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?
When I get asked that question, I think people come at it with the perspective that the Board of Education is much more intimately involved in the day-to-day of the school; they see the board as an activist board. And what I tried to describe, at least my understanding of what the board is, is that its responsibility is to put the administrators and the teachers and the students in the best positions to succeed. In other words, we need to make sure that they have the resources that the administrators and the teachers need to do their job, and that the students have an environment where they can focus on their main mission, which is to learn and find ways to be excited about learning. I think that the role of the school board is simply that: It is to put the key people in the school system in a position to succeed.
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?
It is a global problem. It’s not just a Verona problem. It’s not just a New Jersey problem. It’s not just an American problem. I think we all recognize this fact that we lost some ground, particularly in the areas involving reading, especially at the lower level. Anecdotally speaking, I hear from parents who feel that their children who weren’t great readers may have fallen back, maybe a year or so in their their reading skills. I would start with that. Everything comes off of that. I would love to see the administration find ways, very non-stressful ways to help those students get back on track with their reading programs. It’s going to have to take a public partnership, and one of the things that I was thinking about, again, at the very youngest level is the wonderful library programs that they used to have for toddlers at the Verona Library, and how that helped foster an initial joy for reading. I would love to see a partnership either through the Recreation programs or summer programs to provide these additional programs that help them in a stress-free environment. Get back on track with their reading skills in really a way that doesn’t feel punitive to them. And I think that that just comes from, again, using the model that they used at the library. It was just a wonderful program where it made the activity of learning and learning how to read fun, and I think that that would be a step in the right direction. As for the junior high and high school students, parents who have the means have been able to enlist tutors and to get caught up in their math skills so that they do not fall behind. And that’s great. But we need to recognize that not everybody in this town has access to those kinds of resources. I think that there are wonderful math tutoring programs, that if we can find a way to do some sort of partnership, again, to allow the students to find ways to supplement their current math to get back up to speed again. It’s going to cost money, and where we find that money, that’s, that’s a whole ‘nother challenge. But with our new business administrator, I think there are creative options to find funding to help students get back into the position so that they can succeed.
What should the role of parents be in public school education?
That’s going to depend on who you ask. There’s going to be millions of perspectives on that. For mine, I love to see parents involved in asking questions. Again, the school board meetings are a perfect forum for that, I think. Parents also need to be able to let their children have some sort of sense of agency. I would love to see parents be involved, ask the right questions and advocate for their children but also advocate for their children in such that they are building a level of agency and a level of independence so that they know how to learn to think for themselves. Every involved parent is showing that they are invested in their child’s success. And that’s great. I think the best thing that they can do is just simply show up, be involved, and ask questions to get to know their teachers and get to know their administrators. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an adversarial relationship, but just establish a line of communication. As a parent, I have made it a point to get to know the principal and have conversations; not necessarily interrogate them, but just have conversations that raise questions and concerns. With every principal, from Laning all the way through the junior high and high school, I have felt that, while we have never had always 100% agreement, I felt that I have been listened to. I think all parents really want is to be heard. If parents show that level of engagement, they’re going to find that our administrators are going recognize their concerns. I do hear from parents that their concerns aren’t always heard. And I think sometimes it’s because of how they are communicating with the schools. They should feel that there is an open door and that simply getting to know the people that you are working with goes a long way.
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 want to have a campaign that focuses on extreme positivity and a can-do attitude. One of the biggest frustrations for me is that there is a movement afoot to really get to the school board level and bring the national political issues, national cultural issues more front into our school boards, and frankly, I don’t think the school boards are a place for the culture battles. It leads to misinformation and a misunderstanding of what some of these programs are. So for example, just this week, there’s been a lot of hubbub about sex education in schools. And somehow this has become politicized. Verona schools’ curriculum on sex education, or family life, whatever we want to call it, has been relatively unchanged for the better part of two and a half decades. Somehow in the state of New Jersey, this has become a polarizing issue and it really shouldn’t be because if you look at the stats, an overwhelming majority of New Jersey parents support the notion of some form of age-appropriate sex education in the schools. So the question is, how is that gotten into? I’m not saying it’s necessarily the case in Verona but at least in New Jersey schools, how has that seeped into the conversation when people of all political persuasions agree that it’s an important issue. This Verona community has done a great job of coming together. People of all persuasions on the political spectrum have come together, whether it was through 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and so on, you walk around town and you see the “No one fights alone” signs in Verona, and it’s again people of all political persuasions. I would just remind people that, amid these divisive issues, we are stronger together. I think there are political forces at the national level that seek to divide, and the beauty of Verona is seen when we come together as one.
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?
