Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly said that candidate Christopher Emigholz was appointed to a seat on the board that expires at the end of 2020. His term actually ends at the end of 2019. Also, the story originally contained a misspelling for the name of longtime board member Thomas Halm.
Four candidates are up for three seats on the Robbinsville Township Board of Education: incumbents Christopher Emigholz, Craig Heilman and Jane Luciano will face off against challenger Avery Hutchinson. Emigholz was appointed to the board in September to fill a term vacated by Thomas Halm. Unless re-elected, Emigholz’s term will end Jan. 1, 2020.
Christoper Emigholz, 42, has lived in Robbinsville for eight years. He went to Half Hollow Hills West High School on Long Island and graduated from Johns Hopkins University with degrees in political science and history. He went on to earn a master’s degree in public policy from Rutgers University, where he concentrated on education and urban policy. Emigholz is currently the associate executive director/budget director for the New Jersey State Senate. He has three children currently in the school district.
Craig Heilman, 50, has lived in Robbinsville since 1998. He attended Ford City High School in Pennsylvania and studied business and accounting at the University of Pittsburh. He also earned an MBA at Rider University and currently works as a controller for a mid-sized company in Pennsauken. Heilman’s daughter and stepdaughter both went through Robbinsville schools.
Avery Hutchinson, 46, has lived in Robbinsville for 22 years. She grew up in Duluth, Georgia and attended Duluth High School. She majored in chemistry and minored in religion at Colgate University, and she earned an MBA from Drexel University. She also has a project management professional certification. Hutchinson currently works as a business lead for a company that runs clinical trials in the pharmaceutical industry. Her son graduated from Robbinsville High School in June, and her daughter will graduate in 2022. This is Hutchinson’s first time running for office.
Jane Luciano, 57, has lived in Robbinsvlle for 23 years. She has volunteered as a Cub Scout leader, religious education teacher and Meals on Wheels driver, as well as serving on the HR board of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. She grew up in Newark and attended Archbishop Walsh High School in Irvington. She graduated from Douglass College with a bachelor’s in psychology and a minor in science management, and she has a master’s in human resources from Rutgers University. Luciano currently works as an independent consultant and owner of Lightshouse-Consulting Partners. She previously worked in HR at BMS, Citibank and Mobil Oil. She has served on the board since 2017. All three of her sons are in or have graduated from Robbinsville schools.
The Robbinsville Advance sent questionnaires to each candidate. Their responses follow.
Question 1: This board will be responsible for choosing a new superintendent. What qualities will your ideal candidate possess?
Emigholz: From my experience working in multiple school districts, educational leadership is an underrated factor in their success, and this may be the most important issue facing our board in the near future. Holding all district employees accountable for the high standards set for them is key. It is also critical to find a superintendent that can balance their role as an instructional leader with their fiscal and management responsibilities.
Heilman: Our new superintendent will need to possess strong leadership and business skills, as well as be knowledgeable in curriculum and school policies. We have a great legacy to build on in Robbinsville and the new Superintendent will have to be able to work well with not only the school board, but the current administration as well. It will be exciting to see our schools through a fresh set of eyes and begin a new era.
Hutchinson: Beyond the obvious of education and administrative leadership experience, I want to understand how they work under pressure while balancing financial constraints. We need a leader that can continue to unite the schools while pushing our schools to the next level through innovation supported by data-driven measures of success. I want to know that when we spend taxpayer money, that it is spent in a way that supports greater performance and strategic plans.
Luciano: As someone with a great deal of HR experience, I have many years of experience both hiring my own team and helping my colleagues hire critical senior leadership roles like the superintendent. In this case, we need strategic leadership and vision. We have a highly regarded school district that’s successful in so many areas. We need to challenge ourselves to do more and I’d like a leader of our schools who’s driven to help take us to the next level. We need an great people leader that both inspires our staff and holds them accountable for exceptional work. And we need a leader that is both a spectacular educator and a great general manager that can manage our significant budget and facilities.
Question 2: What is your opinion on the current student activity fee?
Emigholz: A school district must create and foster educational opportunities for ALL students, and student activities are an important part of that. With increasing state school aid and better, more efficient budgeting, Robbinsville should be able to eliminate student activity fees so that money is not a factor in students getting enhanced educational opportunities outside the classroom.
