Four candidates, including two incumbents, are running this year for seats on the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education. Roy Dollard, who has served on the board continuously since 2008, chose not to run for reelection.
Hopewell Township resident Darius Matthews, 36, was born in Flint, Michigan. He graduated from Shrine High School in Royal Oak, Michigan before attending the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business, where he earned a master’s in business administration.
Matthews is senior director of operations for Bertelsmann, Inc. He has lived in Hopewell with wife Julia and children Leopold, 4 (in the Bear Tavern Elementary School PEECH Program), Kostas, 2, and Felix, 2 months. This is his’ first time running for an elected position.
Incumbent Alyce Murray, 47, resides in Pennington. She was born in Englewood and graduated from High Point Regional High School in Wantage. She has lived in the Hopewell Valley since 1994 and been a member of the school board since 2015. She is currently the board’s vice president.
Murray is a sales agent for Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty’s Pennington office and owner of 6 Silo Personal Fitness Studio. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology from The College of New Jersey. Her husband, Brad Murray, is director of engineering for ALC in Plainsboro. Her children are Steven Doldy, a junior in the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps; Derek Doldy, a freshman in the Naval Sea Cadet Corps; Faith Doldy, a 7th grader at Timberlane; Kevin Murray, a junior; and Caitlin Murray, a sophomore at Georgetown University.
Murray was a member of the Toll Gate Grammar School Parent Advisory Committee in 2011. She was elected to Pennington Borough Council in 2010, but resigned before completing her term after moving from Pennington to Hopewell Township.
Hopewell Township resident Adam Sawicki, 51, an incumbent, was born in Summit. He graduated from Union High School in Union before attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received bachelor and master of science degrees in aeronautics and astronautics. He also has an MBA from Villanova University.
Sawicki, 51, has lived in the Hopewell Valley since 1997. He is a technical fellow in mechanical and structural engineering with The Boeing Company. He is married to wife Michele Ruiz, a dentist, and has children Grace (a freshman at Cornell University), Erik (a junior at CHS), as well as Emilie and Christopher, both 8th graders at Timberlane.
Sawicki is a member of the Timberlane Middle School and Hopewell Elementary School Science Fair committees. He is a Capital Health Carnival volunteer, Bear Tavern Elementary STEM program scientific community presenter, and an MIT educational counselor for Mercer County. He is also chairman of ASTM Committee D30 on Composite Materials.
Sawicki has run for and won a seat on the school board twice, in 2011 and 2014.
Sarah Tracy, 52, has lived in Hopewell Township since 2014. The Bridgeton native graduated from Cumberland Regional High in Seabrook and is currently president and founder of JBS Business Consulting.
Tracy graduated from Rider University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She and wife Kristen (Kiki) Enderle are parents to three children who attend Toll Gate Grammar School: Jagger, a third grader; and twins Cole and Peyton, first graders. Enderle is regional sales manager for PlayOn! Sports.
Tracy is seeking an elected position for the first time.
The Hopewell Express sent six questions to the candidates and asked them to respond via email. Their answers are below. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.
1. New Jersey property taxes are the highest in the country and school budgets make up the largest portion. What are your thoughts about our school taxes?
Matthews: I sometimes find it difficult to digest that almost 40 percent of my monthly mortgage payment is allocated to taxes. But I also realize that our schools are one of the reasons that we moved here in the first place. For a municipality to have one of the best school districts in the state (which also drives property values higher) requires financial commitments from residents. It is incumbent upon the school board to allocate resources to schools to be used judiciously while enabling a top-notch educational experience for Hopewell students.
Murray: In the absence of an alternate method of school funding to significantly decrease property taxes, I appreciate the results of our tax investment to support our High Performing school district that sustains the home resale market, quality of life in our community and education of the future leaders of America and the world. A short list for our return on investment: A-plus Niche rating (No. 11 statewide) for academics and athletics, as well as numerous state and regional titles and awards; 3-time AP Honor Roll, increasing accessibility for students to advanced level classes while maintaining high success rates; 33rd statewide in SAT scores; 100+ clubs and activities for students grades 6-12; innovative inquiry-based learning educational models and counseling programs; dedication to practical skills development with auto and wood shops and engineering lab; excellent class sizes and recognition by Grammy Org. for quality arts programming.
Sawicki: As a member of the board, I have seen our members work effectively over the past years to provide greater opportunities for our students, yet minimize the impact to district taxpayers. In recent years, we were able to have two years with historically low school budget increases that were the lowest in the county. With the passage of the referendum, we are able to complete necessary infrastructure projects in the most cost-effective manner to district taxpayers (the majority of projects are eligible for state debt service aid, or grants which covers up to 40 percent of costs). The board must continue to work to maintain district programs in a cost effective manner, as budgets will be affected by debt service obligations.
Tracy: There is no doubt that our property taxes and school taxes are very high. One reason people come to this district is the level of education and services it provides. Unfortunately, in many areas high taxes and top-tier schools go hand in hand. It doesn’t mean we should not be prudent with our spending. It will be my position as a board member to examine existing resources and implement new actions and plans to maximize such resources.
