The first time Kevin Ciak spoke out to improve public schools, he was a high school senior attending a school board meeting in his hometown of Sayreville. He stood up during the public comment session to suggest the board look for a better purchase price for photocopier paper.
“My father happens to be in the printing industry. I looked at what they were paying, and he was getting a significantly better price,” Ciak said.
Two decades later, Ciak, who was elected at age 19 to his local school board, continues to work as a volunteer to improve public education.
But these days, in addition to serving on the Sayreville board, he is also a director of the National School Boards Association, and president of the National School Boards Association Action Committee. His work on behalf of schools has national impact.
In 2013 he was named NJSBA School Board Member of the Year, the Association’s top individual award.
Ciak, 39, was the president of the New Jersey School Boards Association from 2006-2008; at the time he was elected to that position, he was the youngest state school boards association president in the nation. Prior to that, he was vice president for county activities and vice president for legislation/resolutions.
He has been active in his county school boards group, and is immediate past president of the Middlesex County School Boards Association. On the Sayreville board, he served several stints as board president (he was first elected to that position at age 23) and as vice president. He has also earned the designations of Certificated Board Member and Master Board Member through NJSBA’s Board Member Academy.
Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, called the Sayreville native the “quintessential advocate for educational excellence.” He said Ciak “embodies all the best qualities of school board members: He has devoted himself to the students in his district, while also advocating for public education at the county, state and federal levels.”
In one of his major accomplishments on the national level, Ciak led the creation of the National School Boards Association Action Committee. That committee, a 501(c)4, which expands the association’s ability to advocate powers on behalf of public schools.
“I see the big piece, from a national perspective, as the public advocacy piece. It’s helping the public understand the role of school boards, and the value they bring,” Ciak said.
“When you look at school boards, they really are the bedrock of democracy. They are the perfect example of democratic leadership, with values reflective of a community,” Ciak said. “The challenge is, as expectations for public education continue to grow, how do we better prepare school boards to deal with them?
An Early Interest
Ciak began his career on the Sayreville School Board as a Rutgers University freshman, the year after he started attending meetings while still in high school.
He first got interested in running for public office, he said, when he spent a week at American Legion Jersey Boys State as a high school student. The annual conference at Rider University provides rising high school seniors with a week-long grounding in community leadership and the workings of government.”
Ciak ran his school board campaign while commuting to Rutgers as an engineering major, and defeated one of three incumbents to win a seat on the board. He was sworn into office in 1994. After that, he juggled his studies, his commute and his board work.
“It forced me to grow up very quickly,” he said. “My party life at Rutgers was rather dull.”
As a school board member, Ciak said he could contribute in a unique way, because he was near the age and familiar with the viewpoint of high school students. When the board discussed the computer science curriculum, for example, he knew the classes because he’d recently taken them. As board liaison to the District Technology Committee, he knew first-hand what technology was available in classrooms.
In Sayreville, Ciak worked on technology improvement and curriculum realignment. He led the first comprehensive revision of the board policy manual in 25 years. He oversaw three school construction projects, including one elementary school addition that was defeated twice by voters.
Ciak convinced the board to go to referendum a third time, and the construction proposal was ultimately approved. Children in that school now have a library and gym equal to others in the district because of it.
District enrollment has grown from 3,800 to 6,000 students during his tenure as a board member.
Board Member of the Year
The School Board Member of the Year award, given each year since 2005, 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.
Middlesex County School Boards Association President Catherine Sucher Greeley nominated Ciak for the honor. In her nominating letter, she said Ciak “leads through storms of uncertainty into success.
“To know Kevin is to know a man of integrity, grit and grace,” she wrote.
Sayreville School Superintendent Dr. Frank R. Alfano said he is “very well-respected by his colleagues, Sayreville staff and administrators, and literally loved by the students and the community.”
Ciak was inducted into the Sayreville War Memorial High School Hall of Fame in 2008.
State, National Level Achievements
In 1998, interested in becoming more active in the state association, he became a representative to NJSBA’s Delegate Assembly. In 2003, he became vice president of county activities and then vice president for legislation/resolutions. There he led debate on policy issues, and guided the Association’s Legislative Committee in establishing positions on important issues.
While NJSBA president, he also headed up the development of a strategic plan (and did so again in 2012); was an integral part of the committee that oversaw the renovation and redesign of Association headquarters in Trenton; and rewrote the NJSBA culture statement to put an emphasis on people. He also helped refocus the Association on the opportunity for school boards, working alongside superintendents, to become leaders in student achievement.
In his “day job,” Ciak works as finance manager of General Electric Measurement and Sensing in Piscataway. He says that his training in engineering and his work in finance has allowed him to help at the National School Boards Association level with financial forecasting and other fiscal issues.
At the NSBA, Ciak was first elected as a northeast regional director to the NSBA Board of Directors in 2011. He has served on numerous committees, including the Finance, Student Achievement, and New NSBA committees.
He has simultaneously served as president of the board of directors of the National School Boards Action Center since its founding in 2012.
“Kevin’s work on NSBA’s Board of Directors has helped define the national organization and strengthen its strategic mission,” said NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel. “We appreciate Kevin’s commitment to NSBA as well as his dedication to his local school board and his passion and interest in student achievement. Kevin’s intense focus on improving our nation’s public schools is an asset to NSBA as we work toward becoming the leading public education advocacy organization in Washington.”
Maintaining a Local Focus
While climbing the ranks of education leadership, Ciak has also worked to keep in contact with students in his district. He said he always tries to return to his high school alma mater for “Legislators Day,” where he speaks to classes and takes questions from students.
Once, he recalled a student raising his hand to ask if the high school could create an ice hockey team, which prompted a quick lesson in school budgeting.
Some years later, Ciak was helping chaperone the high school prom, and ran into that student again.
“He said you probably won’t remember me,” Ciak recalled. This time, the young man was a Sayreville teacher.
As education leaders across the nation increasingly concentrate on the need to improve student achievement, Ciak is seeking a second term on the National School Boards Association Board of Directors this spring. He said he hopes to make a further impact there.
“One of the things I was taught, is that your job as a board member is not to run the schools, it’s to see they’re well-run,” Ciak said. “While I still believe that, it’s no longer enough. It comes down to how well students are performing, and whether the district is using data to tell.
“Every school board really should have a vision for the future of its district,” he said. “A lot of the time we get wrapped up in the issue at hand. But when you look at kindergarteners today, we need to realize they are the college class of 2030. The question is, what are we doing as a school board now, to prepare those kindergarteners for what the world will look like in 2030?
“I don’t have all the answers,” Ciak said, “but it’s the type of things boards should be discussing.”