Nine candidates hope to finish at the front of a crowded field in the race for three seats on the Lawrence Township Board of Education. The top three vote-getters will each receive a 3-year term on the board.
The candidates are Tabitha M. Bellamy-McKinley, incumbent Michele Bowes, Heather Camp, incumbent Dana R. Drake, Patricia Hendricks Farmer, Gregory G. Johnson, Olufunmilola “Funmi” Ladigbolu, incumbent Cathy LeCompte and Jasmine Surti.
Tabitha M. Bellamy-McKinley, 43, is the National Assessment of Educational Progress state coordinator for the New Jersey Department of Education. Bellamy-McKinley holds a bachelor’s in biology from Howard University, a master’s in education from George Washington University, a master’s in educational psychology from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Georgia. She is a Lawrence High School Varsity Football Booster, a LHS Cheer Booster, a former PTO board member at Ben Franklin and Lawrence Intermediate School and member at Lawrenceville Elementary School, a current LMS/LHS PTO member and a Project Graduation member. Bellamy-McKinley is also a member of the Mercer County Chapter of Jack and Jill of America and the Omega Zeta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She serves as president of the National Consortium of State and Regional Educational Research Associations, a special interest group lead within the American Educational Research Association, and is a member of the Northeastern Educational Research Association.
Michele Bowes, 52, has been a member of the Lawrence Township Board of Education since 2016. She is a licensed social worker at SLRC. Bowes earned her bachelor’s in psychology from New York University and a master’s in social work from Columbia University. Over the last decade, she has been involved with school PTOs and the Lawrence Township Education Foundation, served on parent committees and as chair for school book fairs and volunteered as a manager for Lawrence Hamnett Soccer.
Heather Camp, 42, works in civic and community engagement in higher education, most recently as director of community engaged learning at The College of New Jersey.
She holds a bachelor’s in social work from Calvin College and a master’s in social work from Columbia University. She has served as Lawrenceville Elementary School PTO vice president, on the diversity, inclusion and community engagement committee for Mercer County Courts, as a recreational coach and travel team assistant coach for Lawrence Hamnett Soccer Association, and a grant application reviewer for Sustainable Jersey Sustainable Schools and Mercer County Health and Human Services.
Dana R. Drake, 41, has served on the Lawrence Township Board of Education since 2014. She works as human resources director at New Jersey Infrastructure Bank. Drake holds an associate’s in accounting and a bachelor’s in business and human resources management. She is involved with the Lawrence Township Education Foundation, Millhill Child and Family Development Center, and Adath Israel.
Patricia Hendricks Farmer, 52, is a business associate at Princeton Montessori School.
A graduate of Lawrence High School, she holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations from Temple University. She is a FVP of Eggerts Crossing Civic League, co-chair of Princeton Common Ground and a former vice president of New Jersey Urban Bankers Association.
Gregory G. Johnson, 59, is an attorney. A graduate of Trenton Central High School, Johnson holds a bachelor’s from Florida State University and a juris doctorate from Rutgers University School of Law–Camden.
He is a current board member for the Capital Region Minority Chamber of Commerce, and a former board member for the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce. He has volunteered for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mercer County, as a board member for the Lawrence Neighborhood Center and as a coach for recreation basketball and soccer teams in the township. He is a deacon at Union Baptist Church of Trenton. Johnson formerly served as a Lawrence Township committeeperson from District 12.
Olufunmilola “Funmi” Ladigbolu, 39, is an IT administrator. She holds a bachelor’s in psychology from the College of Saint Elizabeth, a master’s in clinical psychology from Long Island University and a master’s in public administration from Pennsylvania State University. Ladigbolu is a board member of Multinational Transitional Housing Program Inc. (a homeless transition program), co-founder of Transformative Love (a community outreach program), and holds roles in various faith-based organizations.
