Two out of three incumbents were reelected this month to the West Windsor-Plainsboro School Board, but the results offered little clarity on the district’s curriculum controversy.
Plainsboro incumbent Yu “Taylor” Zhong garnered 2,793 votes, more than his three competitors combined. Newcomer Russel Melville finished second ahead of former board member Todd Hochman and newcomer Shrenik Dagli.
In West Windsor, incumbent Louisa Ho, who voted in favor of curriculum changes to lighten students’ workloads, was the top vote-getter at 3,816, or 24.16 percent of all votes.
Elected to the other West Windsor seat though, was Carol Herts, who along with her running mate Debra Marinsky, has been openly critical of Superintendent Dr. David Aderhold. They have also called the board a “rubber stamp” that has ignored the voices of the public while “pushing through” the administration’s agenda.
Herts received 3,763 votes, while Marinsky missed out with 3,632.
Herts has been a vocal opponent of the curriculum changes, and Marinsky, a retired librarian from High School South, during the campaign emphasized the “growing dissatisfaction of teachers.” A campaign mailer from the two pledged to reverse recent changes and “bring back excellence.” Another said: “Address stress without hindering achievement. Children first!”
“We tried to offer the voters a clear choice,” Herts said. “I believe that we put out more information than any other candidate and we tried to be open on our positions. Our campaign was based on facts on education and our district.”
“I will work very hard to listen to and represent the community for the benefit of all children, parents, and residents,” she added.
But the fact that Ho was the top vote-getter seems to indicate that the community is divided at best.
“The community has spoken,” said Ho. “Now we all need to work together to heal the divisions in our community and move forward together. I think the leaders of the community need to do a better job of communicating so we can have a common understanding of facts and also an understanding of what people’s concerns are and why they care about those things.”
Ho and her running mate, former board member Richard Kaye — he finished fourth with 3,185 votes — pegged themselves as “honesty and civility” candidates. Both said the administration needs to improve communication with the community, but they emphasized the continued excellence of the school district.
Herts will replace incumbent Scott Powell, who finished a distant fifth with only 976 votes, ahead of Mirna White, who got 424. While Powell has voted against the budget in recent years, he voted in favor of most administration initiatives, including the curriculum changes.
Herts represents a far more adversarial board member than Powell. Asked after the election about perceptions that she ran a negative campaign, Herts said, “Our campaign was based on facts and positive. We never talked about the other candidates, except to note how they voted.”
She said that a top priority is for the school board to have more transparency. “They need to listen to concerns from students, parents, teachers in community,” Herts said. “The first time a major decision is on the agenda, that is the first time the public has seen it. They should not vote on it until it has been on the agenda at least twice. I think the board should discuss serious issues in the board meetings and they should also find a way to acknowledge and/or respond to public comments.”
School board elections intensify
There were a large number of lawn signs in both towns this year’s election — but few of them were for presidential candidates. Instead, both townships were blanketed with school board signs.
The 2014 school board campaign was the first in recent memory to prominently feature lawn signs for school board, and two years later November school board races have only intensified. The days of running a school board race with only a few hundred dollars of personal funds may well be over.
“The level of campaigning has clearly gone to another level,” Ho said. “The message is that campaigning matters. Herts and Marinsky spent more money, rang more doorbells and mailed out at least two fliers.”
Herts said she and Marinsky had to go the extra mile because they were were running for public office for the first time.
“The reason we had to spend money was because we had no name recognition,” Herts said. Asked how much she raised, Herts said she was not the treasurer and did not know.
Herts said that she had knocked on 1,831 doors since August, while Marinsky knocked on 1,200 doors.
Financial disclosure reports filed with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission 11 days before the election report that Herts and Marinsky raised almost $5,000 in contributions. In addition, Herts lent the campaign $1,242 and Marinsky lent it $1,747.
As of a report filed 29 days before the election with ELEC, Ho had lent her campaign $1,500 and transferred $3,275 from her previous campaign. She reported no expenditures at that point, and there was no 11-day pre-election report on record. No other candidates in either town filed finance reports with the state.
