Five candidates are running for two open seats on the Ewing Township School Board.
The Ewing Observer asked all five candidates to submit biographical information and answer several questions regarding the state of the township and school district.
Incumbents Carl Benedetti and Karen A. McKeon are being challenged by Channing Conway, Lynn Lowe and Steven Rodriguez for three-year terms on the board.
Carl Benedetti, 26, is a Ewing native who currently lives in the Wilburtha section of West Trenton. He is seeking election to his third term on the school board and has previously served as president and vice president.
Benedetti holds an associate’s degree from Mercer County Community College and a bachelor’s degree in political science from The College of New Jersey. He works as an office manager for the Mark Ullmann Allstate Agency on Parkway Avenue. A 2009 graduate of Ewing High School, Benedetti also attended Antheil and Fisher schools.
Channing Conway, 46, has lived in the township since 2004 with his wife, Michelle, in the Mountain View section of West Trenton.
Conway is an elementary school principal in the Trenton School District and previously worked his way up from teacher, to vice principal to principal.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Morgan State University, a master’s degree in educational administration from The College of New Jersey, and a doctorate in educational administration and policy studies from Temple University.
Conway has three children in the Ewing School District—twin girls in kindergarten at Lore and a daughter in third grade girl at Lore.
Lynn Lowe is a 40-year resident of Ewing who lives near Moody Park with her husband, Sammie. Her son, Trey, graduated from Ewing High School in 2015 and is currently a junior at Temple University. Her daughter, Jaycee, is a junior at Ewing High School.
Lowe has been employed by Educational Testing Service for some 20 years, and has worked in various positions at the company. She is currently a product manager in college board programs. She holds a bachelor’s degree in information systems with a minor in computer science, and a master’s in human services and administration.
Karen McKeon, 50, has been a resident of Ewing for more than 20 years, and lives in the Hillwood Manor neighborhood with her husband, Brian.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in business management from The College of New Jersey (then Trenton State College), and currently works as an analyst at Curcio Webb in Pennington.
McKeon has two children who attended the Ewing Public Schools from K-12—a current senior at Ewing High School and a graduate of the Class of 2016.
Steven Rodriguez has been a township resident for 13 years with his wife, Tracy DeAngelis-Rodriguez.
Rodriguez served in the United States Army as a sergeant, an airborne paratrooper and a forward observer. He was honorably discharged from the military and is a disabled veteran.
He was also a police officer and graduate of the Philadelphia Police Academy. After graduation he was a Temple University police officer, where he was promoted to the rank of corporal and patrol supervisor.
He earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix, and a bachelor’s degree in work force education from Southern Illinois University.
Rodriguez has two children in the school district—Steven, a junior at Ewing High School, and Cameron, an 8th grader at Fisher Middle School.
All five candidates were asked by the Observer to answer a list of five questions. Their responses follow.
1. Why are you running for the school board? Please explain how your experience, expertise or perspective would be most useful on the board.
Benedetti: Having now served two terms on the board of education, my passion for improving our schools, fighting for our children and respecting the taxpayers of Ewing Township has only grown substantially. Having served as president and vice president, and as a member of our facilities and negotiations committees, I feel my cumulative experience over the last six years has made me uniquely qualified to continue serving in this role.
As a lifelong Ewing resident, and a proud 2009 graduate of Ewing High School, my original motivation for running was to bring the perspective of a recent student to the board. Having completed my bachelor’s degree from The College of New Jersey in 2013, I am intimately familiar with the demands being placed on our students by institutions of higher education.
My main motivation for seeking a third term to the board of education is the planned public referendum that the board will be putting on the ballot for the voters in September 2018. This referendum will be the biggest project our board has undertaken in decades, and we want the entire community to be educated and involved. We will be addressing several glaring facility needs, as well as quality of life issues, within the classroom, for our students and teachers.
Conway: For the past 20 years of my life I’ve been advocating for a thorough and efficient education for young people. As a teacher I strove to ensure the students under my charge received the highest quality education I could possibly deliver. As a principal my drive to ensure a high-quality education shifted from classroom to the entire school. Finally, as a board member I will continue along the same vein as I strive to ensure students in the district receive the highest quality education possible.
I am acutely aware of how important it is for children to receive a quality education. Research has demonstrated that a rich high-quality academic experience has the ability to transform lives. As a board member I would work to ensure that not only my children but all children in Ewing Public Schools receive a quality education.
