On August 6, a town meeting will be held in Durham to elect a new member to the Region 13 Board of Education. The following is a Q&A with Republican candidate Eric Berens.
Family: My wife Ronda and my two daughters that are both students in the school system.
Experience: I am currently the northeast regional manager of a $65 million book of specialty lines insurance business. With a team of underwriters located in Connecticut, New York, and Philadelphia, I am responsible for growing a profitable book of management liability, managed care errors and omissions, and medical malpractice business from Virginia –to- Maine. Prior to this role, I was a founding member of a start-up professional liability company where I created the management liability and financial institutions division. This company was eventually sold in 2008 after we became a publicly traded company back in 2006. My roles have given me deep experience in contract construction and negotiation, financial analysis, risk management, managing diverse teams, and delivering results.
Through the years building and growing businesses, I have allocated time to assist in activities surrounding my children. In 2006, 2007, and 2008 I coached my daughters’ soccer teams in the Coginchaug Soccer League. I also helped out where I had time with their music, basketball, and Girl Scout activities– especially the father-daughter square dancing! I have always made an effort to attend field trips too – such as Hammonasset beach for the first graders, the West Hartford Science Center for the 3rd graders, and Plymouth, MA for the 4th grade class! With 20 years of financial industry experience and active in my children’s education, I have the experience to make a difference on the Board of Education.
Patch: Why have you chosen to be a candidate for the RSD13 Board of Education?
Berens: My wife and I are similar to many parents and taxpayers in Town that work hard to earn a living and feel we have a solid, above average school system…but at the same time question if the 70% - 75% of local property taxes allocated to the District budget are being put to work in the absolute best manner. Do we deserve a GREAT school system, an envy of other comparable Towns? Sure we do, our kids deserve it! Our tax base deserves the best return for its generous education investment as well. I think I can add to the dialogue with a focus on constant, never changing drive for improvements in learning and efficiencies in operating our large education system.
Patch: What special qualifications would you bring to the board?
Berens: I will bring a very unique view to the Board as both a parent with a 4th and 6th grader in the District as well as being a former student, graduating from Coginchaug in 1989. A little deeper in the weeds perhaps, but I also “graduated” through the Integrated Day program while at District 13 – in my day it was referred to as the “Alternative Education” program managed by Dr. Dan Pearly. I do not believe there has ever been a board member hitting on all three of these experiences. Then there is my business background. I graduated from Central Connecticut State University with a degree in Finance and continued my education at Trinity College with a Masters in Economics. As you can see, I am a BIG believer in education! A solid education and hard work have allowed me to pursue an ongoing and fulfillingcareer in banking and insurance. This special combination of experiences within District 13 as a parent and student, plus my private sector business experience will bring diversity to the current Board of Education.
Patch: Are there any particular areas of local education that you hope to focus on?
Berens: My focus is to first maintain and then soon thereafter grow the overall quality of our local education system. Being like most of my friends that live in town with busy lives shuffling the kids to basketball or Girl Scouts, or music lessons…after putting in a 50 hour week…I do know that getting accurate, timely, and consolidated financial, budgetary, and results oriented information on the District is difficult. Do we really know how much “bang-for-the-buck” we are getting here? At work, my company has a program we call “Dashboard”. It consolidates all the real-time production numbers against forecasts…it can trend results, etc. I think the busy taxpayers/parents of Durham deserve some form of “Dashboard” where one click on the website tells them the return on their large tax investment called District 13. With the unfiltered information at the fingertips of our citizens, I think we can become the #1 school system as we would have a buy-in for trading investment dollars (taxes) for better education results. Can we get higher performing students for less expenditures, or can a small incremental increase in tax revenues investing under a different paradigm give a multiplied effect on education results? No one in my circles can answer that question. All we know is that costs go up and the outcomes are hard to pinpoint. The answers are already there, we just need to define, locate, consolidate, and find them…like a business enterprise would. I am excited to roll up my sleeves and be a part of the solution!
Patch: How will you approach balancing the needs of the education system and those of the taxpayer?
Berens: It’s not a zero-sum game. The education system and the taxpayers need one another. Taxpayers own property. An excellent school system increases the value of the taxpayers investment (their property). A good school system draws in families that really care about education and want to participate in the community. I find that the rift between the education system and the taxpayer –in any town or city- is not that there are competing forces to balance, but rather the dissemination of information isn’t up to today’s standards. If taxpayers see a school running very efficiently and producing some of the best students in the state, then balance is achieved. If they see other similar towns producing better students at similar cost structures then we are faced with an unbalanced situation. A situation that we can all agree would need to be corrected. It’s no different in business where you have the balance between owners, employees, and customers. If your competition is achieving better production for less money, the owners are not pleased as the value of their firm diminishes as better competitors take the customers. If the owners continue status quo they will begin to hurt their loyal customers who will have no choice but to eventually stop doing business with them and go elsewhere. This leads to a firm with no business that will have no need for employees.
Public schools are a bit of a monopoly and can lapse into some of the traits that fall into monopolistic entities. If you are a business that is always guaranteed customers what incentives are there for exceeding expectations? A school system that takes 75% of the tax dollars that isn’t performing at its peak diminishes a town’s value –as investment tax dollars are wasted where they could have been employed better elsewhere (like better streets, other services, etc). Taxpayers with great informational tools can act as informed owners and better self-police the school system to either force change or continue status quo should high standards rule the day.
Patch: Any additional thoughts?
Berens: If I do something I do it 100%.
Editor's Note: Democratic candidate Eileen Buckheit will challenge Berens for the seat. We hope to bring you a Q&A with Buckheit this week. Stay tuned.