Bryce Robins, Board of Education Member in Leonia, is a young elected official bringing innovation to his hometown’s school district. He has eschewed many political groups and associations, preferring instead—refreshingly in New Jersey—to focus on his role as President of the Board of Education in the borough of some 9,000. His name may not ring any bells to the wider political world of wonks and insiders, but for the students of Leonia, that may actually help make him one of their unsung champions.
In true New Jersey style, Bryce’s choice location to meet is the BB Bakery in Leonia. Whether consciously chosen for its small town, welcoming atmosphere or just because it offers a nice bit of lunch, the Gen Z official (those younger than the oft-maligned Millennials, for those in the back of the class) has already taken on one of the most critical habits essential for actuating change in the Garden State: he’s made the diner booth a natural habitat.
Down to earth and eager to talk shop, the former intern for Congressman Bill Pascrell is now a student at Fordham Law in Manhattan and commutes from his home in Leonia. He ran for the Board of Education when he was 17 and took office at the age of 18 while he was enrolled in George Washington University in DC.
“I ran for Board of Education as I was finishing my senior year of high school, then I went to college in DC at GW,” he said. “I was on the board for the first two years and the last year I became president. I took the Amtrak or bus twice a month for meetings. The only time I had to miss those meetings is when I had midterms and finals.”
Commuting from Washington DC to their home turf is generally the habit of federal officials, but Bryce Robins, now 21 and only a few years older than the students whose scholastic lives he helps manage, made the 4 hour commute from college to make sure he was present and on hand to carry out his duties for the schools. An approximately 500 mile round-trip per meeting meant that his duties presented a thousand-mile-a-month commute for Robins, but he was glad to do so. The distance did not prove to be too daunting or an impediment to seeing to his responsibilities. “A lot of it is electronic, emails, phone calls; technology made it possible. The trains and buses were a good time to prepare for meetings. I didn’t think it was too difficult.” When the business was done, it was back on the train for DC for the next day’s classes.
“One of my biggest criticisms was that I didn’t live here,” Robins said of his campaign. “I did live here, my permanent residency is Leonia.”
To help with the costs of traveling back and forth twice a month, Robins took a job with a seafood restaurant in Washington DC. “I worked there and used some of that money to pay for the train tickets back. I don’t think being in DC took a toll on me. When you’re in your town and there’s an issue, you’re hearing all the noise. Being away kind of helped me focus on the issue rather than focus on the noise which I think was a good thing. But I definitely prefer being here.”
Before getting involved in school politics, Robins was inspired to public service by his family, many of whom were school teachers. “My aunt lived in New York and was always at the house, taking me on walks when I was young. She’s a political person and would always talk about the importance of taking action and getting involved, and that shaped my childhood. We rarely agree on a lot of things but it definitely was very formative in getting me engaged and taking action.”
This is Robins’s first re-election campaign, and unlike his first run, he is running in a contested race. “Three seats were open and only two people ran,” he said, referring to his first campaign. “I think that says something as to our state of affairs that a 17 year old was not challenged for a seat and was able to make a lot of changes. On Facebook I put out all kinds of information. I go door to door to see how the general populace feels on things. At meetings it might be the same 5 or 7 people each time in attendance, when in reality we have 9,000 people here.”
He described his tenure as an intern for Pascrell as “a great time” but for the moment, he wants to stay local and develop his visions for the schools. “I keep my head down in Leonia. I had been in DC for 3 years and didn’t have time to get involved with political groups. I focus on making change here.” He did say, however, that he had “formed a nice relationship with Valerie Huttle” and that the Assemblywoman was a help in getting information available for one of the school district’s great new innovations: propane powered school buses. As for future political ambitions, he said that it was a possibility for “down the road.”
On the board he was getting worried about being out of touch with the students. So, in response, he introduced student liaisons to the Board of Education. “My campaign when I ran was that there should be a student on the board for students in the school. I felt that every year I get older, I was less connected to the issues of the students. So we put forward a policy to have 2 students, elected by the student body, always a senior and a junior, and they don’t have board voting power but they are allowed to speak on any topic.”