I believe my educational background and work experience have provided me with a unique perspective and understanding of the educational requirements to move schools forward while simultaneously supporting the social, emotional and academic needs of children.
As a practitioner, I have been responsible for the creation and management of budgets as large as $22 million. I have worked closely with school board members and the state department of education to implement sound policies and regulations in accordance with New Jersey Administrative Code. While completing my doctoral studies at Temple University, I enrolled in a collective bargaining course where I learned the art of quid pro quo negotiations along with coursework in school law. These experiences will allow a smooth transition of theory into practice and would prove useful as a board member.
Lowe: As an ETS employee that works in standardized testing, I want to ensure our Ewing students are prepared and comfortable with assessment testing in PSAT, SAT and Advanced Placement. Equally, I wish to support this board in the introduction of programs that will equip our teachers with tools designed to help student comprehension of the approved curriculum.
McKeon: My motivation for seeking re-election to the Ewing School board remains unchanged—kids first. Our children are our future, and we need to provide them with a strong educational background to succeed. Together we can accomplish this without heavily burdening Ewing taxpayers and at the same time ensure that programs vital to a student’s education are not eliminated. Taxpayers will benefit from a stronger school district, because families will want to move into Ewing, not flee for better opportunities.
I was first elected to the board in 2008, re-elected in both 2011 and 2014 and have taken on leadership positions of vice president (January 2016 to present) and as president (April 2011 to December 2012). I have also served on facilities and residency hearings committees. In addition, I served as the school board liaison to the Ewing Public Education Foundation (epef.org), an independent, non-profit citizen’s organization dedicated to providing innovative educational experiences for students and the community of Ewing Township.
During my tenure, I am most proud of being able to maintain favorable class sizes throughout the district and the expansion of extracurricular activities. These elements together combined enhance a child’s overall education which in turn leads to greater success academically.
I have been a parent volunteer with the Ewing School District since 2003 with various parent organizations: EHS Class of 2016 and EHS Class of 2018, EHS baseball, Fisher Parents Association, Antheil PTO, and Antheil PTO executive board holding the offices of co-president and co-vice president.
Rodriguez: As a community member and a parent with students in the district, I want to be the voice of parents by showing that my involvement in the school board will help all of our children have a better educational experience. Because I have been involved for many years, I have built relationships with many parents who feel that they can come to me with their educational concerns and depend on me to ensure that I will make the best decisions for all students.
My running for the board will only continue my proven dedication and service to the school district of Ewing Township. Because of the many leadership and supportive roles that I have taken on in my careers as police officer and in the military, I am able to assess situations and take lead when necessary or delegate as needed.
2. Parental involvement in their child’s education is important. What can the district do to help get parents more engaged with their childrens’ academic efforts?
Benedetti: The Board recognizes that every parent is strapped for time, and finding availability to sit down with a teacher, or even setting up a phone call, can be an arduous task. Most recently, the district has begun interacting with parents, and our community, through the most popular form of communication—social media.
Our district Twitter feed and YouTube channel have been great for disseminating information to parents, while simultaneously displaying the accomplishments of our students. We have also switched to a completely online platform for parents to monitor their child’s grades and progress in the classroom.
Personally, in order to increase parental involvement in the education process, I have advocated to the district administration that we need to have an anonymous parent survey that is sent out every year. This would allow parents to give honest feedback on their experience, as well as their child’s experience, within the Ewing Public Schools. The questions can be focused on various programs, interactions with staff and other relevant issues.
Conway: To increase parental involvement, the school district must develop alternative methods to get information out to parents. As we continue to embrace technology, we should explore the employment of social media and other forms of electronic messaging outlets.
Investing in smart phone applications where push notifications can be sent to parents can assist the district in communicating important information to multiple stakeholder groups.
This technology has the ability to track downloads and will provide the district with real time data highlighting the number of people who have installed the application. In addition, utilizing existing technology such as the districts automated dialer to remind parents of important information and dates will help to engage parents.
This technology is already in place, and therefore would not require additional purchasing. Moreover, the board of education should consider collecting information from parents through parent surveys. Collected survey information can be addressed through a series of parent roundtables hosted by board members and/or the superintendent. This provides the opportunity for two way dialogue around topics that are important to the parents and other stakeholder groups.
Lastly, as the district’s diversity continues to grow, the district should honor and celebrate some of the contributions of these various cultures into the American fabric through different assemblies and extracurricular activities; along with sending out all communications and/or automated calls in both English and Spanish will help elicit additional parental engagement and support.