Cathy LeCompte, 61, has served on the Lawrence Township Board of Education since January 2019. She is a marketing designer for Trimble MAPS in Princeton. She holds a BFA in graphic design from Syracuse University. During the past 22 years, LeCompte has been PTO president, served on multiple district parent committees, been involved with the Lawrence Township Education Foundation, Lawrenceville Main Street, Lawrence Hamnett and served on the board of the Lawrenceville Swimming Association.
Jasmine Surti, 43, works in banking as a senior manager of governance and controls. She holds a bachelor’s in liberal arts from Eugene Lang College, and a MBA in project management from Lehigh University. Surti has volunteered as a Girl Scout parent, a Womanspace Domestic Violence Response Team member and a Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America volunteer leader.
The Lawrence Gazette provided the same three policy questions to each candidate, who then had a week to formulate written responses. The candidates’ responses appear below:
In August, the district announced its intention to begin the school year with remote learning. With its decision, the district administration released a detailed document on how it plans to conduct this academic year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Would you change anything from that plan? What conditions would you need to return children to hybrid/in-person learning? Should students wear masks during in-person instruction?
Bellamy-McKinley: The plan lacked proper support for successful implementation. There should be some kind of tech services for students, parents and teachers. Though the Zoom platform has been deployed throughout the country, without proper training, those end users cannot fully access the capabilities to be able to troubleshoot if and when problems arise.
It is almost impossible to determine what would be absolutely necessary to return for in-person instruction. There are many variables to consider, such as the mobility of students within their families, access to healthcare and proper procedures being followed within the home. The goal however, should be safety.
Bowes: The administration put together a strong and detailed plan that I feel is best given the many challenges that we are facing. The administration worked tirelessly over the summer to make the virtual learning as effective as possible. While it has only been two weeks since the start of school, I believe we made the right decision. The administration continually evaluates the situation to return to school. I feel getting small groups back to school such as special education students, and more opportunities in school for sports, music and extracurricular activities when possible. We all want students back in school. It is difficult to say exactly what conditions would be needed to return to school. However, if the number of cases are low and the ventilation is good, social distancing and masks will be required. We also need to be able to transport students safely on the bus and have a strong plan for when a student and staff are sick.
Camp: I believe the August plan, and its execution this fall, has been a significant improvement from the spring, as it has provided more live instruction and smaller breakouts. However, remote learning is still challenging for elementary children and those with special needs. I would like to see smaller class sizes or children taught regularly in smaller breakout groups. The district could also find creative solutions to help children, classmates and teachers form relationships, such as outdoor, socially distanced meet-ups. In order to return, state and federal guidelines and ventilation must be ensured for parents, and masks should be worn.
Drake: Starting the year with remote learning and childcare/learning centers was the right decision. It prioritizes the safety of students, staff, and our community. Districts that chose hybrid learning are facing COVID-19 outbreaks and switching to remote. The only change I would make is providing easier access (financial, scheduling) to the childcare/learning centers so parents can return to work. When moving to hybrid learning, the district must consider state rules, local transmission rates, building conditions, teacher’s concerns/safety, bussing, and the financial implications of the plan. Anyone in a school building (students, staff, parents) should wear a mask; it’s required in New Jersey.
Hendricks Farmer: One significant change I would have made to the plan would have been to allow special needs students to attend in-person school immediately. These students require additional instructional support and parents are not equipped with the special skills needed to provide adequate education.
In order to have hybrid/in-person learning we would need proper Personal Protection Equipment for faculty, staff and students, create cohort classrooms with a 25% of the student population and implement, temperature taking, monitoring of absences, and outdoor classrooms.
Students should be required to wear masks during in-person instruction.
Johnson: Protecting our students, families and staff is our first priority. I firmly believe that the Governor of New Jersey has done an excellent job providing guidelines for reopening our public schools and preparing for this 2020-2021 school year. As the Lawrence Township Public Schools prudently began this school year with virtual learning, I support the superintendent and Board of Education in making sure that we safely reopen our school district. The plan calls for gradual in-person learning in October with many safeguards. I strongly encourage students and staff to wear masks and exercise social distancing as much as possible.
