Six candidates are running for three three-year seats on the Lawrence Township Board of Education.

Groeger

Incumbent Jo Ann L. Groeger, 65, has lived in Lawrence for 42 years. She has served on the school board for seven years. Groeger is a retired Lawrence Township Public Schools health and physical education teacher, and all three of her children are LTPS products. She graduated from King’s College and earned a masters in education from Georgian Court College, as well as 60 additional credits in education from Shenandoah University.

Ngo

Tam Ngo, 45, has lived in Lawrence since 2010. She currently serves as the publicity chair for the Lawrenceville Elementary School PTO, as co-chair for the Lawrence Township Special Education Advisory Council and as a room parent at LES. She previously worked as an attorney, and this is her first time running for public office. Ngo has a studio art degree from Smith College and a J.D. from Hastings College of the Law.

Perry

Jennifer Perry, 44, has been a Lawrence resident with her family for 14 years. She has never held or run for elected office, and her children currently attend Lawrence Intermediate School and Lawrence High School. Perry graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in social work.

Scott

Incumbent Joyce Scott, 62, has lived in the Eldridge Park neighborhood for 50 years. In addition to the school board, Scott also serves on the Lawrence Township Affordable Housing Board. She works as a programmatic assistance for the state Department of Education School Improvement Grants program. She is also and executive board member of CWA Local 1033 and Shop Steward and Area Representative for CWA members employed by the state Department of Education. Scott’s two children are LHS graduates, and she attended Cheyney State University.

Stewart

Keva Stewart, 45, has lived in Lawrence for 15 years. She is a commercial interior designer, and her business is based in Lawrence. She is the vice president of the Slackwood Elementary School PTO. Her step-son is a LHS graduate, and her daughter currently attends Slackwood. Stewart graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore with a degree in photography, and she is also a certified Aging in Place specialist, working with licensed contractors to create barrier-free living spaces for the elderly.

Van Hise

Incumbent Kevin A. Van Hise, 47, has lived in Lawrence for 39 years and returned to the township in 2002 after moving to Hopewell after college. He is an attorney with the Mason, Griffon, and Pierson PC firm, specializing in local government law and land use. He is also the chair of the Lawrence Township Affordable Housing Board and coaches Lawrence Babe Ruth baseball. VanHise has two children, both students in the district. He earned degrees in political science and economics from Rutgers University and a J.D. from the Rutgers School of Law—Camden.

Scott, Ngo, and Stewart are running on the same slate. VanHise and Groeger are running on a slate with unexpired term candidate Dana Drake.

Are there any programs you would like to see added or grow in the district to improve the quality of education?

Groeger: I would like to see more classes and expanded opportunities for the non college bound learner to prepare them to enter the work force upon graduation by exploring collaborative relationships with trade unions, community colleges and vocational schools. Math scores have been increasing and I want to expand on the success we are experiencing to further improve these scores in the district. Social emotional learning and mindfulness training is critical to the health and well being of our students. Today’s young people are living in a fast-paced and stressful world which can often be overwhelming. We need to give our children the tools to deal with the day to day demands that are often self imposed as well as externally placed on them.

Ngo: The innovative technology companies and research centers in close geographic proximity are resources our township is remarkably rich in. Partnering with these institutions to provide equipment, workshops and a broad range of sponsored summer and school-year internship opportunities would strengthen their investment in our community. Such partnerships would also give our students valuable experience in those environments to help them assess and plan their futures.

Perry: I do not have in mind any specific programs I would like to see added to improve the quality of education in our district. I do however believe we should always be evaluating how the programs we do offer are serving the goals that our district has for all of our students. I generally bend toward looking at the people versus the program. We need to always be asking the question who are the students we serve and then look to see what programs are a good fit for them; not necessarily see an excellent program and assume it will work for our students.