Lowe: The district must continue to provide outreach to parents that will emphasize the importance of their presence in their children’s education. This practice should be instilled from kindergarten through high school. I recommend a district-wide push to get efforts started that will encourage a partnership with parents.
McKeon: I agree parent involvement is an important aspect of a child’s education. Throughout the year our district provides opportunities for parents to be involved in the school such as back to school nights, parent teacher conferences, family math nights, literary festivals, hands on science, college financial aid nights, sporting activities, art shows, concerts, school plays in addition to the variety of parent volunteer organizations.
As a board member, I realize the importance of making sure our administration, teachers, staff and schools are supported so that they can reach each child individually. Our schools provide a welcoming environment for our families to provide feedback and input about their child’s progress, successes and struggles. It is a partnership that fosters open communication between all parties which have a common goal of student achievement.
Rodriguez: Communication is the key to success. I truly believe that the administration works well with information dissemination. Throughout the years I have personally worked with great principals and staff who believed in open lines of communication.
The district has the virtual back pack, which is updated daily with pertinent information for the parents, students and community. It would be beneficial for Genesis to maybe have information disseminated from it so there would be only one platform for information instead of multiple forms.
3. What is one challenge facing the school district that you believe deserves more attention?
Benedetti: In an age where technology is paramount to the modern classroom, particularly with the increasing focus on STEM education, one of the greatest challenges facing the district is getting our student-to-computer ratio at 1:1. The combination of cost and new devices being introduced so rapidly makes this goal incredibly difficult to accomplish within the constraints of a 2 percent annual budget restriction.
One avenue that the board could pursue is a lease-purchase program that collaborates with a reputable provider. Families could opt to finance the cost of a laptop/tablet, for a certain number of years, until they eventually own that device, similar to how cell phones are now sold. The agreement could include a clause for upgrading devices when new technology is introduced. Such an endeavor would also provide those students, who are without access to a computer at home, an essential piece of equipment to enhance their educational experience.
Conway: Addressing the achievement gap is a national phenomenon, which has left most districts attempting the implementation of a plethora of instructional strategies to address this national issue. The demographics of the district is changing and ensuring the program offerings are directly aligned to the needs of the students must remain at the center of decision making. It is essential the district continuously evaluate where and how to allocate monetary and program resources in order to support the ever changing academic needs of its diverse population.
Lowe: The referendum! I encourage more parents to attend the board of education meetings to fully understand this referendum to upgrade our school buildings. I hope that parents will see the good in this referendum and how beneficial this would be for our students, teachers and Ewing residents.
McKeon: The 2 percent cap imposed on school district budgets is an ongoing challenge for us. Each year as costs increase greater than 2 percent we are restricted to a budget increase capped at 2 percent. As a board, we have worked to sustain programs and maintain our facilities within this cap but it is not enough.
As a board, we have decided that given the fact the school tax decreased last year and our debt will be dropping off, it is time to develop a referendum for the community to vote on in September 2018. As homeowners, we must maintain our home over the years and it is no different as a school district.
Unfortunately, this 2 percent cap does not provide sufficient funding to cover all the necessary costs. We will need the support of the entire community to develop and pass this important referendum which will take our schools to the next level for current and future generations. This is my driving motivation for running for re-election. I believe passing the upcoming referendum is imperative for the future success of the district.
Rodriguez: The referendum of 2018 needs all members in the administration, the board and the community to focus on what’s in the best interest of the future of the school system.
4. Are there any areas in the school district budget that need to be looked at in order to reduce expenses? Are there any programs you would like to see added or improved?
Benedetti: Over the last several years, the board has implemented several initiatives that have reduced costs and saved our taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of our signature accomplishments has been the opening of the O’Brien Academy, located at the former Ryan Administration Building. This program offers an alternative learning environment for those students who struggle behaviorally in a traditional classroom setting.
By not sending these students to schools and programs out of the district, as we’ve had to do in the past, the board annually saves significant tax dollars by now providing these services in-house. Last year, in collaboration with our labor unions, the board switched our employees out of the state health benefits plan and moved into an exclusive joint health insurance fund.
Due to our staff having a favorable claims history, the board was invited to join this collaborative fund in order to significantly reduce one of our greatest expenses; health insurance premiums.
This move saved nearly $1 million in its first year, and the fund routinely sees premium increases that are less than what was seen previously in the state health benefits plan.
