Two West Windsor seats on the West Windsor-Plainsboro Board of Education are up for election on Nov. 5.
Incumbent Carol Herts is being challenged by incumbent Louisa Ho and her running mate Graelynn McKeown for two three-year terms on the board. Ho and McKeown are running together under the slate name, “For Our Community.”
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All of the candidates were posed a series of four questions by The News. Their bios and answers appear below.
Carol Herts, 61, and her husband, Ken, have lived in town since 1992 and were Plainsboro residents before that for nine years. She is finishing her first three-year term on the board.
Herts holds a bachelor’s degree in math from Brown University, and has worked in the magazine and newspaper publishing industry. She currently volunteers as a court appointed special advocate for foster children.
The couple has three children who graduated from High School South. They attended Wicoff, Dutch Neck, Millstone River, Village and Grover schools.
Louisa Ho, 60, and her husband, Carl Van Dyke, are 23-year residents of West Windsor. Ho earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in transportation from from MIT. She moved to West Windsor in 1996. Her daughter, Rebecca, and son, David, are both South graduates who are currently in college.
She previously worked as the director of planning for the Greater Richmond Transit Company. After that she worked at New Jersey Transit -Bus Operations, where she held a variety of jobs in planning and operations, including project manager, bus projects administrator, manager of terminal operations, director of eastern region and deputy general manager southern division.
After the birth of her second child, Ho focused on being a full-time parent. Ho became her daughter’s Girl Scouts troop leader, which has led to what Ho calls her current volunteer “career” with Girl Scouts. She has been a troop leader for 19 years, and currently leads two troops.
Graelynn McKeown, 39, has lived in West Windsor for seven years with her husband, Craig. The couple has two children—one at Maurice Hawk Elementary and the other at Village School.
McKeown earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Rutgers University and currently works as a training expert, learning and development design strategies at Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. She has previously worked as a senior manager of training and document control working under quality assurance, operations and human resources functions.
How will your experience, expertise or perspective be most useful on the board?
Herts: My children received a wonderful education in WW-P and I want to ensure that today’s students do also. Each student should have the opportunity to pursue their individual interests, whether advanced academics, music, arts, sports or extracurricular clubs in a caring environment.
Listening to parents and taxpayers helps me to understand their needs. I diligently read all the material the district provides, including new textbooks, curriculum documents, policy and program changes, then do research and talk to community members before voting on them.
Ho: As with many jobs, experience helps. My six years on the school board means that I am up to speed on issues and have a perspective on where we have been, which informs decisions about where we want to go in the future.
As a trained engineer, I am an analytical person who seeks hard data. I am open minded and look at issues from different angles and ask lots of questions. I’m a listener, and a consensus builder.
I grew up in a family that highly valued education and strongly believe that our district needs to continue to provide an outstanding educational experience.
I’m a homeowner and taxpayer, who feels the impact of our property taxes.
I’ve been a parent in the district from kindergarten through 12th grade for my two kids, so I understand how the school experience feels to parents at all of the levels. I’ve even survived the college admissions experience twice.
McKeown: I offer a fresh perspective—both of my kids are still in elementary school. Being involved in PTA, both as a volunteer and in my role as vice president of special events, has given me the opportunity to connect with many parents and various community leaders.
The school board needs members like me with children currently enrolled in the district, with current knowledge of the day-to-day school experience. I offer my contemporary view as an actively involved parent.
My civic involvement has extended into other leadership roles. As the events and Wear Orange lead for Mercer County Moms Demand Action, I have learned how to engage with the greater community and have open discussions on complex issues I am very passionate about. As an interviewer on the selection committee to fill the WW-P assistant superintendent, curriculum and instruction position, I shared my perspective as a parent and a PTA member.
Professionally, I manage the learning and development function. My leadership style includes taking careful consideration when making decisions, gathering as much data as I can and listening to different perspectives.
How do you feel about the way that the school board and administration communicates with the community? What do you think they do well, and in what areas can there be improvement?
Herts: Transparency is extremely important. In public meetings I ask questions for parents and taxpayers to increase openness, so that the community can hear the thinking behind decisions, not just see the vote. With parents wanting to see what their children are learning, school work should be sent home every week. Communication goes two ways. I’m always accessible to parents and taxpayers to listen, and to explain what is happening with our schools and board decisions.
The school board and administration need to listen to parents’ and taxpayers’ concerns, and constantly try to improve the education our students receive.
Ho: I have been an advocate for improving district communication with the community for many years. A variety of improvements have taken place. Board meetings are recorded and televised. The district has embraced social media as a way to share information more quickly.
