MooreUnity embracing diversity & facilitating unity

We didn't have time to answer the following questions during the BOE Candidate Forum. See below to see the responses candidates submitted. If you're a Facebook user, you can watch the entire Forum on Facebook by going to the public page for MooreUnity. (You will need to scroll down a bit to get to it.) Please "like and follow" us on Facebook!

Question Sandra Alberti
Mark Snyder
www.marksnyderboe.com

 Mark Villanueva Mick Weeks

How would you improve community engagement in School Board-related activities (since parents are already heavily involved in school activities?

Since I have been on the board we have really thought a great deal about better community engagement.  We have opened up Community Engagement Forums about 4 times per year.  We have increased our use of social media as a district and have encouraged more regular communication from the central office including monthly messages and newsletters. 

Having the community engaged in the board’s work and able to access pertinent information is vital to a well-functioning board.  That engagement can be fostered with a culture of accessibility.  I support a culture where the community feels comfortable asking questions of the board and expecting transparency in their operations.  I would also advocate to increase the ways that the information could be disseminated.  Options like recording and posting board meetings on the internet would give people an opportunity to view the meeting when they physically cannot attend. 

The best way the Board can improve community engagement is through transparency.  I have tried to increase the Board’s transparency by publishing columns in the Moorestown Sun and engaging community members in discussions regarding the issues facing the Board.  I think it is important for the community to understand all views on certain issues, as constructive dissent and disagreement will foster open conversations about Board related issues. 


By way of example, I have different views on the proposed $26 million construction project, and have been open in discussing my concerns regarding whether we have enough information to demonstrate that there is a need for this project at this time, and whether the proposed scope of the project is appropriate.  I have had vibrant conversations with community members who, regardless of whether they agree with me or not, are appreciative of the open and transparent approach I take on this issue.


DuringmytenureaschairoftheCommunicationscommitteewestartedtheCommunityEngagementForumwhichhasreachedparents,students,teachers,andmembersofthecommunitywhodonotregularlyattendboardmeetings.Duetothesuccesswearelookingatpartneringwithothergroupsandorganizationsintowntopossiblyco-hostforums.Additionallyweareencouragingmoreandbetterusageofsocialmediatoincreaseengagementaswell. 


Taxes, taxes—Every year these go up.  What opportunities are there to stop the increases?  Regionalization?  Benefit Reductions? 

This is really a big challenge.  The fact of the matter is that public schools are supported by public dollars.  In Moorestown we get minimal money from the state so the majority of funding required to run our schools comes from local taxes.  That being said, we work closely with the administration every year to contain costs, prioritize spending, look for efficiencies, and even opportunities to generate revenue. 

I would be open minded when it comes to how best to fund our schools.  My experiences being what they are, I am interested in learning how the school can best supplement its costs.  It seems to me investing in the infrastructure of the schools to create more opportunities for revenue would be prudent considering the need for classroom and gymnasium time outside of the normal school day.  The realities of the cost of operating the schools make it difficult to keep taxes fixed.  I appreciate the need to carefully considering the resources we have as well as the opportunities to best serve our students responsibly.   

The Board should enter every budget season with an eye towards zero tax increases to our taxpayers.  We should examine more ways in which to generate revenue from sources other than property taxes, and we must consider ways in which to control our expenses.  Unlike other candidates, I do not believe the Board is obligated to impose the maximum tax increase year over year.  I believe the opposite is true, and the Board must evaluate ways in which to reduce the tax burden on Moorestown’s taxpayers. 

The reality is that despite significant efforts almost all costs for operating our schools increase on a
regular basis. Through the last rounds of labor negotiations and bidding for materials and services the
board has sought to find efficiencies and cost savings. Each year I have been on the board we have
approached the budget by examining what can be done differently and or better with an eye towards
how costs are affected. In the end we are usually faced with making cuts (as we did with programs and
staff last year) just to balance the budget even fully utilizing the 2% cap. I believe that our role is to be
both good stewards of the resources our community provides and supportive of providing a high quality
educational experience. I am extremely hesitant to compromise on either end of that responsibility.
The data says later start times would benefit grades and health of students.  What are your feelings?

Our schools do certainly have a lot of pressures and constraints.  Part of the challenge is how best to balance the needs of all students, the community, what we know from research, etc.  Most decisions have levels of complexity that are often considered.  In the case of start times there are implications on busing, on after school activities such as athletics as well as after school employment.  I do think there are additional options to school start times that could support the grades and health of students.  Many of those are part of our district’s work around Social and Emotional Learning. 

School start times have unfortunately evolved in the United States educational system in a way that is not ideally suited for the health and well-being of most students.  If you were starting a school from scratch, you would more likely have elementary schools start earliest and cycle up to high school as they are developmentally more inclined for cognitive gains at different times of the day.  Our society and the extra-curricular activates for children have evolved around our schools, making a change very difficult.  The logistics of moving high school activities and sports practices to before school would be challenging.  Starting elementary schools earlier would also necessitate more after school child-care as those students cannot look after themselves.  I would be open to any conversation where the goal is an improved education for our students. 

