Six candidates are running for three seats on the Hamilton Township Board of Education. The winners each will serve a three-year term on the board.
Longtime board member Anthony Celentano opted not to run for re-election, meaning there will be at least one new face on the body when it reorganizes in January 2020.
The candidates are incumbent Pamela Kelly, Jason McSheene, Kenneth Nehila, Bobby Sanborn, Janna Sheiman and incumbent Dina Thornton. Nehila and Sheiman are running as a bracketed slate, and will appear stacked on the ballot.
Pamela A. “Pam” Kelly, 57, is a current member of the Hamilton Township Board of Education, and seeks her third term on the board. An educator with 35 years experience, Kelly has served as a special education teacher, supervisor, principal, director of human resources and student teacher supervisor. Kelly earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Trenton State College/The College of New Jersey. She attended Hamilton Township schools for grades K-12. Kelly is a member of the board for Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, the Greater Wildwood Yacht Club and Mid-Atlantic Yacht Racing Association, as well as a member of the Zonta Club of Trenton/Mercer.
Jason McSheene, 33, is a medical communications director. He holds a PhD in molecular biology from Princeton University and a bachelor’s in biomedical sciences from Rochester Institute of Technology. McSheene and his wife live in the McGalliard Elementary School sending district, and have a 1-year-old daughter. This is his first run for elected office.
McSheene is a member of the board of trustees and former social justice co-chair for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, a member of the board of trustees for Child Care Connection (Mercer County) and a senior division judge for the annual Mercer County Science and Engineering Festival.
Kenneth Nehila, 44, has been a union sheet metal worker for 23 years, and a paraprofessional football coach at Hamilton High School West for nine years. He also volunteers as a coach at Sunnybrae Little League, Hamilton PAL and Hamilton Pop Warner. Nehila has two children in the district.
Bobby Sanborn, 33, is a profit improvement manager at Burlington Stores. He holds a master’s in business administration from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Rochester. This is his first run for elected office. Sanborn is a member of the school district’s Future Facilities Committee, a Grounds for Sculpture member and a member of Mercer County Club Sports.
Janna Sheiman, 37, is an attorney. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami and a law degree from New York Law School. She is chairman of the board of the Next Level Mentoring Program, which provides mentoring to young women and girls in the community. She has never held public office.
Dina Thornton, 48, is a current member of the Hamilton Township Board of Education, and has previously served both on the school board and on the Hamilton Township council. She works as a realtor at Weidel Real Estate and a hairstylist at Salon Cusato. A graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School, Thornton attended the Capri Institute of Cosmetology and Princeton School of Real Estate. She has volunteered as PTA president, vice president and secretary, as well as for Ryan’s Quest. Thornton has three children attending Hamilton Township schools.
The Hamilton Post provided the same three policy questions to each candidate, who then had a week to formulate written responses. The questions and responses appear below:
Question 1: Studies have shown that demographics are shifting in Hamilton. In part because of this, the district has held strategic planning meetings across the township to map out the future of the school district. What is your vision for the re-imagining of the district?
Kelly: Our district population is not balanced demographically within our schools. In order to better balance the district racially and socio-economically, we will need to work outside of the traditional school boundary lines. This could be achieved through the creation of magnet schools, such as what has been done in Montclair, N.J. That way families have input into school choice for their children. It will also assist us to focus resources for the various schools, creating programs of excellence aligning with their magnet areas rather than trying to offer everything everywhere. I don’t think, at this time, we are in the position to build another school or close current buildings. Hamilton Township voters recently passed a referendum to fund school projects in the areas of safety and security, accessibility and infrastructure stabilization. That work is still ongoing with improvements taking place in all buildings.
McSheene: We need to speak bluntly about the long-term capacity and health of our facilities. Any successful long-term solution for a healthy, vibrant Hamilton Township School District involves construction or annexation of at least one new school building within the next 10–15 years. This would be a long-term process that involves repurposing schools and some redistricting. We must work closely with our community stakeholders (families, educators, administrators, community members, etc) to develop clear 5- and 10-year plans that outline a phased facilities and districting strategy. If not, we face more cycles of large, multi-million-dollar, mandatory referendum updates to maintain continually aging infrastructure.
