NYU Sophomore Wins Seat On County Board Of Education

This story was written by Adam Playford, Washington Square News

When rising CAS sophomore Mike Collins was in high school, every time there was a school board meeting "of consequence," he says he was there.

Now, just a year later, Collins will be back at those meetings - but this time, he'll be sitting on the other side of the table.

Collins, who is only 18, was elected to the Holmdel Township Public Schools Board of Education last month.

So for the next three years, the length of his term, the politics and journalism double major can never take a Wednesday night class. He won't be able to study abroad.

But he said he is now the youngest person in the history of his New Jersey town to sit on the board, which runs a 3,400 student school system with a budget of about $50 million. He got the most votes of the four candidates running for three open spots, and when his sister graduates from junior high school in June, he'll be the one handing her a diploma.

It's a trade-off he's OK with.

"I figured, studying abroad versus being an elected official, I think that being an elected official is probably a larger opportunity," he said.

That opportunity started with a phone call.

Until December, running for the board was "in the back of my mind," Collins said, but he never planned on it, because he couldn't be in Holmdel running the campaign every day if he was also taking classes at NYU.

Then John Blakeslee - at the time, his high school's senior class president - approached him and offered to be his campaign manager.

Blakeslee, 18 and headed for Boston College in the fall, was just an acquaintance. But he'd heard that Collins might be interested in running and, based on his time as a student representative to the board during a particularly contentious time, "I knew he was our guy," Blakeslee said.

During one meeting, Blakeslee recalled, the board was confirming the appointment of a controversial administrator, and there were "lots of angry people in the crowd."

"Mike got up there, in suit and tie, and eloquently spoke as to why hiring this administrator was going to fail," he said. Then, later, when that administrator's actions set off another firestorm, Collins again spoke "with elegance and eloquence."

"I just saw in him what we need in a leader on the board: someone who's listening to the people, but who can also convey it in such an eloquent manner, who can convey his message," Blakeslee added.

Though Collins had a room in University residence hall, he was still legally a resident of Holmdel, which is an hour's train ride away from Manhattan. (Next year, he will commute, because he says he spent too much time trekking back and forth from New York to New Jersey to justify the dorm's cost.) And, because he was 18, he was eligible for the job.

So in December, with Blakeslee's help, Collins' campaign began.

They sent out mailers, targeting people who were most likely to vote. The campaign did an automated phone call two nights before the election, left its literature in bus stations, went door-to-door, made a Facebook group and a website (Mikeforboe.com) - all techniques, Blakeslee said, more common to larger races.

Collins thought the best way to address reservations about his age was to run a full campaign, he said.

"People said to me often, 'Your age could be a factor,' and I sure as hell knew that going into it," he said. "But I said to myself, going into the campaign, that I'll make it a serious effort, I'll do everything I possibly can to campaign and to convince people that my age wasn't a factor."

Instead, Collins says his knowledge of the sysem's workings, from a student's perspective - what Blakeslee calls "an inside-out perspective" - should be a boon to the council.

For example, he started in the school system in fourth grade, and in the following nine years, he said he never had the same principal two years in a row. "Which I think was a very demonstrative thing on the campaign trail," Collins said, "to say to people, 'Hey, look at what I experienced just as a mere student, and I think this is a problem the community needs to pick up to.' "

That doesn't mean the community will always want to listen. The board of education can be a contentious place - as noted to Collins by one member of the town's council who used to serve on the board.

"He said to me, 'Hey, Mike, can you look to your right?' " Collins recalled. "I said, sure; I looked to my right. And he said to me, 'I can't find the hole in your head! Why the hell are you running for the Board of Ed?' "

"He made the point that when you're on a school board, it's not even a partisan office where half the people hate you. It's just everyone seems to find a way to hate you," Collins added, laughing. "But I think it's a welcome challenge, and I'm looking forward to working with people to try and see if that could not be the case."

Meanwhile, Collins and Blakeslee are already turning their electoral success into a career. Though Collins says he doesn't yet know whether he wants to go into politics or journalism, the two are, with another friend, starting a political consulting firm. Blakeslee said they are already running one congressional race.

Response to the business has been positive, mostly based on the team's success in the board campaign. "Actions really talk," Blakeslee said.

He added: "And instead of working in the summer flipping burgers or doing something else that I'm not going to really enjoy as a summer job or as a future career, why don't we do something that we love?"