There are three seats on the Hopewell Valley Board of Education up for election this year: one Borough seat and two Township seats. Five candidates, Michael Coco, Peter M. DiDonato, William Herbert, John Mason and Ashutosh K. Pathak, are running for the Township seats.
Michael Coco, 39, has lived in Hopewell since 2012. He earned a degree in biology from York College of Pennsylvania. He also has a nursing degree from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and a law degree from Rutgers-Newark. He currently works full time in healthcare risk management and per diem as an emergency room nurse and university infirmary nurse. This is his first time running for office. Coco has two sons who attend Bear Tavern Elementary School.
William Herbert, 52, has lived in Hopewell since 1999. He grew up in Burlington County and graduated from Duke University with a BSE in mechanical engineering. He served in the United States Navy for four years and went on to receive an MBA in finance from Vanderbilt University. He currently works as the CFO of a family-owned company in Burlington. This is his first time running for office. Herbert has served for nine years on the Hopewell Valley Soccer Association board. Both of his daughters have gone through the district.
John Mason, 40, has lived in Hopewell for 17 years. He studied criminal justice at Saint Joseph’s University. Mason served in the United States Marine Corps and was deployed to Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He currently works as a bail bondsman. This is Mason’s first time running for office. His wife, Tawrye, is a lifelong Hopewell resident. Their two sons currently attend Hopewell Valley Central High School.
Ashutosh Pathak, 49, has lived in Hopewell since 2011. He earned an MD and PhD in India, went through an oncology fellowship from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and has an MBA from Columbia University. He currently works as a physician scientist, serving as the global medical head of a biotechnology company. He is also the founder of a nonprofit: the Princeton Foundation for Peace and Learning. This is his first time running for office. Pathak’s two children have gone through the school district.
The Hopewell Express sent questionnaires to each candidate. Their responses are below. DiDonato did not respond.
Question 1: Are drugs and alcohol an issue in the district? Do you feel the current drug testing program should continue?
Coco: Drugs and alcohol are a concern in every district. This concern is best addressed through education, community building, securing trust, and providing students with fun and constructive alternatives. I do not feel that performing random searches on students sends the right message. Students should learn that privacy, responsibility, and civil rights are important principles.
Herbert: I believe that drugs and alcohol are an issue in our district, as they are in most every district. I am in line with the current program and believe it is crafted in a way that appropriately respects the rights of students and, at the same time, provides a means for identifying those who may need intervention. I do believe that we can do more to address vaping issues, which are an increasing problem.
Mason: I believe that drugs, alcohol, and vaping are issues in most districts. Our district has done well with High School programming that is therapeutic, nonpunitive, and seeks to get students early help with drug-related concerns. However, the district should concentrate on addressing root-cause stressors arising in middle school by promoting an inclusive, welcoming environment. The District’s March 2019 Violence/Vandalism report indicates more reported cases of Bullying in TMS than in all other district schools combined.
Pathak: I have been reaching out to various stakeholders in HVRSD including the board, School Administration, PTO, staff, and even students to understand key challenges and improvement opportunities. Drugs and alcohol haven’t surfaced as a major issue in my interactions, so far. However, I am continuing to explore this further. Meanwhile, I support the measures (such as drug testing program) taken by the authorities based on their assessment. We would continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the program and make a decision based on the results in alignment with all stakeholders whether to continue the program.
Question 2: Are you satisfied with the current board’s effectiveness? Is there anything you think could use improvement?
Coco: There is always room for improvement. The district lags behind others in SAT scores despite spending more money per pupil. We should focus on improving fundamental skills in reading, math, and science.
Herbert: Historically the board has been effective, but seems to have lost its way recently. A prime example is the disappointing manner in which the 2019-20 budgeting process was handled. The preliminary budget was passed with little meaningful debate, and the information that was eventually shared was incomplete and inconsistent. I believe the process revealed issues with transparency and communication, as well as the need for improvements in responsible stewardship of the taxpayers’ resources.
Mason: My research into board effectiveness led me to the board’s self-evaluations. Posted on August 2019 and July 2017 meetings are current and historic scores since 2014, respectively. The board rates their own “Performance,” at a 6-year low. They indicate needed improvement in the board’s “mutual trust and respect,” and transparency both within the board and with the community. Superintendent Relationship, Community Relations, and Finance also hit historic lows. The peak for each was in 2017.
Pathak: In the US News ranking of the High schools, The Hopewell Valley High School ranks #63 in NJ and #1426 in national ranking. In the college readiness index that takes into account student performance on state-required tests and AP exams, we received 52.6 out of 100 whereas the top school in NJ received 100 out of 100. Obviously, we have a long way to go. However, the board itself can not take us to the top. It has to be a collaborative effort by all the stakeholders. We at the Board would continue to assess various growth opportunities, prioritize them as per the resources available, and will work with all the stakeholders to explore how to reach the top. It will require a proactive participation of the community as well.
Question 3: The district currently has the highest per-pupil cost in Mercer County. Does this concern you? Do you feel students receive the proper return on this investment?
Coco: This trend is very concerning, especially considering the recent tax hike. West Windsor and Princeton have higher SAT scores despite spending less per student. We need to make sure that our tax dollars are making their way down to each student.
Herbert: The district provides an outstanding education thanks to our dedicated, hardworking administration, staff, parents, and students. That said, based on last year’s board actions, I am greatly concerned about soaring per-pupil costs. Historically, Hopewell’s per-pupil costs have tended higher since we don’t have the economies of scale afforded to larger districts. That said, our rate of increase compared to similar-sized districts is concerning. The 2019-20 increases amassed record surplus levels rather than applying to educational programs.
Mason: Yes, I am concerned about district costs. My concern is not about per-pupil cost per se, but more about the significant increase in taxing and spending without a well-articulated, reasonable justification for the accelerating rise. I look at comparable districts such as Princeton, who also provide an excellent, highly-rated education but at $1,000+ less per-pupil, and I wonder if we can learn how they ease the burden on taxpayers without detrimental implications to students?
Pathak: Cost effectiveness analysis and Resource optimization are critical, fundamental, and ongoing processes of “Continuous Improvement” in every high performing organization. I would love to work with other board members and capitalize upon my MBA training and industry experience to enhance HVRSD efficiency further so that we can achieve more in the resources available to us. This would also allow greater growth opportunities for teachers as well as students.
Question 4: The school board consists of several committees. Which committees are you interested in? Why?
Coco: I am interested in the Education and Program committee to help ensure that our students are prepared for college and the workplace. My skills as an attorney will be useful on the negotiations committee and my nursing skills can supplement the wellness committee. Wellness should include mental health wellness, which will help reduce suicides and other tragedies. I would also like to see the board create a standing committee on security.
Herbert: I think my background and experience are most suitable for the Finance Committee and the Negotiations Advisory Committee, and those are the ones that interest me most. However, I am excited about the possibility of serving on other committees where I could indulge my penchant for lifelong learning and perhaps bring a different perspective at the same time.
Mason: There are a couple of committees that interest me, but I am most excited by the Community Relations Committee. For the board to earn the confidence of all stakeholders, they must be true to core values of being accessible, transparent, accurate, and easily searchable. I would work to ensure that all parties involved understand the reasons behind the Board’s decisions, no matter how difficult. The board recognizes its Community Relations needs and I’m enthusiastic about helping.
Pathak: I would love to participate in Standing Committees on Education/program, Policy, and Community relations. I feel these are where I can make maximum contributions based on my academic background. Also, I feel that a more proactive participation of HV community is critical for the holistic enhancement of the educational initiatives