Propane powered buses are a relatively new phenomenon, and the little borough of Leonia has made one of the first steps in the area towards moving away from the usual diesel. “One of the biggest things we got done was getting alternative fuel buses which are cheaper, more cost effective, and better for the environment. Propane is in abundance, most of it comes from America, it’s half the cost of diesel, 40% the emissions, and much quieter. The buses we have now are the first in the north-east region to have this particular engine, it reduces our nitrous oxygen emissions by 90% of the federal standard.”
Another plank in his campaign platform is improving access to test prep for students whose families can’t afford it. “This is one of the biggest things I’m running on: SAT/ACT tests. I think it’s wrong how many kids can’t afford to take the class. To think that if mom and dad can afford it you can potentially do a lot better than those who can’t. No schools that I know of take the initiative of helping kids with one of the biggest tests they’ll take that means the difference between college admissions, scholarships or not.” No mere tax-and-spend politician, Robins also explained a program in mind to help offset and reduce the associated expenses which would get students involved, should that program become a reality.
Continuing the partnership between renewables and profitability, Robins took hold of an opportunity and turned it into a financial boon for the district. “In 2007 the town had a referendum to put air conditioning in the schools, plus $6M for solar panels. But nobody was selling the Solar Renewable Energy Credits for some reason. I’ve no idea why, they were just sitting there. If we hadn’t sold them in the next few months they would have expired, so I put forward a resolution to sell these as they come in. Now we’ve made $600,000 in accumulated SRECs. A lot of security protocols were reinvested back into the school.”
Robins also cited a rundown turf field as a challenge and an opportunity for the school and community as a whole. “One of the things I wanted to do is work on the turf field. It’s in a flooded area, it’s abysmal, so people said we couldn’t afford to do it. So we negotiated a deal with the town for a shared services agreement. The mayor committed half the money and we committed half. It is going to bring a wonderful field for our school, and it’ll be a state of the art field for soccer, softball, baseball. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve been able to accomplish.”
Why did he want to run for the Board of Education at this juncture in life? As it so often is, students frequently long for the chance to get out of the classroom, and do not so often plan their after school designs on district management. “I figured the Board of Ed was a logical step. I was a student and wanted to help the schools. There are so many things I want to help students with so I figured there was no better place than to start there. Also the age requirement: you can run at 17 and have to be 18 at the time of the election. Town council, which I wouldn’t want to do, was 21.”
“I think one of the things I wanted to promote was communication among board members,” he said, “pushing how committees work, and building dialogue on issues so the first time board members are hearing about things isn’t in a meeting. Even on issues we disagree on at least we’re communicating.”
Local parents or student have ready access to their Board of Education president and a sandwich or drink. “I always invite people to the BB Bakery to talk and hope to build a dialogue about the issues.”
Building dialogue has paid some dividends for Robins, being the recipient of the teachers’ union endorsement. “I’m the first candidate to receive the endorsement of our teachers union. It was huge, it meant a lot, most of these were my former teachers. I talked a lot in class and it was great to see these people want to support me. I come from a long line of public school teachers, so it’s very important to me to make sure our teachers are well taken care of in Leonia. I remember as a sophomore in school there was a contract dispute, teachers were striking, and it was not good. I don’t want to see that in Leonia, I want to have the best possible relationship. The current atmosphere with unions and boards right now is very ‘us versus them’ but I think we’re one community and think they respect that I said I want to build a great relationship with them. Our logic was we gave them our honest offer and it worked out well. I commend our negotiations and superintendent on that. Our teachers respected it and it passed with flying colors.”
When asked if he had any advice to young people looking to get involved in the political realm, he had a ready answer. “I’d say start small, start local. Sometimes I see people running for mayor, I wish them luck but I think they shouldn’t put the cart before the horse. You can get so much done even with the Board of Education. If you talk to people about issues that matter in the local community you can make a lot more change. Mayor and town council probably have more impact in your direct life than people in Washington or Trenton. Also, preparation is key. When you’re young people see you as young first, not the position you’re in. They’ll say ‘that kid on the board’ but not ‘that board member’ it’s something to overcome, that’s fine, if you just do what’s right.”