SCOTCH PLAINS — Candidates for the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education (BOE) gathered for a virtual “meet the candidates” night on Tuesday.
Six candidates are vying for three open Scotch Plains spots on the board. Incumbent candidates include Dr. Karen Kulikowski, board president; Tonya Williams and Debora Brody, who is running for a third term. The three challengers are Timothy John Mehl, Dr. David Levine and Michael Gromeck. There are no open Fanwood seats this year.
The forum was sponsored by the PTA Council and moderated by Susan Ferris Rights from the League of Women Voters. Candidates each gave an opening statement, answered pre-submitted questions from the community, and had a chance for rebuttal. They also provided closing statements.
Mr. Gromeck was unable to attend the event due to a “professional engagement,” but sent in a statement that was read by Ms. Rights. Mr. Gromek feels his experience as a police officer can help with any safety issues and can be an asset to negotiating contracts with staff.
Questions covered many of the topics that have peppered BOE meetings over the last year, such as diversity education, transparent communication, and the mental health of students and staff.
Three questions were posed about diversity. The first focused on diversity training for staff and district initiatives. Dr. Kulikowski said the board has implemented some initiatives already, among them a more diverse book list that addresses different cultures. Ms. Williams said the initiatives are “absolutely needed” and Ms. Brody said it is an important issue because it is about the “safety and comfort” of all students. Dr. Levine said learning about the experiences of others in the community is “never a negative.” Mr. Mehl said it was important to remember that training should be for staff and not for students, as there had been some miscommunication about that in the past.
Candidates also were asked about their own training regarding diversity and inclusion, particularly with community members with different backgrounds than their own. Dr. Levine, a local pediatrician, said he serves on the board of Postpartum Support International, which expanded its outreach to families from many different backgrounds. Ms. Brody and Dr. Kulikowski said they would use their prior life experience as well as seeking out new professional development opportunities. Ms. Williams spoke about her position as the chair for the BOE’s Wellness and Equity Committee. Mr. Mehl said he has had diversity, equity and inclusion training as part of his job, and that “empathy, caring and sympathy go a long way.”
The third aspect was about recruiting a more diverse staff that reflects the diversity of the student population. Ms. Brody, Dr. Kulikowski and Ms. Williams all spoke about Human Resources Director Peter Pitucco’s efforts to expand the district’s recruitment process. Some of the ways in which Mr. Pitucco is working to engage with a more diverse staff include attending different college fairs, partnering with new colleges and advertising in newspapers. Mr. Mehl said new software that can help run diversity metrics may help expedite the process, and Dr. Levine said the district should look into some non-traditional recruitment.
As for communication, Mr. Mehl and Dr. Levine want more open discussion with the public at board meetings and would like the board to meet with parents one on one to hear concerns. Mr. Mehl also suggested streamlining messages to the community across all communication pathways, including social media, to lessen any chance of misinformation.
Dr. Kulikowski, Ms. Williams and Ms. Brody rebutted the idea of meeting one on one with parents, as boards act as a whole and cannot legally sit one on one with the community to discuss school matters. The three incumbents also acknowledged that the district has more to do to improve its communication channels, such as more consistent messaging at the school level, but has made improvements over the past year. Ms. Brody said the board “made great strides” on social-media platforms. Dr. Kulikowski and Ms. Williams also mentioned launching a newsletter.
All the candidates cited student health as an important issue, particularly mental health. As two recent initiatives to address this issue, Ms. Williams said the district has hired student assistance counselors for each of the elementary schools and has a partnership with Rutgers. Dr. Levine said he would like the district to explore pushing back the start time at the high school, as studies have shown later start times lead to better sleep and mental health in teens.
Another question asked the candidates for their thoughts on the new construction at the former Bowcraft and Parker Gardens sites and how that would affect the schools. Dr. Kulikowski said the district is looking to hire a demographer to assess the impact of those buildings and that the board would have to get data on the best way possible to address the changes, whether that would be redistricting, adding on to current schools or building a new one. Ms. Brody said the district has always been creative in trying to solve these types of issues, pointing to the cottages at Terrill Middle School, and said her career experience in finance can help the district navigate the solutions. Mr. Mehl said the district would need to be careful about how to finance any changes.
Candidates also discussed technology improvement, transportation difficulties, and their thoughts on the biggest challenges facing the district. For a complete viewing, visit the SPF BOE YouTube page.