2. If the district needed to make budget cuts to comply with state mandates, what would you cut?
Murray: Budget cuts are achieved through consistent monitoring of district resource utilization. Ensuring efficient use of staff in a potential alignment of the daily schedule to allow staff sharing between TMS and CHS. Careful monitoring of health insurance programs costs. Continuing to expand green initiatives which have saved thousands through improvements in energy usage. Monitoring special services out-of-district placements and increasing in-house programming, minimizing long, taxing and expensive bus commutes and end-of-year escalating costs. All of our children, including our most challenged learners, deserve to be part of the framework of our school community. Increasing revenue from outside sources, such as the PSE&G program that installed solar panels on school roofs and providing parking lot coverage, yielding an annual $50-75K to the district.
Sawicki: I would ask our administration to look for opportunities to expand in-district special education services, as we have done in the past few years. Since external placements are not restricted to the 2-percent annual cap, we have been able to reduce costs by providing excellent services in-district. I would also look for efficiencies associated with class sizes, in particular at the high school where electives could be offered every other year to ensure staff is used cost effectively. Health insurance continues to be a major driver of costs, so we need to continue to look for ways to minimize premium increases. The administration also needs to continue efforts to improve staff attendance rates so that substitute teacher costs can be lowered.
Tracy: One cannot make blanket statements about cuts when working with budgets. There are details and facts you need to consider before making such decisions. It depends on how much needs to be cut and if it be absorbed across the budget or if there were non-essential line items. As I have done in my career, I would thoroughly review the current budget and expenses with my colleagues and the district to identify where cost savings may be achieved. Savings can be created in a variety of ways; including better vendor pricing and thinking out of the box to discover new financial strategies without compromising the needs of our children.
Matthews: The members of the school board are elected to make tough decisions that are in the best interests of students in our community. I would take a holistic approach, bringing together parents, teachers, administrators, and other residents. I would suggest that we listen to the various perspectives to come to a decision that is thoughtful and leads to the least possible disruption of services. We may be able to find a solution that replaces spending on an annual activity with sponsorship of that activity by a local business.
3. Do you think the current school board and administration do a good job?
Sawicki: Over my six years on the board I have seen dramatic improvements in our district, and the cooperative relationship between the board and district administration has helped facilitate these improvements. Increased access to advanced courses and co-curricular activities, a homework policy, STEM and Performing Arts magnet academies, 1:1 learning and full-day Kindergarten would not have been possible without a consistent vision and an appropriate level of oversight by the administration and the board. One change I would like to see made is an increased focus upon good communication between the community, the Board and district administration. We currently have some instances of duplicative communication (website, district emails, school e-mails) which could be better focused to ensure consistency.
Tracy: I think the current board of education and district administration should be commended on continually trying to make decisions that are in the best interest of our children both academically and a character and social responsibility standpoint. I believe more can be done to work more directly with our educators and the community on initiatives. In accomplishing goals, it is most effective when all stakeholders—the board, administration, educators and community—can come together to work for our students’ best interest. As an accomplished and well-respected business professional who respects others, I have had great success in working with and leading cross-functional teams to achieve common goals and initiatives.
Matthews: The current board of education and administration have done a good job since I’ve been a member of the community. I’ve been impressed by the critical self-reflection that the board has taken to continue to ensure that its policies are promoting inclusive access to high-caliber academics. I appreciate that the education committee has sought policies that increase the number of students taking AP coursework while maintaining extremely high rates of passing on AP exams. The holistic approach to revising and harmonizing homework policies to be meaningful and consistent is commendable.
Murray: Our board of education and administration have been proactive in fiscal responsibility resulting in record low budget increases, the lowest in the county and lowest tier in the state. Holding off on capital projects to take advantage of the low interest rates and the state programs that provide for 40 precent savings on our projects under the umbrella of our referendum is an example of responsible long-term planning.
4. The superintendent has led an initiative for the past two years to infuse character development and cultural competency into all aspects of student learning. Is this a good use of district resources?
Tracy: These programs are very important for our children. We see everyday examples of what happens in society when the lack of moral character and intolerance exists. Our schools can be the vehicle for this initiative however, we all have an obligation as parents and a community to jump on board this vehicle and to do our part to help our children develop in these areas. Social pressures are more intense, and feelings of isolation seem to be more prevalent partly because of the digital age we live in. A district wide comprehensive program that addresses age appropriate content and helps our young people to be a kinder more understanding generation is important.
Matthews: I wholly agree that infusing character development and cultural competency into student learning is the right thing to do. To start, research has shown that character education fosters a more positive school climate – thereby increasing academic achievement for all learners, reducing the need for discipline, and improving retention and job satisfaction among teachers. I also believe that one of the goals of a school system is to create global citizens and infusing cultural competency into learning is a vehicle to do so. Educating students (and teachers) to have awareness of and learn from each other’s cultural backgrounds is a cornerstone of this process.
