A Berkeley Heights school board member who led her district’s growth and evolution from a K-8 school district to a thriving K-12 district and also served as mentor to countless other local board members, Helen E. Kirsch has been chosen as the 2015 New Jersey School Board Member of the Year.

A 32-year member of the Berkeley Heights board, who served concurrently on the Union County Educational Services Commission board for 18 years, Kirsch was praised for her service, leadership and contribution to education in Berkeley Heights and the community at large.

“Helen’s service and leadership have been crucial to the success of the school district,” wrote Berkeley Heights board vice-president Gerry Crisonino, in his nominating letter.

NJSBA President Donald Webster noted that Kirsch has generously shared her experience with other board members. “School board members throughout Union County look at Helen as a mentor,” Webster said. “Her expertise in education is unparalleled, and we are grateful for her leadership and willingness to share her knowledge.”

NJSBA Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod said her input as a member of the NJSBA Board of Directors is invaluable.

“Helen exemplifies the best that a school board member can be,” he said. “The Board Member of the Year designation is a perfect fit. We commend her work, and thank her for years of dedicated service to children.”

When Kirsch first took office in 1983, Berkeley Heights was a mid-sized K-8 district whose high school students attended the Union County Regional High School District. One of the district’s four high schools, Governor Livingston, was located in Berkeley Heights. At that time, the regional district’s per-pupil costs were escalating, and an effort began to study deregionalization.

With Kirsch and colleagues leading the way, they studied the pros and cons of deregionalizing the high school district, reached out to other towns, and successfully advocated for legislation that facilitated the deregionalization process. A referendum was held in the six regional district communities, and the vote passed.  The four towns with high schools within their borders, including Berkeley Heights, became K-12 districts, with the remaining two towns entering sending-receiving relationships. The high school programs are now more effective and the costs are lower, according to the nominating materials.

For her part, Kirsch, who now has grandchildren attending the Berkeley Heights schools, said she has found the work “very satisfying.”

NJSBA Board Member of the Year Helen Kirsch with Donald Webster, Jr., NJSBA president at Workshop 2015.
NJSBA Board Member of the Year Helen Kirsch with Donald Webster, Jr., NJSBA president at Workshop 2015.

“Just seeing the accomplishment on the faces of kids, and their smiles when they go through school and graduate or when they come to board meetings, is very rewarding,” she said. “Being able to be part of giving them the opportunities to succeed is rewarding.”

In addition to the high school district deregionalization, she is most proud of the fact that Berkeley Heights was one of the first districts in the state to start an early childhood center.

Along with serving as board member of the county Educational Services Commission, including five years as board president; Kirsch has earned Master Board Member Certification. She serves on the Board of Directors of the New Jersey School Boards Association, and has also been president of the Union County School Boards Association.

Estimates are that Kirsch has attended more than 550 Berkeley Heights board meetings alone, said district superintendent Judith Rattner. A familiar figure in Berkeley Heights, often serving as board liaison to various community and town committees, Kirsch is a tireless volunteer who frequently goes directly from one board meeting or event to another.

“The commitment Helen brings…is evidenced by her continued efforts in improving the lives of our students,” Rattner wrote.

Given annually since 2005, the School Board Member of the Year award honors an individual board member who makes significant contributions; exemplifies leadership in the field of education with a strong commitment to the children of New Jersey; demonstrates a strong commitment to his or her personal and professional development as a board member; and shows active involvement in school governance at the local, county and state levels.

Nominations were judged by an independent panel from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The award will be formally presented during Workshop 2015, NJSBA’s annual conference, at the Atlantic City Convention Center.