Nine candidates are running for three seats on the Hamilton Township Board of Education. Each winner receives a 3-year term on the school board.
Girard Casale, 54, attended Saint Anthony’s and Mercer County Community College, where he studied culinary arts. By trade, he is an executive chef. This is his third consecutive year running for school board. Last year, he ran on an anti-referendum platform.
Rich Crockett is an engineering technician with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, and is the grandson of the namesake of Crockett Middle School.
Sue Ferrara, 64, has been a member of the Hamilton Board of Education since 2016. She is a freelancer writer and researcher by trade. Ferrara holds a bachelor’s in elementary education from SUNY-Geneseo, a master’s in communications from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate in communications from the University of Maryland. A resident of Hamilton Township for 15 years, Ferrara previously served on the Jamesville-DeWitt Board of Education in Onondaga County, New York.
Chandler Georgiou, 20, is a recent graduate of Steinert High School currently attending Rutgers University full-time. He also holds a part-time job at Walgreens. This is Georgiou’s first run for elected office. A lifelong Hamilton resident, he is a member of the Greek Orthodox community and was the president of the Greek Orthodox Youth Association. In addition to Steinert, Georgiou attended Langtree Elementary School and Crockett Middle School.
Angelo Hall, 56, is the former executive director of the John O. Wilson Neighborhood Center in Hamilton. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Rutgers University. Hall had two children go through the district, attending Yardville Heights Elementary School, Grice Middle School and Hamilton High School West.
Richard J. Kanka, 67, has served on the Hamilton Township Board of Education since 2009. A graduate of the Hamilton school district, Kanka is retired from plumbers and pipefitters Local Union 9. He is the president and co-founder of the Megan Nicole Kanka Foundation, Inc. Kanka has volunteered as a coach for Hamilton Girls’ Softball Association, as a fireman for Groveville Fire Company and a member of PTAs throughout the township. Kanka had two children graduate from Hamilton High School West (2000 and 2004), and is a lifelong Hamilton resident.
Sherry Morency, 50, is a real estate manager for Intercity Redevelopment. A lifelong Hamilton resident, Morency attended Klockner Elementary, Nottingham Middle School and Steinert High School, as well as Mercer County Community College. Her children also graduated from the Hamilton school system, and her grandson currently attends University Heights Elementary School. Morency has volunteered for Girl Scouts of America, Nottingham Little League, Hamilton A’s Organization, and school PTAs. She previously ran for school board in 2017.
Janna Sheiman, 37, is an attorney running for public office for the first time. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami and a Juris Doctor from New York Law School. She has lived in Hamilton for six years. Sheiman is active with the Next Level Youth program out of Hightstown, an organization that provides tutoring and mentoring services for the youth in our area.
Cynthia Simon is an employee of Educational Testing Service. A lifelong Hamilton Township, Simon graduated from Nottingham High School. She has two children, one who graduated from hamilton High West and another still in township schools.
Incumbent Michelle Episcopo is not running for re-election.
The Hamilton Post provided the same five questions via email to each of the nine candidates. Casale and Hall, who have not appeared at any campaign events, did not respond to repeated inquiries from the Post. Crockett and Simon, who skipped the public forums held before press time but have appeared at their own campaign events, did not complete the questionnaire. They called the questions “complex,” and said the Post’s word limit was too strict for them to adequately explain their positions. Five candidates, including Crockett and Simon’s running mate Sherry Morency, turned in responses. Their answers appear below:
1School safety and security have become conversation topics nationwide after a rash of school shootings in the last year. Has the Hamilton Township School District done enough to address security at its schools?
Ferrara: Thanks to those Hamilton Township voters who supported the referendum, the district has been able to make upgrades in security, including installing new security systems in buildings. Included is training for staff on how to use the system. The district has also hired a new Coordinator of School Safety. The district runs drills on its own; it works with the NJ Department of Education School Preparedness and Emergency Planning Department. I was fortunate enough to experience one of those drills. This office does amazing work.
Ultimately, keeping students safe lies with the entire community.
Georgiou: The referendum that was passed is addressing a lot of school safety needs. It upgrades our camera systems to be state of the art. We need to work with the township to get more resource officers for the elementary schools as well.
Kanka: With the passage of the referendum the district has allocated 9.2 million dollars for new doors and hardware both interior and exterior, new security surveillance and safety film for lower level window glass.
Morency: Hamilton was doing as much as it could have done within the current budget’s restraints. However, the referendum has now allowed us to focus on a security plan or to implement the best state-of-the-art solutions to ensure a safer environment for all students and staff. I would like to see more building perimeter protection and/or patrols to complement the security hardware installations, i.e. cameras, entry systems, etc.
Sheiman: I do not believe that the district has done enough as yet to address security in our schools, although we are in the right direction. We should look into exit doors that are similar to hotel doors, easily opened from the inside but locked from the outside, so all visitors entering the building will be signed in by security. We also need to utilize our student resource officers to build trust and respect to increase reporting and investigation of concerns before they are able to escalate.
2Nonwhite students are now the majority in the Hamilton Township School District. Recent school boards have not reflected that reality. Is it the board’s responsibility to represent these underrepresented segments of the population?
Ferrara: School boards legislate when nine people come together and hold a meeting to do the business of the public school district. The word public means the community as a whole; it doesn’t mean a segment of society. I believe school board members are duty bound to represent the needs of all the children in the district. That becomes a challenge in a district as large and diverse as ours with a tight budget.