Scott: For my second term, I plan to continue my focus on community involvement, improving diversity among administration and staff, increasing children’s academic success and opportunities for students to participate in Shared Programs with Mercer County Vocational School in addition to studying the adequacy of Lawrence special education services and programs to ensure individual student success.

Stewart: It is my belief that more that can be done to assist our families who need mental healthservices. The introduction of the Sage In-District Services to our middle and high school students has been a well-received program and continues to gain momentum. This program focuses on providing early intervention to students who may be struggling with emotional challenges and helping them thrive in any school environment.

I feel our district could benefit by developing more transparent ways of communicating with parents and educators, more cohesive programming and curriculum and social events that unite our elementary schools. By seeing these objectives through, blending our collective educational resources, we can celebrate our diverse community, providing students with a smoother transition to LIS and beyond.

By implementing innovative ways of learning, specifically emphasizing the growth mindset approach where dedication and hard work are encouraged, our district will remain relevant and competitive regarding what we offer our students and how we can best prepare them to make the wisest choices possible.

Van Hise: First, improving our special education programming. As individual student needs have increased, so has the cost of providing special needs services, especially out of district. We are currently assessing our needs and delivery of services to improve our programming. By expanding our in-house programs, we will be able to serve more students in district and improve the educational experiences of our students. This will allow our students to remain with their peers and our staff, and enhance their academic and extra-curricular opportunities. This will result in cost containment and cost savings by reducing our reliance on out-of-district providers and the associated transportation costs of special routes. Second, ensure we’re offering programs for non-college bound students to provide the necessary life skills and foundations for directly entering the workforce and running a household. Lastly, making sure that we have the right mix of courses to challenge our gifted and talented/advanced placement students.

The district hired a new superintendent this year. How does working with a new superintendent affect the job of a school board member?

Groeger: With the hiring of a new school superintendent, a board member will need to work to familiarize the new superintendent to the character of the district. This includes staff, administration, students and their families, as well as the entire community. It is critical to the operation of a successful school district that all participants recognize and adhere to their role. A school board member as a part of the overall board is charged with collectively creating strategic plans, developing policies and examining areas for improvement and conveying them to the superintendent. The superintendent is then tasked with their implementation. For this to be successful the relationship between individual board members, the board and the superintendent must be one of mutual respect and commitment to collaboration.

Ngo: I’m excited the district has hired a new superintendent with innovative ideas about how to move Lawrence forward. A school board member must work closely with the new superintendent and current administration to make sure they are collectively supporting the district’s missions and goals. The new superintendent will require the guidance and support of the full board as well as ongoing input from the community in order to successfully implement new programmatic ideas.

Perry: With a new superintendent, there would be some guidance necessary to assure his understanding of the culture of this particular community. Building relationship with board members and community members simultaneously is paramount to this understanding. Dr. Kasun has already demonstrated the natural propensity for these methods as he visits classrooms regularly; this is encouraging to both community and students and I would hope, faculty and staff.

Scott: The Lawrence School Board selected Dr. Ross Kasun as the new superintendent because his goals and aspirations complement the high educational quality and achievement that Lawrence schools are known for. Thus, the board and Dr. Ross Kasun should have a harmonious working relationship.

Stewart: As this is my first time participating as a candidate in a school board election, I am enthusiastic to learn more about, and from, Dr. Kasun. I feel that having him as our superintendent will guide our district in a direction that is forward-thinking and takes into consideration the diverse needs of our community.

Van Hise: A collaborative partnership between the board and superintendent is essential to providing and delivering the best educational opportunities and experiences for our students. The board is the bridge between our residents and our schools. We set the policies, goals and objectives for the district and the superintendent is tasked with implementing them. The successes we have had are a direct reflection of the fantastic relationships we have shared. Our new Superintendent is no exception. Even in his initial two months, Dr. Kasun has brought a new perspective to Lawrence and is building on the wonderful foundation already in place. This is allowing the board to focus on setting new goals and ensuring we are meeting the needs of all of our students and our community. With the strong partnership that has developed between the board and superintendent, we are well poised to take our district to new heights.