Nehila: With 24 buildings across the district that have an average age of 70, our infrastructure is aging. Our children deserve safe, secure, efficient buildings in which to learn. I would much rather see tax dollars going to education and not maintaining 70-year old buildings. Finding a way to ease that burden and introduce new facilities into this district should be priority.
Sanborn: I firmly believe the strategic planning the district is undertaking is important for the future of our students. One goal of the strategic plan that I am particularly interested in achieving is the development of new and updated school buildings. As a proud member of the Future Facilities subcommittee which is dealing with the aging school buildings in our district, I have seen the data, and it’s not good. The average building in our district is over 70 years old. It is imperative that we create new, state-of-the-art buildings equipped with the technology needed to get our students college and career ready. We must update our schools.
Sheiman: I am a member of the Strategic Planning and Facilities Planning committees, focusing on the future of Hamilton Schools. My vision of the district would include moving towards a K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12 system, and working to address overcrowding and overflow, to allow students to attend schools that are the closest to their homes and do not require extended time on buses. I believe that we need to find funding opportunities to help build new schools to address overcrowding concerns, and to maintain a low student to teacher ratio to provide strong opportunities and foundations for learning.
Thornton: Creating a plan is critical for the future of our school district. There is currently a Facilities Planning Committee, which is having discussions about our infrastructure and the future. There are so many possibilities that it is important to hear from all stakeholders. We have some challenges in Hamilton with older buildings and space. If we consider reconfiguring the grade levels in the district we would be able to open some much needed space and address equity throughout our schools. I believe that we need to look at where we can add on in the future if necessary. You need to engage the community and give everyone the opportunity to voice their opinions and ideas, then together we move forward.
Question 2: In the 2017-18 school year, Hamilton Township students were suspended for 1,459 days, the equivalent of eight school years. Elsewhere, educators have embraced a movement called restorative justice, which in part suggests schools should work with students on their issues instead of suspending them. Where do you stand on restorative justice? Should Hamilton implement it? Why or why not?
Kelly: I am strongly in favor of implementing the practice of restorative justice. It works to help students understand how the consequences of their behaviors affect others. It also provides them opportunities to make amends, make different choices in the future and work to address the root cause of behaviors.
The district and school board agree that our suspension rates are too high, so in 2017, a committee made up of staff members, administrators, community and board members was formed to address the suspension problem. They have been using data provided through the student database in Power School to identify causes and patterns in suspensions. Administrators and staff have participated in professional development related to the areas of restorative justice, trauma informed schools and other student support practices which are then being turn-keyed within the schools. The process of changing the culture of discipline from being punitive to being transformative and supportive has begun but we still have a lot of work ahead of us in order to make the transition successful with students, staff and the community.
Part of the strategic planning process that has been going on for the past year is focused on the area of school culture to provide alternatives to suspension that support both students and staff members.
McSheene: My platform is based on “Education, Equality, and Empathy.” On average, I believe that suspensions rarely satisfy any of these ideals. Suspensions reduce time learning, are not principled in equal access to quality education, and are not empathetic to the students’ true needs. In many cases, suspensions may actively harm the education of students by sequestering them from already limited educational time and can further aggravate the root causes of misbehavior. Additionally, out-of-school suspensions place an extra burden on working parents/caregivers. Restorative justice practices, such as mediation and resolution building, should be a first-line approach to handling students who demonstrate continued disruptive conflicts with others in their learning environments.
Nehila: As a coach, I’m a big believer in accountability. Students should absolutely be held accountable for their actions. I also believe the punishment should fit the crime. Any behavior that deserves a suspension is ultimately a cry for attention, so some form of restorative justice can absolutely be beneficial.
Sanborn: I believe in restorative justice. However, to be clear, there are certain circumstances, such as bringing a weapon to school, that warrant a suspension. Using restorative justice does not mean no suspensions occur; but studies show they do decline. And that is key—students who are not in the regular classroom are not getting a proper education. Restorative justice is a system that requires students to address their misdeed and engage with the affected students. Great classrooms already do this—administration and educators work together to build positive behavior systems to praise great choices. Restorative justice simply adds a stronger framework to a school’s discipline system to avoid systemic student removal from class.
