When you talk to prospective voters about what the Board of Education can–and cannot–do, what do you tell them? Simply put: What are the roles and responsibilities of a Board of Education?
I think the New Jersey School Board Association summed it up well. They said the school board doesn’t run the school, it just make sure the school is run well. There are several key things the school board does that I would point to. The first, which is particularly important for me, is they serve as the conduit through which the parents talk to the school. A major one is, conversely, they communicate from the school to the parents. A big part of my platform is making sure that the parents’ voices are heard and recognized. So this is one that I’m particularly focused on. Some other responsibilities of the board include hiring a superintendent and making sure that they stay aligned with the goals and objectives that the board has laid out. Other responsibilities of the board include reviewing and approving the budget, helping to consult or talk with media, that type of thing. The board’s working at that much higher level. It’s the individuals at the school, the experts at the school, the teachers and so forth, that handle the day to day.
COVID affected the academic performance of students in Verona, around the country, and around the world. How should Verona schools get student success back on track and how will you get the administration and the community to support that?
This also aligns with another one of my platforms, which is customizing curriculum for the students. And by that I mean, paying extra attention to what the students need. I’m not saying each student would get a unique lesson plan, but finding those students that may need a little extra help and making sure they get it. Those students that maybe weren’t as affected by COVID and are up for a challenge on the other end of the scale. Seeing about getting them the possibility of some accelerated curriculum. It’s really not trying to do a one-size-fits-all. So I think, looking to do a flexible curriculum that can address the needs of each individual student and, very top level, just making sure students who are in school have an opportunity to be educated. I think the big problem with COVID obviously was pulling them out. Now that they’re in there, we have an opportunity to not only instruct them on what they need to know but in this instance, catch them up on what they may have missed.
What should the role of parents be in public school education?
Again, I’m a big advocate of recognizing the parents’ voice, hearing what parents have to say. I’m a public servant, or I would be a public servant if I were selected to serve on the board, and I work for the community. One of the reasons I decided to throw my hat in the ring was in response to some of the uneasiness that I saw at some of the board meetings. Particularly it was one in December where it could have been run better. Our parents were told they wouldn’t be given any answers at a point in time. They were actually reprimanded. The school board took a break because they thought it was getting a little heated. I want to make sure we can avoid that and I want to give every opportunity for parents to contribute.
Over the last several years, there’s been an effort to politicize school board elections with state and national issues that are not related to local education and school governance. How would you handle this politicization?
I’m an advocate of putting children first, and what that means is I really do want to try to keep politics and personal views out of school. Being on the school board, to me, is focusing on delivering the curriculum and extracurricular activities that will make sure students when they graduate, when they leave our school system, are best prepared for their days ahead. Of course, I recognize there are federal and state standards that have to be addressed. But again, that’s a conversation for the community to have. And together we’ll figure out the best path forward.
Recently, the BOE got an evaluation of Verona school culture from Grand River Solutions. What is your assessment of diversity, equity and inclusion in Verona schools?
Well, I would say that Verona is a welcoming community. We’re all for a diverse and inclusive community. When speaking specifically about Grand River, I listened to their assessment, at least the one that was presented in the open session. I thought they had some good contributions such as Title IX. We have to make sure we’re monitoring our Title IX policies. They do change quite often and being on the wrong end of them can see some serious fines and naturally we want to follow along with them. There are some other things that were up for discussion. And I know that they were discussed, whether it’s the HIB [Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying] policy, whether it’s how to handle discipline. But I think the way the school board addressed it at that meeting was a good start. I think a conversation should continue. Again, I welcome everybody into it and this is one where I think it’s important to hear what everybody has to say. But on the whole, I’d say, we welcome inclusivity and diversity. And I think everyone’s for that. It’s just that it
shouldn’t should be discussed in a transparent and open fashion.
NOTE: Upon further review of the audio, Spiegeland did say “should.”
