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Denise Verzella, BOE Candidate 2022

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Denise Verzella, Line 2G
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Common Questions

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?

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The Board of Education in any town would oversee the school district. They would make sure that the school district has appropriate funding for its programs, they would make sure that the superintendent is hired and competent. And do reviews of the superintendent. What the board of education doesn’t do is get involved in the day-to-day running of the schools. You know, they’re not going to where they should not interfere with things like HIB [Harassment, Intimidation & Bullying] investigations or student issues or faculty issues. They should maintain a level above that so that they can oversee what is going on, in general. They have a role as an appellate type of board for various hearings; the ones that always come to my mind are the student ones because of what I do, so like HIB. That would be the appellate level, for lack of a better term; that would be where they would reside in terms of student conduct. Out of day-to-day operations, but making sure that everything is run according to the rules and regulations set up by the state. And that it’s run well and that the school district is communicating with the public at large what they’re doing.

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?

I think Verona started off well with this. We made a good switch even back at the beginning of COVID. We made a good switch to virtual instruction, quicker and better than a lot of other school districts in our area. That actually helped prevent some of the learning loss that other school districts are now experiencing. However, there has been learning loss, and I think that, working with teachers specifically and talking to classroom teachers, at the school level, and figuring out where those gaps in education are. And then using the resources that we have, using the teachers that we have, starting to fill those in. It’s not going to be a quick fix. It’s not going to be like, by the end of November, everyone’s gonna be back where they were. It’s going to be a long-term process, but it is going to be a process where we will see results. In the special education arena that is a little bit more difficult because a lot of those students were not really able to access their education virtually. For those students, there may need to be a more intensive type of remediation program happening, whether it’s additional students in an ESY, an extended school year program, or even a longer ESY program for some students. So they’re able to recoup the loss that they’ve had. But in a typical general education student, I think working directly with the teachers, making sure they have the resources necessary to meet the needs of the students. There is a lot of testing. Testing takes away from learning. Testing is a pet peeve of mine, too much testing. We do need to have some tests to see where we are, but let’s not over-emphasize them and let’s talk directly with our teachers. We have great teachers, and we really need to listen to them.

What should the role of parents be in public school education?

Parents should advocate for their students, or for their children. I advocate for my children on a probably daily basis. There is a role to advocate for your individual student. I think there is a role for parents and the community at large to play within the larger scheme of a school district. The town has a lot of advisory committees. I think the school board could tap into some resources, and some community members and some parents to advise them on things like facilities and athletics so that they are a part of the decision-making process. Not a decision maker. That’s different than an advisor. A good example would be at F.N. Brown. Next to the building, there was a mud puddle that made it difficult for people to get their children. Advising the facilities committee that that’s a problem would be a role that an advisory committee could play. Where I don’t think that parents should be directly involved is in creating curriculum. They’re not educators. The state creates the standards, the school creates the curriculum, the teacher creates the lesson plans. There are certain topics where parents have the option to opt out. And I’m supportive of that. If a parent does not wish their child to hear about a specific topic that they’re permitted to opt out of, then that’s their right and they should exercise it. However, they shouldn’t be specifically trying to influence lesson plans of teachers or influence things that children who are not their children should learn. I believe wholeheartedly in children having access to almost whatever book they want. To be quite honest, there are very few books that I would say a child shouldn’t have access to. So anything that would be involved in removing books from a library or a classroom, I would be immediately opposed. And I do vehemently oppose that. The health and PE curriculum is the one that’s most at the forefront right now. Something like that where a parent has the ability to opt out and that’s their choice and they should exercise it, should they feel the need to.

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?

The board has done a good job already in allowing people to express their opinions. I wish that we would be able to have virtual comments, but I understand the reasons why right now. I think that school boards are here to make sure children get educated. The education of children is important for the entire community, not just for the people who have children in the school. Learning to be good citizens is important. I honestly don’t understand why school boards are political, to be quite honest, because all everyone wants to do is teach their kids and teach students reading and writing and how to get along in the world. Because that’s really what we’re teaching our kids how to be good citizens of our country and our world. So how would I handle it? I would listen politely. I would thank people for their comments and I would take them under advisement like I take everything under advisement. And ultimately, when it comes down to making decisions as a board member and voting on policy initiatives, or policy agendas, I would vote how I feel would be in the best interest of the students. That is the person that I’m there to assist the most.