In Plainsboro, the signage seems to have worked for Zhong, whose signs were among the most numerous in both townships. Despite being a Plainsboro candidate, Zhong’s signs popped up at intersections in the Princeton Junction area.
Zhong said he raised “a few thousand dollars” for this campaign and printed around 200 signs. When he ran in 2013, he spent $200.
The 2013 board race was the last election without election signage. In West Windsor that year, Ho and Scott Powell triumphed over YZ Zhang and a fourth candidate. Zhang ran again in 2014, raising at least $8,700 en route to edging out incumbent Kaye.
On the board for nearly a decade, for Kaye the 2014 election was the first time he purchased lawn signs. He says he teamed up with Dana Krug and purchased 50. This year Kaye ran alongside Ho and he spent $800 on fliers and 100 signs.
“I think these elections have been for too much money, are too contentious and not based on facts,” Kaye said.
Ho spent $300 in her sign-free 2013 campaign. This year? She estimates between $3,000 and $4,000. Asked how many signs she purchased, Ho said, “If everyone else tells you, I’ll tell you my number.”
Powell has declined to keep up with the Joneses. He spent zero dollars on his campaign, the same figure as his previous three runs for school board. Why choose not to ratchet up the expenditures?
“It’s principle. I have put time into campaigning but it is not something to put money in,” Powell said. “School board is a volunteer job. I don’t get anything out of it aside from the emotional award of contributing to the community.”
In addition to increasing election expenses, this election also featured strange bedfellows. Two officers of the West Windsor Republican Club, Marshall Lerner and Virginia Manzari, sent out an email in support of Herts and Marinsky.
This isn’t the first instance of partisan involvement in a school board election. In 2014 incumbent Rachel Feldman-Hurwitz received endorsements from Democratic state legislators, while Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh attended a fundraiser for Zhang.
Asked for her thoughts on opponents receiving partisan support, Ho said, “My understanding is it’s supposed to be a nonpartisan election. Neither party endorsed either candidates. Individuals are free to endorse who they want to.”
The mystery letter
This year, Herts, Marinsky and Zhong appear to have received backing from members of the Chinese immigrant community. The News obtained a copy of a Chinese-language letter circulated in the community, and apparently targeted to be sent to Chinese voters. The letter does not identify the author and does not have a “paid for” statement, which is required by law to be on all campaign materials.
Written completely in traditional Chinese, save for several descriptive terms such as names, the letter called on “Asian parents” to vote for Zhong, Herts and Marinsky, identifying the three as candidates who “listen to our voice” and align with “our educational ideas.”
The letter lists the campaign website of Herts and Marinsky, noting that their “educational ideas” include better communication and transparency from the district, valuing and improving educational quality without raising taxes, and improving math education.
The letter notes that the board of education has the power to hire the district’s superintendent. It begins by weaving a narrative, asserting that the school district has “canceled” subjects and programs that “Asian students are adept at.” The changes by district, the letter states, have occurred during the past three years “under the guise of reducing stress.”
“The district demonizes Asian students with good grades and does not consider them to be well rounded students,” continues the letter. Attempts by “Asian parents” to engage the administration on policy changes have been “ignored, even laughed at,” and the letter inserts an anti-Chinese comment attributed to the superintendent. In addition, the letter states that questions and ideas from “Asian parents” have been “met with silence” by “a majority of board members.”
Asked about the letter, Herts said, “I don’t write or speak Chinese. I don’t know anything about it.”
She also said that her campaign was “totally separate” from Zhong’s campaign.
Marinsky also said the letter is “nothing I had any knowledge about.”
Asked about the letter, Zhong said, “I saw it a week before the election. I had nothing to do with it.”
He considered the letter a “West Windsor controversy” and not related to his own Plainsboro race, though he declined to discuss further.
“In Plainsboro I’m the incumbent. I can work with everyone,” Zhong said. “Yes the letter endorsed me and not the other candidate. From a candidate’s standpoint of course I support that.”
Asked about the contents of the letter, Zhong said he only checked to see who the letter supported and he does not know its origins.
Zhong asked The News not to write about the letter because it would further divide the community. He also said he might not answer future phone calls from the News if there was coverage about the letter.
“I serve people of all background and I want to have a peaceful relationship with everyone,” Zhong said.