Are there any areas of the Lawrence Township Public Schools in need of fixing or updating, whether it be facilities or otherwise?

Groeger: We are faced with aging infrastructure and facilities limited by available space. It is vital that our students and staff are in an environment that is conducive to learning and working and where they feel safe and secure. Development of preventative maintenance programs has extended the proper function and life of equipment. Construction of the turf athletic fields has, in part, addressed the insufficient number and over used playing fields not only for athletics but physical education classes at the middle and high schools. Air conditioning is presently being installed in the schools to facilitate more effective learning surroundings. Cost saving environmental upgrades have also added to improved conditions. Plans are underway for the installation of security vestibules at each school. By being proactive and forward thinking we must continue to face the changing climate of education.

Ngo: One of the assets of our community here in Lawrence Township is the notable diversity of our students, culturally, socioeconomically, and in ability. However, that diversity also requires us to think purposefully about how we staff our school, how we present our curriculum, and how we teach our children to embrace that diversity as a strength. Key to a successful education is providing the right challenges and supports that each child needs. This is often difficult to achieve in a public school system where needs are broad and resources are limited. We need to lower increasing costs in special education by providing higher quality programs in our district’s public schools. This, in turn, allows our children to be educated in their community, alongside their peers. The efficiencies gained from this initiative frees resources for improvements around other areas of education.

Perry: I believe the “fixing” as you say is initially more philosophical than task oriented at this time. Once there is a refocus in this arena, I believe we can begin to prioritize the issues that students and their parents and the greater community see as needing improvement. As stewards of aging facilities, providers of education to a diverse population of students, and an ever uncertain society…the list of updates and improvement will always be lengthy and all of the items will seem “most important.” Hence, the need to shift from a culture of “us vs. them” to one of “we” so that these can be tackled effectively and efficiently.

Scott: With kudos to the Lawrence Township community, the district’s recent successful bond referendum should take care of any physical plant inadequacies.

Stewart: There appears to be a lack of equally distributed financial resources in certain schools, specifically in the elementary buildings, with respect to the standard condition of the facilities. Our district has buildings whose main entrances are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, equipment and furnishings that haven’t been replaced for over a decade(s), as well as the absence of new paint, flooring and fixtures within the classrooms and common areas. There is also an imbalance regarding class size and staffing. Some of our elementary schools have only 16 students per class while others have 23 per class. Researchers generally agree that lower class sizes, specifically in the earliest grades, are linked to positive educational benefits such as better test scores, fewer dropouts and higher graduation rates, especially for disadvantaged children.

Three of our four elementary schools employ certified librarians, while one has only a librarian assistant. Certified librarians can teach lessons and conduct research projects with students. The assistant librarian is limited as to what duties they can perform for and with students, creating an educational deficit for children in that school.

Van Hise: Considering the age of our buildings, our staff has done a tremendous job at upkeeping and maintaining our facilities. However, there are always improvements and upgrades we can and do need to make. This summer, our residents supported us in a referendum to upgrade our schools. We are currently working to enhance security by installing entry vestibules at several of our schools and upgrading our technology and communications across the district. We are also phasing the installation of air conditioning in our classrooms to enhance the learning environment and adding an elevator to LMS to enable students with physical challenges or injuries to access the second floor. We are also working to upgrade our modular structures, replace our boilers at LMS and LHS, and simultaneously perform routine maintenance like replacing doors and converting to green technologies to reduce energy costs.

Why do you feel you are the right person to serve on the Board of Education?

Groeger: As an educator in the district for 32 years I worked in five of the seven schools and coached multiple sports giving me an insider’s understanding from both the staff and the students perspectives. I continue to see firsthand the changes in education as an adjunct professor at The College of New Jersey. Serving on the board’s Personnel Committee, Equity Committee and chairing Community Relations and Legislative Affairs as well as board liaison to Direct Link, Lawrence Township Education Foundation and SEPTO has enabled me to interact on an ongoing basis with the community, administrators, staff and other board members. As the Lawrence representative to NJ School Boards Association Delegates Assembly, NJBSA task force for Non college bound learners, NJBSA Equity and NJBSA Social Emotional learning committees I have a broader understanding and an opportunity to share with our board what is the future face of education.