I have heard that data supports this notion, but before making any significant schedule change, I would want confirmation that later start times would, in fact, benefit our students, and I would want a better understanding of the potential downsides.  One issue I envision with later start times is coordinating such a schedule with other Districts.  For students that participate in extra-curriculars, we would need to ensure that activities, such as athletic events, are scheduled and coordinated in sync with other District schedules.  Another issue to be mindful of is the transportation schedule.  Any shift in start times would have an impact on our bus routes, which would need to be addressed.  But another potential benefit of starting the high school later than the middle school would be reduced traffic at the shared campus.  In short, I would support later start times if the data supports the benefits.

I have seen this information and agree with this conclusion. I think it is a matter of when, not if we need to explore how to make adjustments to the start times for our schools, especially for our older students. This needs to be considered in totality with other positive engagements for our students that could be affected, specifically extra-curricular after-school activities. We should have conversations with our community about how to achieve a balance and can hopefully work with our colleagues in other districts to minimize impacts with inter-school engagements. 


Do you think the Board should present a unified front to the public (not saying all have to vote the same way).  Do you think it’s a collaborative Board now (from what you know), and how might you improve it?

I absolutely value diversity of opinions on the board.  As board president one of my responsibilities is to determine who serves on which committees.  I have always considered diversity of perspectives and knowledge in making these decisions.  That being said,  we do operate as a single body.  On school boards no individual has authority.  Our authority only exists as our whole entity.  For the most part we are collaborative.  We are trying to improve our communications regarding issues by opening up opportunities to meet and share information prior to meetings and prior to decision making.  I think there is always opportunity to improve, but I do think we are fortunate in that all members of the board are committed and passionate about our schools. 

I believe that a diverse set of interpretations from the same set of shared facts is a good thing when making decisions.  Having respectful differences are helpful when in discussions and all board members should feel comfortable sharing their interpretations.  Once the board has voted, I would endeavor to focus on ways I could mitigate the concerns that would have prompted my vote of dissension.  As I am not on the board currently, I have witnessed many instances of collaboration during the public meetings.  I believe that all of the current board members honestly want the best for our schools and students.  It is that belief in a shared goal that enables collaboration on various initiatives and projects despite any disagreements that may occur. 

While I think it is important that the Board arrive at a consensus on many of the issues before it, I do not think a Board member must surrender his or her independent judgment simply to provide a unified front to the public.  Transparency and communication with the community is crucial, and the community has a right to know the reasons behind dissenting Board members’ opinions.  I have been vocal in my disagreement with the bond referendum not because I expect people to agree with me, but because I think it is important for the public to understand that there are views on the referendum different than the one that is (rather effectively) being marketed.

 

Regarding the second part of the question, I think there can be significant improvement to ensure that all Board members are kept apprised of the status of significant Board related matters.

I think it is important for members of the community to understand what each board member believes in and that board members should be faithful advocates for what motivates them to serve. Additionally, I think it is imperative for the board to work collectively to provide the best educational opportunities and solutions in a fiscally responsible manner while upholding the highest ethical standards. However each of us is just one member of a nine-member, majority rules body. Therefore I think the best way to approach this is to convince at least four (if not all eight) of my fellow board members that what I am advocating should be part of the solution. Failing that, I can continue to advocate but also need to recognize that the board has chosen a direction through a fair and clear process and respect that. That is the design and intent of the structure of school boards in my understanding. 


Given that the Referendum will either be passed or declined by the time this election term starts…If approved, how will you support it?  If denied, what will you do next?

If the referendum is approved, it will be important to provide a level of oversight on the work being done.  Our last referendum was very well managed from a budgetary and timing perspective, and I hope that we are as diligent in the projects ahead of us.  In addition it will be critical to keep the community aware of the plans and progress. While a lot of what we have discussed has to do with physical construction of educational spaces, I view this referendum as an opportunity to think about school cultures of  lower elementary, upper elementary and true middle school models.  I do see that as an opportunity for community input and look forward to that.  If denied, I think we need to make some hard decisions about how we use space currently which likely means much less flexibility of space, likely larger class sizes, and unfortunately splitting siblings up in the lower elementary schools more often as we almost had to do for this current school year. 

If I am elected, I would take office after the referendum had been decided.  I have gone into this process with the understanding that I would either get to help with the logistical planning and implementation of the changes proposed, or to help craft a new plan to help alleviate the growing space concerns in the lower elementary schools.  I would pay close attention to the aspects of the referendum that gave me pause, such as the moving of 3rd grade to the UES, etc.  I would see this as an opportunity and give the re-distributing of grades the thoughtful consideration is requires.  As I am not on the board, I am not well versed in the various other options and alternate methods of dealing with those concerns that the


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While I have serious questions about the need for and scope of the construction project, if the referendum is passed, I will fully support the implementation of the project.  I will do everything I can to make the project have the best outcome for our students. I am particularly concerned about shifting third graders to UES, and will pay close attention to the implementation of that significant structural change.

