This year, for the first time since 2012, Lisa Wolff will not start the year as president of the Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education.
Wolff announced in November that she wouldn’t seek another term as president. She intends to see out the final year of her third three-year term but will not run for a fourth term.
She says there isn’t any specific reason that she’s stepping down now other than she thinks it’s a good idea for organizations to rotate leadership. And, she says, she feels like her job is kind of done.
“My goal when I became president was to leave the board in a position where they’re able to get things done,” she said in a recent interview. “When I first joined the board, things were so contentious that they couldn’t get anything done. The dynamic we have on the board right now is respect for everybody. Everybody’s voice is heard.”
Wolff said a criticism she hears about the current board is that it votes unanimously too often. She sees that not as a deficit but as a strength. “If you have the same objectives, you’re going to vote the same way,” she said. “Ultimately, you’re doing what’s best for kids. When there’s disagreement, usually we still have the same end goal, but different ideas about how to get it accomplished.”
Wolff said she’s proud of the current initiative the district has in place to bring cultural competency and sensitivity to the students. She believes in the value of events like A Day of Dialogue, in which students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds from around Mercer County gather together to talk about the issues they face and to look for common ground. “We’re bringing an awareness to the student body about empathy and respect for others,” she said.
She said she thinks the district does a good job of addressing students’ academic needs, but wants to see the focus on students’ social and emotional needs continue to widen. “We still have a ways to go on this, but I like the strides we’re making,” she said.
She’s pleased with the homework policy the district has developed. “Most school districts are addressing homework issues, but we put our policy in place in 2013, before anyone was even thinking about doing it,” she said. “It took (Superintendent) Tom (Smith) two years to get it done, because he made sure he took the input of everyone. He had parents involved and students involved and teachers involved before he brought the policy forward.”
She feels that the district, rated by the Department of Education as high performing, has made great strides academically during her tenure, but said there are still things she would like to see addressed. “If you were to look at our students who are higher income versus lower income, you will see a difference in their test scores,” she said. “We have very little diversity in our school district, but unfortunately there is a gap between African-Americans and white students. I think it’s important that we try to focus on making sure everyone is getting the best education they can.”
As she winds down her time on the school board, she will become more involved with Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, the nonprofit organization that named her executive director last year. Even then, she will continue to be involved in the schools. FoHVOS recently received a $10,000 grant from Janssen Pharmaceuticals to create a meadow at Bear Tavern Elementary School.
That’s just one of several meadow projects FoHVOS is getting off the ground. In the last few years residents of one of Hopewell Valley’s homeowners’ associations turned a drainage basin into a meadow, with positive results, so now FoHVOS is working with a number of other associations to try to replicate the success of the first meadow.
“When you turn a basin into a meadow, it improves the water table,” Wolff said. “A lawn is terrible — not as bad as sidewalk, but it doesn’t allow a lot of water to penetrate. Whereas if you plant a lot of native plants, it’s really good for the earth and the water table.” She said FoHVOS has commitments from the township to create more meadows, and the largest homeowner association in the Valley is starting to move forward on a similar project.
When people think of FoHVOS, Wolff said, they think of open space and of public land. “And we’re about to do an acquisition of public land soon,” she said. “But what has me excited is the work we’re going to be doing on private lands.”
She points to the ongoing crisis with the emerald ash borer as a reason why FoHVOS can’t focus on just public spaces. The emerald ash borer is a beetle, native to Asia, that has been destroying ash trees across North America.
“When the ash trees die, all the shade they put there is going to be replaced with sunlight, which when we have a lot of invasive species out there, those invasive species are going to run rampant,” she said. “We’re working to make sure we can get rid of invasive species while we can get native species to do what they need to be doing, trying to bring improved habitat through the entire area. To do that best, we have to be working on both private and public land.”