Ngo: As a child, I received an exceptional public school education, in schools that were well-to-do and in those that were impoverished. It is the insight gained from these experiences that I want to offer to the community and to the Board. Furthermore, as a parent of young children, I have a long term investment in the future success of our schools. I am committed to the goal of remaining fiscally conservative while advancing programming, to improve the quality of education for all students in-district.

Perry: I am the right person to serve on the Board of Ed because I understand the importance of looking at the big picture; evaluating strengths and weaknesses; building on the foundation that has been established and most of all working cooperatively to create an environment where students have the very best chance at flourishing. I have a learning curve when it comes to the specifics of all that this board is tasked with accomplishing. I can gain that knowledge “on the job.” It is my creativity, sensibility, solution-oriented and insightful nature, along with a great capacity for empathy and my willingness to put others before myself that truly makes me the best fit for this position.

Scott: During my first term, I steered the board toward more community involvement, increasing diversity among administration and staff, increasing children’s academic success and opportunities for students to participate in shared programs with Mercer County Vocational School. As a graduate of Lawrence High School, a lifelong resident of the township concentrating on children well-being and community interests, and well-versed in contractual matters, I continue to be an asset to the Lawrence Township Board of Education and a voice for the community.

Stewart: Being broad-minded concerning the views of everyone in our very diverse community is a necessary trait of someone that is elected to serve on the Board of Education. Establishing a quarterly “Community Conversation” to engage all voices in our community in sharing the concerns of our families would be one of my highest priorities if elected. Sharing research and findings, as well as collaborating with our families on innovative solutions, will allow us to measure our effectiveness, understand its collective value, and celebrate our successes. Lawrence has given my family many memories, with many more to come. I look forward to helping all our children reach their highest potential, as well as initiating more open forms of communication with our families across the district.

Van Hise: Serving on the board for the past seven years has given me an opportunity to give back to the community I grew up in, and with two children in district, am fully vested in. Since 2014, I have been privileged to serve as President of the board. I have also served as chair of the board’s Finance amd Facilities Committee, Personnel Committee, Negotiations Committee and was co-chair of the Sports and Activities Committee that laid the foundation for our District’s turf field project. My legal background representing municipal entities has served as a great foundation to understand the issues, regulations and responsibilities facing our district, and to assist our staff and board in delivering the best educational opportunities for all of our students while doing so in the most cost effective and fiscally prudent manner possible. I look forward to continuing serving Lawrence Township as a member of the board.

Two-year term candidates

Two candidates are running for one two-year unexpired term on the school board.

Drake

Incumbent Dana Drake, 39, has served on the school board since 2013. She was born and raised in Lawrence Township, and after moving away for college, she moved back to town in 2007. Drake has an associate’s degree from Johnson and Wales University and a degree in business management and human resources from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She works as a business consultant and previously spent 13 years working for global insurance and financial organization. Her son, Owen, is a freshman at Lawrence High School.

DiPierro

Becky Jo DiPierro, 44, has lived in Lawrence for 14 years. She attended Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, and she has two master’s degrees from Temple University. She is a teacher and mentor at a private school that specializes in one-to-one education. DiPierro has two children at Lawrenceville Elementary School and Lawrence Intermediate School, and she has never run for public office.

Are there any programs you would like to see added or grown in the district to improve the quality of education?

DiPierro: I would like to see the addition of and expansion of language-based learning programs which have the potential to both improve the quality of education for some of our struggling learners and save the district money because fewer of these students will look to seek out of district placement.