 

If the referendum does not pass, we can address any space limitations by examining our current use of space and adjusting accordingly.  We currently have several hundred students less than what we had in 2009, and we should be able to find space to accommodate our students. Simultaneously, the District can engage an expert to perform a population study – something that has not yet been done – to provide clarity as to whether, when, and the potential impact of, a population increase. 

previously considered.  As those issues will have to be addressed, coming up with another solution would become a priority for the board. 

My hope and expectation is that it will be approved and we can then undertake the work of implementing it effectively and faithfully. I am convinced of the need for what the referendum includes and feel that it will help address many of our most pressing concerns. With the support it provides for maintaining our systems, adding and improving existing space, and enhancing security we can move forward with plans to continue to evolve the delivery of instruction. Should the referendum not pass we will need to continue to advocate for ways to address the needs that will still exist in those realms. Unfortunately delays could result in increased costs. Worse still, there could be missed opportunities to implement instructional improvements in a more timely manner. 


Part of the district’s mission consists of the value of equity.  What are the candidates’ plans to address better representation of people of color, specifically teachers in the lower schools?

We have collaborated around this issue with other districts in the state, joining an official partnership to focus on recruitment, and attending statewide meetings to learn about best practices in this area.  We continue to monitor our hiring practices to ensure that we are not only unbiased in our hiring decisions, but that we also encourage candidates of color in applying for our open positions. 

There are two main ways to think about how we can have better representation of people of color in our faculty.  The first is to continue to create a culture of engagement for minority students so they believe a career in education could be for them.  I have no reason to believe that this culture does not exist in Moorestown Public Schools.  The other is too better attract worthy candidates and then retain those who are hired.  Some districts have individualized the induction process for new teachers to help them specifically deal with issues of minority engagement.  Other suggestions would be to help connect teachers of color with other colleagues in the state or to use minority facilitators for professional development.  Ultimately, the district should consult demographic data from neighboring counties to help set employment goals. 

As I said during the “Meet the Candidates” event, it is important that we foster a culture of diversity and inclusion within our schools.  Students, teachers, and every person within our schools should feel comfortable in their own skin, and should feel free to express themselves regardless of race, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other background factor.  I am a member of both the Diversity Committee and Hiring Committee at my law firm, and, as a member of both of those committees, take conscious efforts to interview and hire candidates that value diversity and inclusion within the workplace.  While school board members are not directly involved in the process of hiring teachers, we can certainly emphasize our values of inclusion and ensure that our policies regarding diversity and inclusion are embraced by those in the District.

As I noted during the forum I believe that diversity makes organizations better when it is prioritized and executed well. It does not occur on its own or in a vacuum. Our district has done well in many areas related to diversity but can and should do more to encourage diversity in all levels including the elementary schools. Specifically we can encourage administration to continue to seek talent in places where diversity is also prioritized. We should be advocates for diversity as a district and community which will signal to the potential candidate pool that Moorestown is a place they should consider. 


When my daughter was a student here, she had to go before a panel of staff when she missed school for religious holidays.  Does that still exist? She was also benched when she missed a game for Passover. This is another aspect of diversity.

I don’t think this does exist anymore.  In my time on the board we have had several conversations about holidays – its implications on homework as well as on participation in extracurricular events.  I totally agree that this is an important aspect of leading a diverse school system.  We are becoming increasingly diverse, which is a great thing and we need to be aware of the many aspects of schools that need to be sensitive to that.  I sincerely hope that anyone who feels that they or their children have not been treated fairly due to religious beliefs – or any aspect of diversity – will reach out to the school.  This is a critical aspect of our role in serving the community and supporting our future. 

I appreciate that while students’ religious requirements will vary, all students should be afforded the opportunity to participate in their religious community fully.  The school must also work with the family to fulfill its requirements regarding student truancy.  I support both the school and the family in finding an amicable solution for the student, both academically and with regard to their extra-curricular activities. 

I cannot address the specific incidents in the question, but I would be happy to discuss the issue with the author privately if he or she would like to reach out to me separately.  I believe that religious holidays should be considered when extracurricular schedules are created, and I do not believe students should be punished for observing religious holidays.  As I said during the “Meet the Candidates” event, diversity and inclusion should be an integral part of our culture, which includes religion, race, color, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, family history, and many other factors that bring different viewpoints to our classrooms.  We need a culture that welcomes different viewpoints such that every person in our schools feels included and comfortable expressing themselves.

Board policy and administrative practice follows state guidelines for approved religious holidays. Additionally we have adopted practices and policies that further respect time off for religious holidays by precluding assignment of homework to be due immediately following the holiday. Students with needs outside of the established guidelines can seek accommodation and to my understanding there is rarely an issue receiving it. If there are continuing issues that administration has not adequately resolved please bring it to the boards’ attention.