Two incumbents on the Ewing School Board, Lisa McConnell and Anthony Messina, are running for three open seats. A third board member may be elected if they receive write-in votes. Not running for reelection this year is Maria Benedetti.
McConnell, 48, has lived in Ewing for her entire life, and is a third-generation resident of the township. She lives in the Prospect Heights section of town with her daughters, Allyson, a senior at EHS, and Katelyn, a sophomore at the school. They both attended Antheil and Fisher Middle School.
She graduated from Ewing High School and holds a bachelor’s in communications from Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey). McConnell has been in sales for most of her career, and she currently works as a territory sales manager for the New Jersey region of a national window coverings company.
Messina, 52, is a retired Ewing Township police officer and is currently employed by the Township of Ewing as an inspector in the Code Enforcement Department. A graduate of the Ewing Public Schools, he attended Trenton State College and Mercer County Community College. A native of Ewing, Messina grew up in the Prospect Heights section of town and currently lives with his wife, Kim, in the old Ewingville section of the township. His daughter currently attends the Ewing School District.
Messina is a former coach of the EHS football program and a member of the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame Committee. A former member of the Ewing Township Drug and Alcohol Alliance, he serves as a volunteer firefighter with the Prospect Heights Volunteer Fire Company No. 1.
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The Observer posed five questions to McConnell and Messina regarding issues pertaining to the school district. Their answers appear below.
1Why did you run for reelection to the school board?
McConnell: The past three years serving on the school board have been very rewarding for me. I am very proud of the work that we have done to make sure our schools are safe and successful. Being involved in my daughters’ education has always been a major priority for me and serving on the board ensures that I am helping to make the best decisions for all students and staff in the district. I went through the Ewing school system myself and it is really great to be able to give back to the community that helped shape me into the person I am today. I look forward to working with the district administration and other board members for three more years of successful endeavors.
Messina: I am running for re-election to the Board of Education because I understand that education is the key to success, and that growing future leaders starts with the commitments we make to the young people of our community. As the current vice president of the board, I understand the importance of making decisions and enacting policies that affect all of our students.
I am running for re-election so that I may continue to work with my fellow board members and the school district as a whole to continue fiscal support, increase accountability and transparency and be a part of responsible pro-active budgetary allocations.
I want to assist in continuing to provide our teachers, staff and administrators with all of the tools necessary for them to be effective in working with our students.
2Parental involvement in their child’s education is important. What can the district do to help get parents more engaged with their children’s academic efforts?
McConnell: I believe being involved in your child’s academic efforts is a choice parents have to make themselves. Most research shows that parental involvement in school improves behavior, attendance and overall student achievement. I think the district does a very good job of providing tools for parents to be involved. At the younger ages parent conferences are scheduled early in the year to address any issues teachers are concerned with or parents may have. At the high school level there are multiple programs held for parents in the evenings on topics such as college planning, financial aid, PSAT/SAT testing, etc. We have also held outreach events for our ESL families to help them become familiar with the programs available to their children.
All of our schools have parent organizations that meet regularly to raise funds and plan events for students. As a parent with children in the district, I have always found the staff and administration to have an open door policy for parents to address issues and get information. For parents that choose to be involved, many opportunities are in place. They just need to be taken advantage of.
Messina: We need to continue to encourage parents to be pro-actively involved in their children’s education. Communication is the key to engaging parents to become more involved. Contact between parent, teacher and student is extremely important.
3What is one challenge facing the school district that you believe deserves more attention?
McConnell: I think school districts across the country are all facing the increasing concerns about our students’ mental health. In Mercer County, we have seen tragedy strike multiple times in the teen demographic. It is an issue that is very real but not always talked about in an open forum. I currently serve on a district task force that is dedicated to focusing on student mental and emotional well being.
We discuss ways of creating programs and assistance for any student that is struggling with their own issues and making help easily accessible. In addition we are looking for ways to reduce the increasing amount of stress students are facing in a highly competitive academic and athletic environment. The administration has hired additional counselors at each of our schools that are trained in specifically dealing with mental health situations. I don’t think this issue can get enough attention. The district has made good strides to try and combat this critical subject, and I would like to see continued resources and education in the future dedicated to it.
Messina: We must be able to continue to maintain the school district’s current educational services and programs within the State of New Jersey’s 2 percent cap law.
4Are 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?
McConnell: Approximately 80 percent of the school budget is dedicated to educator and administrative salaries. This number is mostly a fixed expense that would be difficult to reduce. This only leaves 20 percent of the budget for all other programs/supplies/maintenance, etc. In our current situation of a 2 percent cap on tax increases keeping the budget maintained without cutting programs is not an easy task. The successful passing of our school referendum recently is a huge help now and for the future in keeping the district financially sound.
The projects that will be worked on with these funds will help maintain and improve our buildings and grounds, expand our athletic facilities, allow for additional safety measures in our schools and create healthier environments for our students to learn in.
All of these things will ensure the district will be safe and effective for the next generation of students. Even with the budget constraints, we have been able to add some programs to the district.Adding more resources to the drama club at Fisher Middle School, adding counselors at multiple locations and expanding our Project Unified at the high school and middle school. I would love to see our Unified program continue to expand at all of our schools. This project brings general education students together with special education students in various activities, sports and classes. The partnership, respect and pride this brings to students is immeasurable and benefits everyone involved.
While cutting programs is an easy way to reduce costs, it also has negative effects on our students. The Ewing schools have a great, well-rounded offering of programs and activities that I would hate to see taken away.
Messina: The Ewing Public Schools the township have a shared services agreement that is a benefit to not only our public school students, but the greater community at large. We are able to save on costs with the agreement. Previous school boards began a program at the O’Brien Academy where we are able to provide educational services to our students that would otherwise have seen those students go out of district at a significant cost. We have been able to continue this program and provide our students with these programs that they need and deserve in house at a significant savings to the school district and taxpayer.
These are a few examples of programs that we have improved and added to in the current budget cycle. The board has improved, enhanced and expanded academic, athletic and artistic programs for our students. The following areas that are being addressed are: adding an additional music teacher at Fisher; adding staff to support students’ social, emotional and psychological needs, which would include funding to continue initiatives such as support for student wellness, drug awareness and staff professional development on student psychology; supporting the growing theater program at Fisher; adding an assistant fall cheerleading coach at EHS; and enhancing our technology support staff team and approach.
5Effective communication between the district and parents and students is crucial at all times. 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?
McConnell: We live in a time where technology plays a critical part in communicating with any group or audience. The district has done a great job of using various platforms to let parents know about any important information or event. We have a twitter feed that is updated almost daily, our district website home page shows all major announcements, the Genesis parent portal is available 24 hours a day for parents to check on their children’s grades, and we use an instant alert system for notifications. For those families that don’t use technology, they could always attend our monthly meetings.The school board members would be thrilled to have a packed room full of people who are seeking information. I believe it is critical for parents to know what the district goals and plans are. Communicating that information is something the administration sees as a priority and will continue to make available to the public in various ways.
Messina: We, as a board of education, continue to work with the superintendent and his staff to get the school district’s vision and purpose out to the Ewing community. We do this in a number of ways. We utilize resources such as: our recently created “Community Connector” that is sent out via email to all of our stakeholders that updates them on all of the latest happenings of the school district; our instant alert system that provides an automated phone call/message that goes out with updated information; and social media sites, such as the school district’s Twitter account and the use of YouTube, where the Ewing Public Schools has its own channel. We find these resources to be very beneficial in our current social media driven society.