The Grand River Solutions outreach was a wonderful idea. Diversity, equity and inclusion is part of my daily life where I work, whether it is my teaching job or in my advertising job, and then also part of my journalism job in the past. D & I should not be a divisive, polarizing issue because all it is doing is giving us a framework for how we want to relate with each other in our daily lives. Some people feel, wrongly, that they are being told they are doing something wrong. It is helping us learn about other communities that we may not have a full appreciation for. Verona is a diverse community, and I do hear unfortunate tales from families that feel excluded because of their backgrounds. We should always be welcoming of “the other” and what I mean by “the other” is just people that are coming from uncommon backgrounds. D & I serves as an opportunity for us to learn more broadly about our community and how we can help people. I just don’t see why it should be a divisive issue, because part of the learning process is really tied to feeling that you are in a safe environment. And again, I used this term earlier, you have agency and control over the direction of your life. If a single student feels that they cannot participate in whatever it is that they want to, then we are failing that student. No student should feel that they do not have access to the same opportunities that every single student that walks through our schools doors has. D&I goes a long way to helping those students feel as part of the process and feel truly part of our community, and that is our responsibility. Our job as a school board is to put students in the best place where they can succeed. D&I is an incredible tool that helps students feel that they are in a position to succeed. Also, I think it helps. It helps teachers build a better understanding of their students and where their students are coming from because not all students learn the same way. A better understanding of D&I can help our teachers learn how to better help the students as well. We are also doing our students a disservice by not providing them an entryway into D&I discussions. The minute they walk into a college or university or trade school or just go straight into work, they are going to be in an environment where D&I will matter even more in their daily work lives. In the corporate world, regardless of your profession, we have performance metrics that are tied into how well we work on D&I issues. And the sooner that the students understand that it is going to make them more productive in whatever educational or work journey that they pursue, the better.
You note that Verona schools now have a new superintendent, a new head of guidance, a new facilities director, a relatively new business administrator, and a new director of special services. How will you, as a new Board member, re-establish continuity and institutional knowledge about the district?
In my professional career, I have built teams from scratch. Here, we have a high highly qualified new team. And while I have, obviously, coming into it, the new and outside perspective, I also have 21 years of living in Verona. This is the one place that I have lived the longest my entire life and I have a good familiarity with the pulse of the town, with what is important to our parents, all the way from pre-K up through the high school and the college experience. Our new administrators are immensely talented at what they do. I think ironically, even though I am new, I do bring in some institutional knowledge to help them navigate the channels as they get themselves established. That is part of the responsibility of a school board, of helping put our administrators in a position to succeed. We might see things that they may not have recognized. We may help them identify the stakeholders that they want to consider when they are putting in a plan of action saying, “Hey, you didn’t think about this, this might have an impact here.” “How are we going to navigate that?” And so even though I am going to be a new face on the board, I think that having more than half of my life experience here in Verona will go a long way to helping navigate those initial channels.
You say that students who are somewhere in the middle can be at risk of “falling through the cracks.” What can you do as a BOE member to make sure that doesn’t happen?
Everything we’ve talked about is interconnected in some way. What I mean by that is, that there are students that are getting by. Inclusion and mental health services can go a long way to helping the student feel empowered. Sometimes people that are just getting by don’t necessarily know what questions that they should be asking; how should they approach their educational journey? With an environment where students feel included, regardless of their background and regardless of their educational success, they have a voice and they have a role. The more that people feel included, the more likely they are to be involved and excel. Everybody learns differently. As our administrators and as our teachers recognize that no one student learns the same, hopefully, they can calibrate their practices to approach a student in a different way of learning that can get them to the same success as a more traditional student. We are not having a cookie cutter process here. Through teacher training and through this D&I program, we can help teachers recognize that everybody approaches it a little different and give them the freedom to help those students navigate those channels.
What would you do to help Verona schools take advantage of trade educational programs and technical training opportunities?
There still seems to be a stigma on students who do not want to necessarily pursue a four-year college degree. If you look at the honor rolls of students in Verona and where they’re going to college, there’s some of the top schools in this country and, and if you want to pursue a trade, there is a bit of a stigma that maybe discourages students from wanting to pursue that, and then, therefore, they feel lost. There are tremendous amounts of opportunities for students that are interested in pursuing such careers and it’s just simply finding a way to communicate that more consistently and a way that the students feel, hey, this could be a great thing for me, this is the right fit, and encourage students to ask questions about that and find ways to alleviate the stigma. But the main thing is to make it clear where these programs are available and how they can help. There’s a vo-tech ed program in Bergen County and they have brought in an aeronautical engineering component into their school process. I would love to see that. That would lead to more partnerships with other institutions that can help us do that. You know, we have students who can take certain literature programs through Syracuse University, and those programs help them foster an interest in a particular humanities study. I would love to see us be able to do that with tech ed; there are engineering schools out there like NJIT that we can work with to provide that type of AP option for the mechanically inclined who want to get an early start on it. I’m talking as if I have unlimited money to spend, but I would love to see that happen because, again, not everybody learns the same way. Not everybody wants the same career. I would love to see AP-level programs that can also help students consider options that put them on a path pursuing those careers.
You say, in your platform, that while the shared services Verona schools get from town government are excellent, “they will not be enough to make up for the lack of tax revenue that won’t go to the schools.” How would you close the gap created by the PILOT program?
This is not something that I can do on my own; this comes into the realm of asking questions. Our friends up in Cedar Grove have a relationship with their town council and they are getting somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.2 to $1.5 million. Now the pilot program in Cedar Grove is a lot bigger. But if we’re able to work with Verona to get a percentage of that, I think that would be successful. That comes from our relationship with our Town Council. The town’s answer has always been well, you get shared services. That’s great, but it creates a little bit of murkiness in terms of the true value of it. It’s not to say that we should not appreciate it because I think it’s great. This ultimately is going to create pressure on the schools over the next decade as an influx of people come in. We welcome all newcomers, but we have to find a way of paying for them, and we are not going to be getting a like-for-like kind of contribution from them if they are in PILOT facilities. Eventually the PILOT program will go away, but the pressure is going to be on over the next decade and a half. We need to start having that conversation with the town, working with our business administrator, and saying these are the projections of what we are not getting. We need to find a way to close that gap.