Murray: News media is flooded with coverage of national disasters, human violence and suffering. Learning and growth may be fostered by a student’s environment. Including parents, students, teachers, board members and administrators on the cultural competency committee encourages all stakeholders to infuse their concerns and ideas into the conversations. The result of over 30 hours of conversation culminated in a “character education framework of age-appropriate expectations and skills, integrating character, cultural competency, emotional intelligence, discipline and mindfulness into the curriculum and school experiences for years to come. Reduction of stress levels allows students to engage in making healthy choices, respectful expression of feelings and self-advocation that contribute to a sense of purpose to improve self-esteem, inner strength and a sense of belonging.
Sawicki: I believe that character development and cultural competency are critical educational lessons that we need to impart to our students; as such I made this subject a focus of the speech that I gave at last year’s CHS graduation. I am very concerned about seeing less unity in our society, with sources of information becoming more fragmented and news stories being targeted to particular audiences. I contrasted this with our board, where our personal diversity makes us more effective, and where we work to understand differing opinions and develop consensus solutions. I have seen how important such educational experiences were to my daughter’s transition during her first year of college outside of the “Hopewell Bubble.”
5. Technology is ever more incorporated into the schools, including now a 1:1 Chromebook initiative. Is this a good use of resources?
Matthews: Technology in schools is a good thing as long as we are employing technology that is proven to lead to high academic outcomes. Proven and effective technologies can be an incredibly useful tool in enabling teachers to provide personalized support to students, particularly to our advanced and struggling students. I also believe we should be mindful of shiny, unproven technological tools – our schools should not be incubators for new technologies before they have a track record of success in other school environments.
Murray: Our 1:1 technology program was initially explored as a tool to promote initiatives in student-centered learning and collaboration. Due to the rising costs of maintaining old equipment and servers and the manufacture of inexpensive Chromebooks, the initiative saved the district up to $300K. I would like to see the continued creativity and exploration of innovative ways to utilize technology in our educational programming.
Sawicki: When I first ran for the board, I was not in favor of 1:1 because I believed such programs to be expensive; I felt our resources could be used in more effective ways. Ultimately, we implemented 1:1 because of improvements to the technology as well as teaching approaches. The district was able to fund the Chromebook initiative because the expense of doing so was lower than the cost of refreshing and maintaining our existing computing systems. Concurrently, improved learning management systems were developed, and complimentary inquiry-based educational techniques were matured. Thus, we were able to implement 1:1 at the right time, so that it became an effective use of district resources.
Tracy: Preparing our children is essential for the world of technology that we live in. Technology continues to develop and become a part of our everyday lives. We must educate our students on the value of technology in a controlled and secure environment. A 1:1 initiative provides all children equal footing in this type of learning environment. Schools are responsible in tempering how technology is relied on and ensuring that traditional teaching methods are blended into the classroom as well. As technology grows and systems age, our leaders must continue to assess that schools have the proper infrastructure in place for tech support and students have tech support when needed.
6. Why are you running for the Board of Education? What do you hope to achieve, and why are you the person to help the board achieve it? What will be your top priority in the next three years?
Murray: I hope to be voted to a second term along with fellow board member Adam Sawicki and newcomer Darius Matthews. My focus on training in leadership through programming provided by the New Jersey School Boards Association resulted in a Boardsmanship Certification award. With a background in health and environmental science, graduate studies in secondary education, real estate and having lived and/or worked in Hopewell Township community for over 23 years, including years of experience as a Pennington Borough councilperson, on the negotiation team for the five employee professional association contracts and current VP in my first term on the board of education, I would appreciate the opportunity to continue to serve.
Sawicki: As a board member, I feel that I have had a personal stake in moving some very important initiatives forward in our community. I have advocated for providing growth opportunities for our students, such as increasing participation in challenging classes and co-curricular activities. There remains work to be done in providing more opportunities for our “students in the middle.” Recent PARCC score reports have demonstrated a need to narrow the achievement gap between certain cohorts (e.g. special education, economically disadvantaged) and our other students. My priority will be to look for ways facilitate these efforts in a way that is cost-effective and least burdensome to our taxpayers, who are already shouldering the costs of existing programs and our infrastructure projects.
Tracy: I have spent over 30 years’ as an executive in the financial services industry, working with financial institutions and leading teams to achieve common goals and initiatives for organizations. I would complement existing skill sets on the board. As a parent and a member of the board of education, I will vigorously encourage and promote policies and programs that strive to support high academic achievement in balance with positive social, cultural and individual development. I will work with and across groups to achieve fiscal balance, diversity awareness and build bridges with all stakeholders. We are all trying to provide the best education, services and community for our children. I am confident that I can be an effective part of this process and would feel honored to be a part of it.
Matthews: I’m running for the school board because I believe this will allow me to use my business background to give back to our community. I will be a steward for our tax dollars to make sure we’re using money wisely while creating the best possible learning opportunities for our students. My top priority in the next three years will be long term planning – making sure that we’re setting ourselves up for the growth of our district over the next 10 years. With up to 3,000 new housing units being created due to the recent affordable housing settlement, we need to ensure we are positioned for scalable growth that reduces the per capita financial impact. I’m looking forward to working with the school board and the superintendent on these objectives in the years to come.