Ladigbolu: I would adjust the current schedule to allow for more flexibility for our students with working parents and teachers of young children. The township should also have multiple sessions, which would not only support working families with multiple children but also faculty and staff members. Our expectation is that our teachers provide our children with quality instruction, but the truth is that some of our teachers are also parents of young children. In speaking to teachers of small children, many of them have shared that trying to teach and support their own children is a task that has been overwhelming.
LeCompte: I would not have changed anything from the opening of school plan. I felt we needed to focus on a robust virtual learning plan first with teacher training, then move to hybrid learning. We need to bring back the students who have the toughest time with remote learning, special education and kindergarten students first. If all the students and teachers stay healthy, then we can begin to bring back the student body at-large. All students need to be in school for in-person learning, which is the ultimate goal. A strong virtual plan is critical not only to start, but also for continuity in case there is a spike in the outbreak later this fall. Next we need to ensure we can keep our students, teachers, and staff healthy on-site, which means good ventilation and social distancing, not only in classrooms but on buses, too. I do feel students should wear masks. In the warmer weather, I would like to see some learning take place outside where the students and teachers can take a break from wearing a mask.
Surti: The August plan was an improvement over the spring plan, which had to be implemented very quickly. As a parent I am happy that students now have scheduled class meetings with their teachers. An improvement would be to provide specifics on return to school for students with special needs and elementary schools. To return to hybrid/in-person learning, a first step would be to ensure that LTPS could comply with the state guidelines for social distancing during transportation and instruction. I believe students should wear masks during in-person instruction, as in many of the schools in New Jersey which reopened.
The deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this summer have launched conversations on racial equity around the country. In Lawrence Township, this conversation has centered on the school district in particular. Do you believe the district has done enough to ensure equity in its schools? How can the Board of Education include more diverse voices in its decision making?
Bellamy-McKinley: LTPS has had many conversations, trainings and workshops on equity and diversity, however there has been a gross misstep regarding communicating the work to the community. With the “Black in Lawrence” petition this summer, there was an awakening that over 1,000 citizens within the township were concerned with the district’s commitment to equity for all students. Upon further communications through board meetings, it became apparent that perhaps some of the things being undertaken by the district were not front facing, so that there became a large undercurrent of mistrust. I would like to see that change.
Bowes: No. While the district has made significant progress and we have responded to many issues regarding equity, there is much more to do. We need to continue to refine our restorative justice program, increase the diversity of our staff, improve communication with the community, and continue to reflect on the experience in the classroom for students to be more inclusive and provide a safe environment. The board and the administration need to improve conversations with the community and have specific meetings to focus on diversity and the school experience. The school needs to do more training for the community, staff and students. There will always be need for growth and improvement.
Camp: LTPS made great strides over the summer to address and communicate its inequities, and these efforts must continue. The kids of LTPS need teachers, staff and administrators that look like them. Curriculum should include authors of diverse ethnic backgrounds, and inclusive of various populations. Additionally, efforts should be made to have our enrollment in AP courses mirror the racial makeup of the LHS population. Finally, we need more inclusive, restorative approaches to teaching and discipline. To engage diverse voices the Board could host dialogic town hall meetings at each LTPS school, vary meeting times, and have community residents on committees.
Drake: Equity, inclusion, and anti-racism are historical/national problems; there is no reason LTPS can’t be a leader for change and growth. During my tenure, LTPS strived to learn and grow (i.e., establish CJ Pride, create an Equity Committee; hire consultants to train board members, administrators, and staff; and develop the equity warriors program). It’s a good start, but certainly not enough. We need to look at our curriculum, equitable access to services, and facilitating dialog with our diverse community. The Board has been and continues to be, committed to including diverse voices to help create an equitable experience for all in Lawrence.
Hendricks Farmer: No. The district must do more, and this is one of the contributing factors for my candidacy. The district has to actively pursue the recruitment of teachers, and administrators that reflect all of Lawrence. This would help in addressing the issues about race that have plagued our school community for decades. In my conversations with parents, students and community groups, there is consensus that the district is not doing enough to represent diverse points of view. In the current local and national climate, now more than ever, Lawrencians must stand united to contribute in our many voices to the education of our children.