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?

I was part of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion committee. I attended multiple meetings. It’s actually an issue that I have discussed at board meetings, even prior to COVID. I know it came up kind of during COVID with the Black Lives Matter protests and what-not, but it was something that I was discussing even before COVID. Verona is an increasingly diverse town. We are in either the top three or top five diverse states in the union, in one of the top three counties in New Jersey in terms of diversity. So it’s not about how we’re going to send our kids out into the world. The world is coming to us; Verona is the world. I remember one of my daughters being the only black child in her entire elementary school for several years and, by the time she graduated, there were several other black children in her elementary school. That’s just anecdotal. I’m sure there’s other schools where it went the reverse way. But we’re increasingly becoming a more globalized, more integrated world. So learning how different people feel about comments or how they feel about being or reading books that they don’t see themselves in. Listening to that and understanding it doesn’t take away from anyone else’s rights. It’s not a pie. Because someone else has a right doesn’t mean that you lose a right. It just means that we’re acknowledging that they’re able to live and to be happy in the world. I truly, truly, truly believe there is a place in Verona for every student. Every student should feel at home someplace in Verona schools, whether that student is an ethnic minority, or whether that student is disabled, because that is also part of diversity and inclusion. We have a lot of students with disabilities that we send out of our school district that we could educate in our school district if we took the time and the effort to do that. You know, as a member of C.H.I.L.D.’s board, as the SEPAC [Special Education Parent Advisory Council] we’ve had many conversations at our public SEPAC meetings with Dr. Mauriello [Verona’s former director of special services] about students with disabilities who go to school and talk to no one all day and sit every day and eat lunch alone. And walk home and have no friends. We’re getting a new director and asked as the board members try to help change the culture so that these students are included. I’ve seen school districts as an education attorney. I’ve gone to school districts and I’ve worked with school districts, where students with disabilities are part of the fabric of their school and don’t sit alone at lunch and don’t feel like they don’t belong. You know, one of the one of the organizations I’ve recommended Dr. Mauriello look into and I’ll recommend that the new director look into is the New Jersey Coalition of Inclusive Education that provides free professional development for teachers and staff and parents on how to include kids with disabilities in school. So they’re part of the school and not just a student who attends school. While a lot of the focus of the diversity, equity and inclusion has been on race and religion, and if you listen to the students that came and spoke about how they felt, I remember being at home listening to them saying someone has to listen to what these kids are saying because we’re missing something as a school district. Let’s listen to them. Let’s take the recommendation seriously. And let’s start working through them. It’s not an overnight process. It’s not something that next year, this time, everyone will be hunky dory. It’s going to be rough, I’m sure. I’m sure there are going to be people who are not going to be happy. But it will make for a better Verona in the end.


Candidate-Specific Questions

Your campaign slogan is “innovation, integrity, communication.” Can you give me one example of an innovation that you would like to bring to Verona public schools and why you think it would be beneficial?

I would like to expand some of the committees that the board has to include members of the community as advisory members, not as someone who gets to actually vote. I want to be very clear about that. I’ve seen it work in other school districts. I’ve seen it work in our town. Our town has several advisory committees, which present recommendations to the board. One of the things that I think really came out of COVID was that we realize what a great resource our town is. We have some incredibly talented, intelligent people that work and live in Verona. So let’s tap into them when we can as a resource. You know, an example would be the committee to return to school, so you know that everyone had their own committee. And, I mean, I wasn’t on one of those committees, but my husband was and I remember, listening as I was doing things and hearing the suggestions from other other community members; simple things like how to rearrange furniture, how are they going to figure out how to do all this, making suggestions about how to facilitate getting back to school. I think that there was a lot that we can learn from each other and there’s a lot the board can learn from the community, if we just listen and work with them and not be separate from them, but let the community be a part of our conversation.

You are an advocate for students with learning differences in and out of the Verona School District. As a BOE member, how would you balance the needs of those students with the needs of the general education population?

