Profile: National Advocate for Public Schools Says Stakes Are High

Colleen O'Dea | August 17, 2017 | Profiles
Kevin Ciak, only the second New Jerseyan to lead the National School Boards Association, believes that public education is central ‘to our country’s future and stability’

Kevin Ciak
Who: Kevin Ciak

Hometown: Sayreville

Family: Single

What he does: Ciak is president of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), which represents the state associations and their 90,000 members.

How he got there: After serving on his local school board, Ciak became involved in the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) and was its president in 2006-2008. He then got onto the board of directors of the NSBA and won its presidency last March 27.

Why the school board? Ciak didn’t join his local board for the same reason as most members: having a child or children in school and wanting to have a say in local education.

When he was a junior in his school, Ciak was chosen to attend the American Legion New Jersey Boys State, a summer leadership and civics program that includes mock governmental elections. There, he won his party’s nominee for an Assembly seat, though he lost the election. “When I went to that program, it took my life in a whole new direction,” he said. “I was young and I wanted to change the world.”

He returned home to Sayreville inspired. During his senior year, he attended school board meetings. After graduation, he went to Rutgers University, where he studied electrical engineering, and then ran for the school board. A 19-year-old freshman, he won a seat and has kept it ever since — Ciak, who’s 42, has served a total of 23 years on the Sayreville board.

Second president from NJ: Ciak said that the NJSBA proved invaluable in helping him to become a better board member, particularly since he was so young when he was first elected. After a few years, the association asked if he would like to help train other new board members. “I scaffolded up from there,” he said.

After joining the NJSBA’s executive committee, he automatically became involved in the national association — the NSBA’s committee includes between three and five members from each state. When there was an opening on the national board, he decided to try for it, served on it for several years, then ran for secretary-treasurer before seeking the presidency.

Ciak is the 70th president of the national association and only the second from New Jersey, chosen 50 years after the state’s last NSBA president, Ruth Mancuso of Glassboro. He is also the youngest president the NSBA has ever had. “I am humbled and eternally grateful for this opportunity,” he said.

Why the position matters: School boards are responsible for overseeing the budgets and educational programs for the nation’s more than 50 million public schoolchildren. And public education is the key to the future, Ciak believes. The NSBA helps in numerous ways, through its lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., through the legal brief it files when important issues reach the courts, and through its general advocacy in support of public education.

A difficult job: The term is only for a single year, so there is not much time to effect significant change. “Your best impact is putting seeds in place to grow,” Ciak said. Because members of the national board are spread throughout the country, they do most of their work through conference calls, with four in-person meetings a year. Also, because the president serves as an “ambassador for public education,” he travels a lot. Ciak has already visited several states and expects to go to as many as 35 during his term. He hopes to do more than just speak at state association conventions; he would like to also visit local schools and recently got a chance to do that in New York.

His vision: Ciak has named the theme of his term Vision 2030, because the students about to enter kindergarten will graduate from high school in that year. “I want to get them (school board members) to think more strategically,” he said. “What is the workforce going to be like then? What is the United States going to look like? How do we prepare them for that? What jobs are not going to exist? How do we adapt to that?”

Boards should be meeting with business leaders in their communities and college officials to help best prepare their students, he continued. It’s crucial for boards to do more planning and to “realize theirs is a much bigger job than approving budgets and being a liaison to the public.”

The challenges: Funding is a universal one, Ciak said, as are pushes for such alternatives to public schooling as vouchers and charter schools. And all signs indicate the new administration in Washington, D.C. is not going to advocate for public education.

“We know the current Washington political climate talks more about creating alternative educational schemes,” Ciak said in March when addressing the national delegate assembly after assuming the presidency. “Any agenda other than a pro public-education agenda is a threat to the cornerstone of our democracy, to our country’s future and stability.”

Signs of success: “I don’t want to stand up on that stage” at the end of his term “and say, ‘we produced this fabulous white paper’ and then have it sit on a shelf,” Ciak said. And he will work to make sure his term is fruitful because “the stakes are too high for us not to succeed.”

What else he does: Ciak is the global supply chain operations finance manager with General Electric in Piscataway. The company has been “incredibly supportive” of his new role as NSBA president and all the travel it entails.