Through the negotiations process, our union leaders have been gracious enough to work with the board on establishing other practices that help reduce costs for future generations. Perhaps our most notable achievement, as a board, over the last decade is that we’ve acquired virtually no new debt service.
Due to prudent budgeting by our business administrator, while continuing to pay down our existing debt, the board reciprocated to the public a nearly 10-cent decrease in the school tax rate for the 2018 fiscal year. Over the next two budget years, with the remaining debt being paid off, we expect to be able to continue to keep our tax rate stable.
Conway: One of the recent shifts in education centers around the infusion of technology into instruction. With that, STEAM and STEM programs are gaining support around the nation as schools are working toward lowering the student:device ratio. For the past several years, standardized assessments have been electronically administered and the technological divide should not create an additional obstacle students need to overcome in order to be successful on the PARCC.
I would like to see a movement toward exposing children to technology as early in their academic careers as reasonably possible. Students in second grade and beyond should be working daily with technology as the more acquainted they become with these devices, the better prepared they will be when taking the PARCC examination as well as other electronically administered assessments.
Lastly, many residents are aware of the outstanding work and opportunities presented through the EHS Robotics Team. A feeder programs could begin in elementary schools where students gain exposure to the fundamental ideas and concepts which could then be built upon in middle school level and will make for a more robust high school program.
Lowe: I would like to see greater access to computers for all Ewing students.
We may want to look at loaning laptops to students as early as 5th grade, similar to other school districts. This access would assist students’ understanding of computer operations, preparation for standardized testing, such as PARCC, via computer-based tests. This would also make our students competitive with other students nationwide.
McKeon: As a board, we have been proactive seeking out ways to reduce expenses. We have a shared services agreement with the township to offset costs. The Fisher auditorium was upgraded using ROD grant funding at no cost to taxpayers. We opened the O’Brien Academy because we believed we could provide a better education for these students in district instead of placing them out of district.
Even though the O’Brien Academy was an educational decision, we also benefited from a reduction in cost in out of district placements. This year the district is working on a transportation study to determine possible savings. Looking ahead I would like to see the air quality improved throughout the district. Students are exposed to classrooms that are too hot or too cold which impacts concentration on their studies. Given our current 2 percent budget cap, we are not able to address this and will need to find alternative funding.
Rodriguez: I believe that one concern is the safety of the students at the bus stops and during transportation to and from school. Also, there may be way of trying to implement new forms of renewable energy.
5. What role does the Board of Education play in ensuring that the district’s vision and implementation are well understood by parents and students? Is it fulfilling this role well? What could it do better?
Benedetti: It is a primary objective, year after year, that the board of education makes our parents aware of our goals and vision for the district. We hold an annual retreat meeting where we establish a list of our priorities for the upcoming school year. That list is then approved by the board and posted on the district website.
We always need more parental involvement than what we are currently experiencing at our monthly meetings. We utilize our instant alert system for important and emergent notices to our parents. I would like to see the administration use that system to inform parents about board meetings, and any other special meetings that may occur.
Currently, in preparation for our upcoming referendum, the board is reaching out to all relevant stakeholders in our town, including township committees, parent groups within the schools and our other local elected officials. We have worked diligently to become a more transparent board, and we welcome any new recommendations from the public on how to better spread our message.
Conway: The board of educations role in ensuring that the district’s vision are implemented and understood by stakeholder groups comes by way of the superintendent. The board along with the superintendent develops the aforementioned. However it is the responsibility of the superintendent to ensure the district’s vision and mission is communicated to all community stakeholders in a clear and concise manner.
As board meetings provide the public with information and give the public an opportunity to share ideas and express concerns, the communication exchange is typically one way. The board does not usually engage in conversation with the public and should consider establishing a system of two way communication where dialogue can occur around issues that are important to the community.
Lowe: I believe the Ewing School Board has an open book policy for teachers, parents and students and all are encouraged to attend the meetings. I am truly proud of all members and all they have done on behalf of the Ewing Schools and students.
McKeon: I believe the district effectively communicates with parents and students over various means. As a board, we implemented a green initiative essentially eliminating the distribution of paper flyers. Currently information is communicated through school and community virtual backpacks, district website, instant alert text, voice and email notifications, Genesis Parent Resources and Naviance Family Connection. Looking ahead the district needs to review new technology as it emerges to determine if it will benefit the district.
Rodriguez: Again, the current school board members and the administration disseminate information accurately and accordingly through several platforms. I feel that communication is working well as a whole.