In your platform, you say you will put children first. Why do you think that the Verona School District does not already put children first and what, specifically, would you do to change that?
I wouldn’t say that the school district doesn’t do that. I think, as I referenced before, I’ve seen instances where politics, I think, have entered into conversations. We were just referencing the DEI initiative. It could have been handled better. I think the board would even agree to that. There were consultants brought in that were later fired. I think maybe even two.* There was that unfortunate board meeting; I think a lot of that was driven by personal feelings and politics of maybe one or two. Well, let me rephrase. I think personal feelings and politics may have come into the equation through one or two board members. I think one, if I recall, even reprimanded the parents there. I want to get all of that out of the way. I really just want to focus again on what will provide the best success for our students.
* On November 9, 2021, the Board of Education approved a proposal from a DEI consultant, 45 Lemons. The district subsequently announced that it and the firm had come to a mutual agreement that they were “not a good fit for each other” and the proposal would not be put into effect. The firm was not fired. The first facilitator for the district’s diversity action committee left that position for personal reasons and was not fired.
Verona’s schools already share multiple services with our municipal government. What additional tasks would you look to share and how would that benefit the school district?
Well, for example, I also mentioned revitalizing the fields and what-not. That’s a perfect example. If you look at the baseball fields at the schools, if we have a particularly rainy day, not even a particularly rainy day, you’ll find them become unusable because they’re too muddy. And I think we end up just having one field to access; it’s not even a school board field. So in that instance, for example, there’s an opportunity to explore working with the council, township or otherwise, to raise some funds, put in proper drainage and provide other upgrades. And there are a number of other opportunities I foresee, to work together on. The VHS field is a great field, I’m referring to Forest, I’m referring to F.N. Brown. I believe we have a partnership with Everett**, which is a problematic field.
**Everett Field, on Bloomfield Avenue between Westview and Elmwood roads, was deeded to the township in the early 20th century. It is maintained by the town and the Verona Baseball & Softball League. The school district has no relationship with the field.
In your platform, you promise to customize curriculum to meet the needs of individual students. Since the BOE is not involved in the development of school curriculum, how would you fulfill that promise and what would it entail?
Well, the Board of Ed isn’t in charge of developing lesson plans. They’re not sitting in the classroom, assessing teacher-student performance, but they are involved in curriculum. You can look again to the New Jersey School Board Association, how they write it up. They review and approve all school curriculum. They are not supposed to rubber stamp it. I never would. They are there to make sure the superintendent follows philosophies and goals that are set by the school board. It’s their job to monitor her performance in this case. They’re there to provide the resources to make sure the curriculum is met. More specifically, at the last school board meeting or two school board meetings ago, you had a parent wondering what was going on with the Gifted & Talented program. I think the board is receptive to it of course and enthusiastic about it, but it didn’t seem like a high priority. And in this instance, that would be a way that we could “customize” curriculum to help provide accelerated students a chance to be a bit more challenged. I also have heard from parents with specialized services. Their expectations aren’t necessarily being met. So that’s the case also of coming in and developing curriculum. I was just reading about a U.S. Department of Education initiative, the Engage Every Student Initiative. It’s about finding opportunities to provide extra curriculum, whether it be after school, during vacation, even during the summer for those students who want to partake.
In 2014, Verona voters approved a $13.8 million referendum to upgrade the fields at Verona High School. One of your platform ideas is “revitalizing our fields and recreation facilities.” What do you mean by that and how would you fund it?
This is one again, where I think our schools do a lot of things right. But security is so important. I’d want to see and make sure that every year we’re looking to do what we can to improve it, to take key learnings from other schools around us. We should always be striving to make our school safer. Again with the payment I have in my platform, I’d like to seek out and hire a grant writer. This is one of the things that we could use those funds for. Possibility of shared services there too. I do acknowledge that it could potentially require additional funds. And I think it’s important to go out and try to get those funds where we can.