Drake: I would like to see our students better prepared to make intelligent decisions about their futures, whether it is college, a trade program, entering the workforce or the military. I believe we can achieve this by expanding opportunities for career and college readiness, such as internships with local businesses, partnerships with trade unions and more dual enrollment courses with local colleges and universities so our students can earn college credits while in high school and families can save on college tuition costs. We also should evaluate our special education programs to see what services need to be improved or added so we can bring more students back to the district. It will be beneficial to our students and taxpayers alike if we can deliver outstanding in-district services by developing programs and hiring/training qualified staff.

The district hired a new superintendent this year. How does working with a new superintendent affect the job of a school board member?

DiPierro: Working with the superintendent is a critical part of the job of a school board member. It is an exciting time to be part of LTPS. Our new superintendent has the potential to bring great things to our school district and I believe having new members on the school board who are not hindered by the way things have been done in the past will open the door to possibility.

Drake: I chaired the Superintendent Search Committee, which resulted in the hiring of NJ’s 2017 Superintendent of the year, Dr. Kasun. His impressive experience, proven leadership, and innovative ideas are a great addition to our talented administration. The board has already begun forging a collaborative relationship with Dr. Kasun. Continuing this relationship and ensuring he is set up for success is a priority of mine. At this time it is essential to retain knowledgeable board members who are familiar with our district, its policies and procedures, the operating rules of the board, and the needs, challenges, and strengths of our students, staff, and the community. This sharing of invaluable experience and knowledge of what has worked and not worked for our district is essential to support a superintendent who’s new to our community and a K-12 district of our size and increases the chances of success for the district and students.

Are there any areas of the Lawrence Township Public Schools in need of fixing or updating, whether it be facilities or otherwise?

DiPierro: I believe an area that needs to continue to receive attention and ongoing improvement is identifying and addressing mental health issues in our schools. It is an area critical to both safety and the educational quality of our schools. Mental health concerns among students is rising. The rates of incidence of depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide have risen over the decade. We must work toward improving identification and intervention in mental health concerns.

Drake: The January 2018 Referendum addressed updates to LTPS facilities including air-conditioning classrooms, upgrading modular buildings, adding a variety of safety and security upgrades, and other building updates. I think adding solar to the LHS/LMS parking lot would help to reduce energy costs and provide an additional revenue stream. It also should lengthen the useful life of the existing lot and is in keeping with LTPS’ “green” initiatives. Another area in need of attention is the perception of equity within LTPS. Over the years community members have spoken about the inequity between elementary schools in north Lawrence vs. south Lawrence. That belief can be corrosive to district unity. As a resident of south Lawrence, I find this concerning. While I do not believe it exists, I hope to correct that perception. I think the LTPS Equity Committee, of which I am a member, is a great step in that direction.

Why do you feel you are the right person to serve on the Board of Education?

DiPierro: I believe I am the right person to serve on the Board of Education because I believe that as a diverse community, Lawrence Township Schools will benefit from having a range of perspectives represented as well as a board that recognizes and can hear other perspectives. I am open to hearing voices different than my own and my own perspective is one of gained through the experiences and challenges in special education and the critical area of mental health in our schools. I believe all of our children should be able to access their educational potential and in order to achieve this goal we must eliminate the barriers that bar some students and some groups from receiving the quality education we believe our district provides.

Drake: The Board of Education needs people with diverse, useful skills who can work together to set policy and monitor performance for the betterment of all students. My education and experience have allowed me to be effective as a board member in managing district budgets, identifying top talent, enhancing training and development opportunities, managing employee relations, creating consistent policies, offering guidance on performance evaluations, and negotiating the last three labor contracts. These valuable skills coupled with my strong work ethic have helped me to be an active board leader. Over the past five years I have chaired the Board’s Personnel Committee, Finance & Facilities Committee, and Negotiations Committee, and was a member of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Professional Development Committee. With your support on Nov. 6, I hope to continue serving as a member of the Lawrence Township Board of Education.