Well, I don’t think they’re as separate as people believe they are. Every child deserves a free and appropriate public education is the hallmark of the IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], the federal law that oversees our special education laws. Advocating for special education students also means advocating for general education students in a way because the resources don’t have to be separate. They’re not separate. A student with a 504 plan is a gen ed student with an accommodation plan. So they are one in the same. A student with an IEP [Individualized Educational Plan] may also be a student that’s in general education classes. So if we make our general education classes better, then we will also by default, make our special education program better. Now in terms of educating for two different students, I have a child who’s an accelerated student and a child who has an IEP. I can advocate equally for both of them. Funding is what it is, and I think that there are areas in special education where we can streamline and use less money towards certain things. But I’m gonna advocate for students first and foremost, whether you’re a gen ed student, whether you’re a gifted student. Our gifted students get hardly anything. There is no real gifted student program in Verona. At the last board meeting, I actually asked about that because there was an agenda item about the criteria for the gifted student program and it was like, we have a gifted student program? What’s the program? Just because I advocate for special ed, as a professional, doesn’t mean I’m not going to advocate for your gifted kid, as a Board of Ed member. You can do all that in terms of students. I’m going to advocate to make Verona the best possible school district they can be for all our kids.

What do you hope will be on the agenda of Verona’s new director of special services, and what will you be bringing to that agenda?

First and foremost, I want a director who will listen to the parents. You know, we have these public CPAC meetings and, as a board member I, with the other board members, we fought to have them more frequently. At one point, we had one a year and we were up to three a year this year. We’d like to see them more frequent, to be honest. So I think listening to the parents about the needs of their kids is first and foremost. It doesn’t make sense to put together these great programs if you don’t have parents who want to send their kids to these programs. Second, we send a lot of students out of district. I think we’re at like 31 that are officially being set out of district*. I can pretty much guarantee there are others that Verona is partially paying for to be sent out of district, but they don’t appear as students being sent out of district due to the way the settlement agreements are written. So I would like to see why we’re sending students out of district and I would advocate for a new director to take a good look at the data. Who are we sending out a district? Why are we sending them out of district? Are there students that we can bring back to district and educate them appropriately? You know, I would never advocate to bring a student back that can’t be educated appropriately in a school district. But there are some students that are being sent out. A good example is a kid with dyslexia. We have students that are being sent to schools for kids with dyslexia. They’re great schools. I advocate for students to go to them every day. Verona spent a lot of money educating teachers on Orton-Gillingham, which teaches kids with dyslexia. But yet there are students in Verona who can’t access those teachers, even though they have dyslexia. So why are we doing that? Why can’t we reconfigure this to make it so that every kid who has been diagnosed with dyslexia, if it’s appropriate, will have access to an Orton-Gillingham trained teacher? Then we might prevent that kid from being sent out of district, which can be a significant savings. You know, some of these schools run fifty, sixty, $70,000 a year plus transportation. I would advocate for the director to take a look at all our programs and take a look at what we’re doing and how we can save some money by appropriately bringing kids back or not sending kids out in the first place because every kid deserves to be educated with their neighbors with the kids they play Little League with.

* School officials say that Verona has 29 out-of-district placements.

One of the points on your platform is communications. We seem to be inundated with communications these days on every possible device. What would you do to cut through some of that to make sure that messages get heard?

I think we have too many. We get Friday Folder, we get stuff from the teachers. There needs to be a way to streamline all of this. Second, the communications have to be appropriately timed, and they have to be complete. A good example would be the laptop issue, the Chromebooks, and I raised this at one of the board meetings. In August, we get this email that now everyone has to use a Chromebook that’s provided by the school district. A lot of parents purchase a laptop for their child to bring to school, and it would have been nice for that communication to come earlier, before parents had spent that money. So looking at the whole at the whole scheme of communications. When is it an appropriate time to send communications and what did those communications say? We get a Friday Folder and, I’m gonna be honest, I don’t read it. I don’t know anyone who does read it. I feel that it’s often repetitive of stuff that we’ve already seen. So let’s see what actually gets read. I’m sure there’s a way you can see how many people click on things. Let’s figure out a way to cut out the noise. We can make a page that if parents want to get more information, they could just go to this page. If you’re a busy parent, like many of our parents are two parents working with multiple kids, you just want to know when photo day is, when the field trips are, and that’s all you can handle.

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