Georgiou: Yes, it is the responsibility of the school board to represent all students in the district. My goal if elected is to give each and every student the proper education that they deserve and need to be successful in life.
Kanka: The Hamilton Township Board of Education does have a very diverse population, and all students are all given the same opportunity. The district and board does not discriminate against any student, the same curriculum is applied to all students as per NJDOE guidelines.
Morency: Yes, absolutely! It is the board’s sworn duty to represent ALL students regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, etc.
Sheiman: The Board of Education has a responsibility to represent all the residents of Hamilton. Ultimately, the board should reflect the population that it serves in terms of diversity and understanding. The board should be taking proactive steps to ensure that they are engaging the community to understand the individual concerns and problems addressed by all the residents of Hamilton and to work to equally represent all of the students to provide an equitable education.
3Every year, the school district spends more than $1 million to send fewer than 200 students to charter schools. The tuition money for charter school students comes out of the public school budget. Though not controlled by the school board, charter schools affect decisions made by the board and the district as a whole. Do you support charter schools? And what should the board do to cope with the funds lost to charter schools?
Ferrara: This year, the district is projected to spend about $2.4M for 176 students to attend charter schools. These are schools which operate using Hamilton taxpayer dollars without Hamilton taxpayer oversight.
What frustrates me most about charter schools is their ability to experiment educationally while the state holds a tight rein on traditional public schools. So a school designed to teach only boys, or only girls, can receive a charter. Newark has at least two such schools; a public school could not segregate by sex. Public schools should be afforded the same opportunities.
Georgiou: I do not support charter schools. As a board we need to look into why parents are sending kids out of district and then look into what changes can be made to keep the kids in our own schools. Until we decrease the number of students using charter schools we need to carefully create a balanced budget that takes into account the lost funds.
Kanka: I support any parent who believes they can achieve the best education for their child. My issue is the same educational guidelines do not apply to charter schools. When a parent wants their child to return to the public schools the majority of the student will not meet same requirements to return to their new grade level.
Morency: I applaud what charter schools have been doing in lieu of the absence of magnet schools, a.k.a., STEM schools, but I am not a fan when it comes to impacting our budget. Being that charter schools are legislated and permissible in New Jersey, I would attempt to rally all school boards to petition the State Board of Education to fund these schools independently from public school financing by the state.
Sheiman: Charter schools can be utilized to help fill a function that is not or cannot be addressed by the public school system, such as providing programs for students with intensive needs. My concern with charter schools, they are a publicly funded private school, they have the ability to be selective about who they enroll and who they remove from the program while receiving resident tax funds to function. They also have the ability to remove students from their programs back into the public schools, without transferring the students educational funding with them.
4With the process underway to fix deficiencies targeted in last year’s referendum, what do you see as the most urgent need for the school district’s buildings?
Ferrara: With all the repairs going on, our buildings will be fine while we come together as a community and decide what the district is going to look like going forward. The district has paid for a demographic study. The community needs to talk about what it would like to see happen. Once the district has done that, then we can decide what to do with buildings.
Georgiou: Security should be at the top of the list for things to be upgraded and approved on.
Kanka: School security was top priority at the time of initiation of the referendum funding.
Morency: Security and regular scheduled maintenance are the utmost concerns of the school district’s buildings. All other items that were in the referendum are currently being implemented.
Sheiman: There are still some critical concerns that need to be addressed. Some of our schools are still being reported as having holes in the walls, mice and bees in the elementary and middle schools, mold issues and ceilings in need of repair. We need to identify the safety concerns such as these that need to be addressed and remediated and take affirmative steps to correct them.
5According to the 2016-17 state School Performance Reports, Hamilton’s high schools are underachieving, with students at Hamilton West, Nottingham and Steinert chronically absent and lagging behind state standards in academics. They are the only suburban high schools in Mercer County to receive the lowest marks in each applicable category. What can be done to improve student achievement?
Ferrara: Kids will come to school if it is interesting; if they are involved in their learning; and if they feel valued in their learning community. Many changes have been made to the curriculum over the last 17 months since Dr. Rocco started and hired Anthony Scotto as Director of Curriculum and Instruction.
Unfortunately, the district has a big mountain to climb because of the neglect of academics over the years. Remember, there was the insurance scandal; then the hiring of a superintendent who barely lasted a year and a half; and then the board hired an interim. But now, with a permanent superintendent and administrative team members who love and model learning, the district should see improved results.
Georgiou: We need to investigate why students are deciding to skip school so often. Once that issue is fixed, it will bring better test results for our district because students will be able to take full advantage of their education that they are offered.
Kanka: The district has been through some transitioning with a superintendent leaving unannounced in 2015. The district had to scramble to hire an interim superintendent then process into forming a committee to search for a new superintendent. This has had an adverse effect on test scores, the addition of PARCC testing has also put new burdens on staff and students. The hiring of the new superintendent Dr. Rocco has made a positive impact within the district, and I’m sure the scores will be reflected in the near future.
Morency: Based on previous rankings of our schools, it is alarming to say the least. I think a curriculum that seeks out to identify the needs and the strengths of students will prove to be most effective. The schools and teachers should also provide more real-world application of what is being taught so that students better understand and retain the curriculum.
Sheiman: This is absolutely cause for concern, as our schools and our students deserve to have an education that makes them competitive. We as a community need to work with our school districts to identify the areas of concern. If elected to the board, I would be meeting with our students and parents, learning about what the concerns are and the barriers to learning, and working with our administration to revamp our programs or find grants to help provide additional learning services to students who need the individualized instruction.