cross country, and tennis where physical distancing can be maintained, along with fencing (because of the full-body covering required in the sport, reducing the risk of transmission). Other team sports like soccer, basketball, volleyball, field hockey, swimming, etc. should be postponed until further notice.
Again, these policies and restrictions can be re-evaluated periodically based on the circumstances at that time. As guardians, our first responsibility is to protect and provide for our children and I am sure we can do that by implementing these ideas."