Heilman: I understand the need for these fees while we were severely underfunded. But, the state has made moves to begin getting us back to full funding. As a result, I was one of the leaders on the school board that pushed for eliminating these fees last year. Ultimately, we decided on cutting them in half. With more funding from the state, we should easily be able to continue phasing these out until they are gone.
Hutchinson: Our clubs are fully funded now. The March 18 budget incorporated a more modest reduction only after the appeal of parents and one board member. The 50 percent was only achieved after the rejection of the original budget by the county. These fees, though, are only a portion of what it costs a family for a child to participate in extracurricular activities and sports. I am fully supportive of this direct fee relief.
Luciano: I am very happy that we were able to lessen the current activity fees by 50 percent. Many in Robbinsville can afford this fee but are paying high taxes already. For other residents, this is a burden and also perhaps a barrier for children to much needed extra curricular activities that teach kids incredible lessons like teamwork, leadership and resilience as well as, create lasting memories of their youth. I do think we should continue to look at this fee as the state continues to increase our state aid.
Question 3: The school district seems to be squeezed between residents who are demanding lower taxes and residents who want to adequately fund school programming. How do you think the district can budget better?
Emigholz: I don’t think the school district is squeezed at all, and the budget process this past year demonstrates that. Classroom spending increased while school taxes were lowered. Finding efficiencies, improving budget practices and expected state aid increases should allow that win-win budgeting to continue. I think we already provide adequate funding for school programming, but I am sure we can more efficiently use our resources to create further opportunities for all our students.
Heilman: Last year, we kept taxes flat, while adding over $2 million in spending, most of which went to the classroom. Budgets are not as simple as lower taxes versus a better education. There are a lot of factors that go into a budget. It is vital that we have experienced people on the board that know this and can make the best decisions for everyone. My finance background makes me the ideal candidate to accomplish this goal.
Hutchinson: I am thankful the original budget was rejected by the county for failure to meet adequacy and fair share expectations. I want to see “reduce taxes” as a side effect of wise spending and investment rather than as a directive. I’d like more support for mental health and ESL services and an expansion of electives to help children explore and grow. I want more opportunities for our teachers to improve their skills in the classroom.
Luciano: his past year, we worked up front as a board to develop board goals for the budget cycle . These goals included both funneling more dollars into the classroom, lowering class size and lowering the tax burden for our residence; both of these were aimed at getting the best education for our dollars for our kids while balancing tax payer needs. With the significant increase in our state aid and some redirecting of funds that were creating big surpluses in the past, we were able to accomplish both of these objectives: we added teachers and other needed personnel, added curriculum, improved our security measures and brought much needed improvements to facilities in our schools and keep taxes flat. This took foresight and planning, as well as, teamwork and listening to all our constituents.
Question 4: Why should Robbinsville residents vote for you?
Emigholz: From working in a Baltimore elementary school through Americorps to teaching high school in Atlanta through Teach For America to improving New Jersey schools through Trenton’s public policy arena, I made a difference in helping students get a better education in every single job I have had since graduating college 20 years ago. I can combine my passion for improving schools, my community service commitment and my expertise in education policy to truly help Robbinsville.
Heilman: I have dedicated thousands of hours volunteering in this town. I have been on the Planning Board, Recreation Committee and Environmental Committees. I have also volunteered in local organizations such as Lifetree Church, the Soccer and Softball Associations and Ability Tree. As we head into a new era in our schools with a new superintendent, we need experienced people on the board that can lead us through this exciting new time.
Hutchinson: I’m practical, pragmatic, analytical and independent. I have learned to develop and implement policies supported by regulatory guidance and with full stakeholder engagement. I listen to concerns but also look for validated and objective data to gain understanding of the return on investment and measurements of success. When we spend money, it must be spent wisely. Our community deserves transparency and explanations for how the spending aligns with legislative and school objectives.
Luciano: I am a proven leader both within the school board and in my business life. As a Fortune 50 executive in Human Resources, Learning and internal consulting, I acquired many skills that I can leverage on the school board: how to handle HR strategic issues, active listening with empathy, managing budgets of $100M and advising leaders to solve problems and leveraging opportunities. In my first term on the school board; I had the opportunity to lead several of the subcommittees including Community Relations, Personnel and Negotiations. I also have served as Vice President and President. In these roles, I have brought my strengths: passion for kids, driving strategic long-term decisions and helping to build a school board that listens to all inputs.