My previous columns were intended to shed light on many achievements, thoughts, and motivations coming from our school board. Today is different. As many of you know, I did not run for re-election so at the end of this month I am stepping down after almost 10 years as your representative. Therefore this, my final school column, reflects solely my own views.
It has truly been my honor to serve the students, district, and community of Hopewell Valley. I am humbled by the confidence you showed in me over the last decade. I’d like to give extra thanks for my interactions with board of education members and administrators that helped make this experience rewarding beyond my wildest imagination.
To my detractors, I can only say that I did the best I could and I have no doubt that I made mistakes along the way. I truly hope new leadership provides improvements that everyone finds satisfactory.
My objective in joining 10 years ago was to leave our board and district in better condition than it was when I arrived. By my admittedly subjective measurement, that goal was achieved.
At the time I began, perpetual disagreements plagued relationships both within the board of education and between the board and the neighboring community. The infighting was so bad that for at least the previous 20 years, the district had been unable to keep a superintendent long enough to complete, let alone renew, a contract. Since studies show that the longer a superintendent stayed in his or her position the greater the positive effect on academic achievement, Hopewell had been clearly on the losing side of that equation.
Flash to the end of my tenure and relations had significantly improved within the board and between the board and the community. The community has generously donated a turf field and neighbors worked collaboratively to ensure it was well placed. Further, our superintendent, Tom Smith, has been renewed twice and by most objective measures, district academic achievement has improved. While I cannot take credit for our improved achievement — that resulted from Dr. Smith’s administration, teachers, students, families and community support — I can share in being part of a board that laid a supportive foundation to encourage positive momentum for the administration to execute on the vision.
Hopewell is among the most well-respected districts. For years the business administrator, superintendent and board president all headed their respective county associations. At a state level, Hopewell is often cited as an example for best practices. The superintendent and I have initiated important action, testified on various educational issues, and coauthored an article for a statewide journal about race, income and gender.
One of our highest priorities has been to foster a climate where both educators and students can thrive. We can always do more, but it is a laudable goal and one that has achieved positive advances.
Over the years, we have focused on being a good global citizen both in and out of the classroom. The award-winning greening of our district has saved money, been Earth-friendly, and set a great example for students and the community. We’ve enjoyed improved educational outcomes, equity, and social emotional health. We have often led the way on important issues. For example, Hopewell was among the first districts to update our policies in an effort to address inconsistent homework expectations. Our efforts made local and national news.
While our district made groundbreaking strides on some issues, we deliberately approached other decisions more slowly. Our administration immediately recognized the advantages classroom technology (and specifically 1:1) and very enthusiastically embraced it, while many board members took a far more cautious, even apprehensive approach. The combination resulted in several pilots, thorough cost justifications, and a slower, more careful rollout.
The referendum that our community generously passed provided resources to correct shortcomings like leaking roofs, excessive temperatures, and inappropriate lighting, so the focus can be on learning rather than facility issues.
All of our greatest accomplishments took time and slow steady leadership which I credit to our superintendent. The hard work was executed and accomplished by our dedicated administration and staff.
I speak with the utmost sincerity when I share that under my leadership, our board of education never lost sight of the fact that the district’s greatest asset is its people. Just like every other worthwhile accomplishment, the board has taken a thoughtful approach to investing our time and money for excellence. As a result, our teachers are among the best in the state and are paid accordingly. The Department of Education reports that with an $82K median salary, HVRSD is the highest paid in Mercer County (excluding Special Services) and in the top 6 percent across the state.
I am proud of the fact that we have done well by our teachers through providing excellent pay, professional development, and state of the art facilities for the best working conditions. The board of education has done so because each board member is also a parent and community member. We are on the same side and want happy, motivated teachers to educate our children.
In the past 10 years, I participated in negotiations for three teacher contracts, two of which I have seen through to completion. Every settlement has taken time to get to the most equitable outcome. In January, the next step of negotiations resume
Seasoned teachers and district staff know our hearts and our children — I caution anyone from allowing outside influences to degrade morale as Hopewell works through the process of completing the current negotiation. I remind everyone that previously settlements took time and concluded after the previous contract expired. In each case, retroactive pay was included so all teachers were made whole and no one has worked time that wasn’t covered by the eventual increase. It is important to bargain in good faith with a common end goal of equitable resolution.
As previously mentioned, my greatest pride is being part of board that overcame animus by having difficult conversations and doing our best to be transparent and inclusive which eventually resulted in a supportive board that provided fertile ground where district progress could flourish. I close by offering advice. Do not avoid tough conversations or exclude members with unpopular opinions. The path of least resistance does not always yield the best results. Please be brave and understand the most worthwhile outcomes are collaborative and may be worth riding out a bumpy road.
I am overcome with gratitude for the tremendous opportunity to serve our community. I hope that my service has delivered appreciable benefit to the board of education, our district, community and especially the students.
Lisa Wolff, vice president of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education, served three terms on the school board but did not seek re-election this year.