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Scotch Plains School Board Winners Reflect On Success of Their Campaigns And Prepare to Address Issues


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The two incumbents and one newcomer elected April 15 to the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education reflected this week on their campaigns, along with issues they felt would be particularly important to administrators, staff and parents in the district over the next three years. They also discussed some of their goals in maintaining quality education for the district’s 4,254 students.

Board members August A. Ruggiero and Theresa Larkin were both reelected to three-year terms, as was first-time candidate Thomas Russo. All three represent Scotch Plains. In both the township and Fanwood, voters approved the tax levy for the $41.8 million school budget for 1997-1998, which represented an increase of 2.64 percent over the 1996-1997 spending plan.

The school board race this year featured eight candidates altogether, including outgoing Board Vice President Lillian M. Dettmar, who lost her bid for a sixth term, and newcomers Frances Gonzalez, Jean McAllister, Kristen Croag Paparella and Norman J. Ross.

Mr. Russo, a township attorney and a resident for more than 30 years, was the top vote getter in the school board race. He attributed his victory primarily to having lived in the community for so long and having been involved with a variety of local organizations.

The father of two young children said he also believes that his support for allowing more input by citizens and staff members in board decisions struck a chord with voters. During his campaign, he had advocated giving people with children currently enrolled in the school district a greater say in the shaping of district policies.

"My primary objective is to involve as many people as possible and to elicit as much input as possible from the public and staff regarding issues which come before the board, whether they be curriculum, budgetary or whatever," Mr. Russo stated, adding that he felt that greater accessibility will promote greater credibility for the board.

"I want citizens and staff to feel the board is accessible and that there are people on the board who want to listen, and that they will be treated with respect even if board members don’t agree," Mr. Russo continued.

The newest member of the board said that he is "looking forward to getting started," and reported that he has already received a batch of calls from people eager to discuss education concerns with him. "I hope to remain available to as many people as possible even if I may not agree with them on every issue," he said.

Among the issues Mr. Russo said he expects to concentrate on during his first term on the board are maintaining educational programs in light of reduced non-restricted state aid and other limitations. He described the task of controlling costs in order to preserve programs and services as one of the "primary challenges" which the board will be facing.

Mrs. Larkin said she believes that "people like what has been going on for three years and they want it to continue." The board member based her campaign platform on maintaining class size, providing high quality education at the lowest possible cost and keeping the lines of communication open between the board and the community.

Mrs. Larkin noted that, through her own family, she is personally involved in each level of education in the district. She has a son who will be a freshman at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in September, a daughter who will be in the sixth grade at Terrill Middle School and another daughter who will be in the third grade at Coles Elementary School.

During her first term, Mrs. Larkin served on the board’s negotiating team during contract talks last year with the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Education Association (SPFEA). She is also the board’s Liaison to the district’s Parent-Teacher Association Council and the Municipal Alliance Committee. She is also a member of the Coles Elementary School and Terrill Middle School PTAs and the Terrill School Music Boosters.

The board member said she believes a key concern for the district is the pending Supreme Court decision, expected in September, on whether Governor Christine Todd Whitman’s Core Curriculum Standards provides a "thorough and efficient" education for students in the state’s 28 special needs districts as well as suburban districts such as Scotch Plains-Fanwood.

Among her goals for her second term, explained Mrs. Larkin, are to continue the "infusion of technology" into classrooms in order to prepare students for careers in the next millennium, and to maintain "consistent high standards across the district," as well as a "continuation of all the good things which are going on right now."

According to Mrs. Larkin, these things include such concepts as the mini-grants program. The board allocates funds in its annual budget for the program, which allows any teacher in the district who has an idea they may want to use in the classroom to apply for a mini-grant. If the proposal is approved, the money is granted for the project. "Some wonderful programs have come out of it," Mrs. Larkin commented.

She noted that some of these programs are the weather station at Evergreen Elementary School and the "Accelerated Reader" program involving elementary-level software designed to boost youngsters’ interest and skills in reading. "It’s been so successful in helping kids to learn better, to read better, and to comprehend better what they’re reading," the school board member observed.

She predicted that there would be a "smooth transition" on the board as she and Mr. Ruggiero begin their terms and Mr. Russo embarked on his first term as a member of the board, and she anticipated that board representatives would "work together as well as we did in my first term."

Mr. Ruggiero has played many roles during his tenure on the board, including having been elected board President five times. Mr. Ruggiero, who currently heads the board’s Administrative Negotiations Committee, is the former Chairman of the Policy, Budget, Curriculum and Instruction, and Superintendent’s Evaluation Committees. He is also a past and present member of various other committees.

He chalked up his most recent victory to his long experience on the board, and stated that his priorities continue to be the education of children and careful attention to how taxpayers’ money is spent. Mr. Ruggiero said he believed that uncertainty regarding state funding, and its potential impact on educational programs and class size, are of major concern to the district right now.

Among the issues the board will be focusing upon in the coming months, according to Mr. Ruggiero, are contract negotiations with the SPFEA which are scheduled to begin in the fall, as well as pending staff retirements.

In October, Assistant Superintendent for Business Richard J. Marshall is expected to begin a two-year reduced role in preparation for his eventual retirement, according to Mr. Ruggiero. He said that Mr. Marshall, who will continue to be involved in administrative duties on a limited basis during this transition period, has consistently demonstrated "excellence" in carrying out his responsibilities to the district.

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