The district is using school messenger to streamline communication and send families weekly emails with school-specific information. And the district website is being enhanced. I will continue to advocate for the district to be more proactive and make it easier for community members to be informed and involved.
McKeown: I believe the administration has made recent noticeable improvements on communication. We receive information in a more timely and consistent manner with weekly newsletters using the same format. I also receive announcements and urgent notifications via social media using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
In terms of communicating with the broader community who may not have children attending school here, I feel the district website is easy to navigate and transparent. It holds a wealth of information if you are seeking it.
There is, however, an opportunity to educate the community on the roles and responsibilities of the board of education, administration and school staff. People who have an issue or concern don’t necessarily know who to turn to and may end up redirected several times. This can cause frustration, which I believe is preventable with some proactive measures.
Do you think that pressure to perform academically is an issue for students in the school district? If so, what would you suggest the district can do to help alleviate stress and anxiety? If not, how would you respond to those who believe there is a problem?
Herts: Yes, teenagers in schools all over the country and the world feel stress and anxiety. Academic pressure is a common problem for students, especially students in high performing districts like WW-P. It is important to help students cope with stress without lowering the academic standards of our wonderful schools.
Teachers, administrators, students and parents should work together to find ways to alleviate students’ stress. For example, teachers should make sure material is evenly spaced throughout the year, instead of front loading the fall semester, and having spring semester be much less work.
There are also steps that students themselves can take, such as meditation, taking four deep breaths or spending time outside to reduce stress. Staying off social media and screens for an interval before bed improves sleep.
Ho: Students in our district, particularly at the high school and middle school levels, experience a lot of stress. There is stress about academic achievement and college admissions, as well as stress about other typical teenage issues, like peer pressure or body image.
While some stress is beneficial, too much stress can lead to dangerous outcomes. The district has embraced a number of initiatives to address stress, including measures to reduce stress, and measures to help parents and students identify and address excessive stress. In particular, the district’s initiative to bring in professional Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care clinicians is a big step in the right direction.
When students are supported and feel like part of a group, it helps them deal with the stresses in their life. Student activities, sports and clubs help provide our students with a “home” while they are at school.
For my kids, marching band was their home at high school, and provided them with a support network of friends that helped them through the stresses of high school. We need to continue and expand those opportunities for our students so more students will have that extra home at school.
McKeown: Yes, I believe many students feel pressure to perform academically. While the district recognizes this and implements several practices to help alleviate stress, there’s always room for improvement.
Beyond working with students directly, the district offers Parent University sessions so we can learn from experts in the field to better understand and help our children navigate these early years. I’ve attended several eye-opening sessions with practical advice.
However, I’m often disappointed by low attendance. These are free interactive lectures delivered by key professionals with amazing take-home messages. Guest speakers share their contact information so there are resources available if/when we need them before the stress becomes too overwhelming.
I would love to see the district come up with an improved marketing plan to fill these seats once they have a good grasp on why more people aren’t attending. For example, if it’s a babysitting issue, high schoolers could watch the younger kids in another room for community service credit, a win-win.
What are some challenges facing the school district that you believe deserve more attention?
Herts: As the district population grows, we need to ensure facilities keep up, but spend efficiently so we don’t at any point spend more than we need to. The majority of your property taxes go to the schools, and the board has to ensure that all spending is necessary and benefits students, not just pass through annual increases because state law allows that.
From talking to parents, it’s clear that elementary math moves too slowly for many students. Students need more writing assignments and more grammar. High school students must be able to write a paper that synthesizes two ideas, and practice writing longer papers of the type that they will be required to complete in college.
Ho: The biggest challenge facing the school district is how to manage the impending growth in our school population. We need to control class size to maintain academic excellence. However, expanding capacity through construction takes time, and the pace of new development is never guaranteed, which makes it particularly difficult to match growth in the student population with school capacity.
We need to be ever mindful of managing expenses. As chair of the finance committee, I have helped to develop and support ways to offset expenses. For example, the district is pursuing a solar initiative that will fund needed improvements in our facilities.
As consumers, we make choices every day that have environmental consequences. The district makes many decisions that have environmental consequences. In particular, we need to focus more on how to reduce the trash from our food service operation. We live in a disposable society. That is just not sustainable in the long run.
McKeown: What deserves serious attention is how to sustain our reputation for quality education while managing growth. The challenge is that estimated growth and reality continue to fluctuate year after year as we attract more families to our town.
As it stands now, parents and students across the district describe some of our schools as “bursting at the seams.” It’s important to have an appropriate amount of space to support a safe and healthy learning environment. We must plan for enough resources to prevent the influx of students from overcrowding our classrooms. As we grow, we also want to ensure children at all academic levels feel supported.
Growth is imminent and I look forward to working with the district to overcome these challenges.