Sheiman: My experience has been that working with students to identify and address underlying issues is more productive than simply suspending them. When the underlying concern is not addressed, the behaviors or activity will continue, and any reputation or preconceived notions become more pronounced. By engaging the students, working to connect with them and provide them the help and assistance they need, I believe we would see a reduction in behaviors, a reduction in suspensions, and with that we will see an increase in graduation rates and student retention.
Thornton: Restorative justice is an alternative method of discipline. When we start building relationships with the children and work with them to address any issues they are having we are helping them to be successful. There are many different aspects to this program and It is important to keep our children in school and learning but at the same time accountable for their actions. This is a program that the district should research and discuss with all stakeholders.
Question 3: In 2017-18, 47 percent of black students and 41 percent of Hispanic students at the third grade level in the district failed to meet the standard on the state’s English and Language Arts assessment. The same year, 59 percent of black students at the 11th grade level failed to meet state standards. The data paints a picture of a districtwide achievement gap, with nonwhite students being left behind. What can the board do to combat this?
Kelly: In the last couple years, the district has become more data driven when it comes to allotting Title I services. For years, it had been that staff and programs assigned to support our struggling learners were deployed at the same buildings each year because that was how it was always done. We started looking at our in-house assessments and realized the buildings which might have been most in need of support years ago were not the same ones currently identified. That caused us to reassign staff, programs and funding to better support the needs of the current population of students. We now do this annually to make sure services are being deployed to best meet the needs of our learners.
Over the last 2-3 years, our population of students from Spanish and non-English speaking households has more than doubled. HTSD has teamed up with The College of New Jersey to provide training to teachers so they can earn their certification for teaching English Language Learners.
The district has also provided opportunities for more teachers at the elementary level to get training in the Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory method. These techniques are the foundation of the Wilson Reading program, which research has shown to be successful with struggling readers. We implemented the Wilson Reading Fundations program throughout the district for kindergarten and early elementary students. Those students will soon be reaching the third grade. Preliminary data from in-house assessments shows a significant increase in the number of students reading on grade level. We feel this is a good start but know that there is much more work to be done.
McSheene: A friend once said, “Jason, you’re really smart for a Black guy.” Minority students need to be considered part of “One Hamilton” instead of “others.” As a Black, Latino recipient of a United Negro College Fund fellowship during my PhD dissertation, combating achievement gaps is incredibly important to me. The Board’s role is one that understands that each student, regardless of racial and ethnic background, is different. No single solution will improve education for all students of a particular race. We need to attract, retain and support educators who demonstrate a commitment to Education, Equality, and Empathy. The Board must also recognize and redress errors when educators fail to fulfill these goals.
Nehila: The Board needs to examine why black and Hispanic students are not benefitting from the same programs and curriculum that white students are. Do we need to offer more tutoring? Adjust curriculum? Lack of parental involvement and language barriers with parents could also be considered as factors.
Sanborn: The first solution to any problem is to admit there is one. This districtwide achievement gap is an equity problem. We must ensure students who are behind get access to the best educators, curriculum, and accommodations to be successful. The district made a huge stride with the WIN (What I Need) period in elementary. But more can be done. We need to leverage the rich academic performance and growth data we have for every student. We need to use that data to inform our Response to Intervention (RTI) strategies to better meet our students at their current level to help them grow. We need to focus more time on those students. Their future depends on it.
Sheiman: The statistics do show that we have students being left behind. The board needs to analyze the current programs in place, and if they are not addressing a need and there is a population of students whose needs are not being addressed, we need to look to changing it or enhancing it. A school board’s role is to promote the education of its students, and if we are not able to meet student needs, we need to adapt and modify the programs. As a board, we should look into assistance programs, whether it’s reading programs, providing tutoring support, or more innovative teaching methods to provide stronger opportunities for all of our students.
Thornton: Closing the achievement gap is vital to the success of all students. The district needs to continue to identify students that are struggling and get them the resources they need. At the elementary level closing the gap is so critical to the student’s academic success. Programs need to be available for the students that need the additional help. At the secondary level the district has recently implemented additional resources to address students that are struggling with after school tutoring and additional courses. The Board of Education can continue to support the administration as it continues to implement programs and resources to address the achievement gap while constantly reviewing the data to determine its progress and success.