Johnson: I believe the Board of Education must do a better job making all students feel welcomed and valued. Reading the stories of Black families, students, and teachers being marginalized, funneled into remedial education programs and away from honors, gifted and talented and advanced placement, lack of racial diversity of staff and the over-policing of Black students was sad, disheartening, and a painful reminder of my own family’s experience in the Lawrence Township Public Schools. This realization became apparent that I could no longer sit on the sidelines but had to offer my unique set of skills and experiences as a former school board attorney and practicing attorney to my community.
Ladigbolu: The equity task force is on the right track by providing metrics on the disproportional suspension rates of minority students. We should also have similar metrics analyzing the number of minority students that are enrolled in advanced placement classes. Having these kinds of metrics will help us to see where the gaps are, educate our community and give us an opportunity to address blind spots. Consider this scenario. Two children, one Caucasian and the other a child of color, attend the district school from pre-k to 12 and have earned similar grades. One ends up in advanced placement classes and the other in basic or lower level courses. Why and how does this happen in our districts?
LeCompte: Equity in our schools is a never-ending process that requires vigilantly examining our institution from every perspective. When we find inequities, we need to understand how they happened and take action to adjust. We have certainly made strides in the past, and should be proud of those changes, but more is needed to minimize bias and provide our students with a learning environment that allows them to grow. The board is always open to listening to parents and the community. The district’s goal is to improve the dialogue on race and all forms of bias. We will work to ensure our faculty and students fully consider the effects of racism, not only within our school walls but within the community and the world at-large. There have been multiple meetings where the community can voice their opinions and raise their concerns over equity. The board will continue to actively engage, listen and act.
Surti: While there have been some efforts towards the goal of equity, the pace of change has been slow, and the transparency and visibility of the existing programs need to be improved. The Lawrence Township community is seeking an open dialogue with the Board of Education, but board meetings are structured with a limited opportunity for public comment. To include more diverse voices in its decision making, the board should try to create more opportunities for meaningful dialogue and coordinated action with the community such as town hall meetings, parent groups and community-led committees.
Nine candidates are running for three seats on the Board of Education. With so many options for voters, what sets you apart? Why should voters elect you?
Bellamy-McKinley: I have been in the field of education for over 20 years. I began as a student teacher in Washington, D.C., in 1998, and currently work for the state department of education. I have worked as a substitute teacher, teacher, supervisor, and currently oversee our national and international assessment programs here in New Jersey.
I am a mother with two high school children who have been educated in LTPS since kindergarten. I believe in this school district, and want to give of my time and talents to ensure that all children receive the same high quality education as mine.
Bowes: I am a licensed social worker and have been on the board for the past 4 years. I understand the importance of academic excellence, the arts, sports and emotional and mental health for students. I have been involved in all aspects of school operations including personnel and curriculum, equity and the response to the pandemic. I have worked to challenge the administration to come up with the best solutions to the many issues we are facing. I have focused on social and emotional learning and understand that we need to be creative and focused when the students return to in-school learning.
I am running for the board for the same reasons I did four years ago—to be part of making the school experience for students as positive as possible. Since I attended my first school board meeting when my children were at Ben Franklin Elementary School, I have been committed to improving school life for every student. As a community member and a member of the board, my focus has been on our students’ education. My passion, commitment and experience will be essential in responding to all of the challenges we are facing in our schools.
Camp: I am a mother with two young children enrolled in the district. As such, I have a long-term interest in the quality of LTPS. If elected, I would use my own observations as a parent to help augment board of education policy.
Moreover, my extensive background in higher education and years of community work would bring value to the board. I have led projects for schools with community members requiring communication and planning, as well as managed large grants and budgets. My connections to local nonprofits and colleges/universities could provide programming, research and training from the educational field.
Hendricks Farmer: I am Lawrence! My family has lived in and have been contributing members of Lawrence Township for over 75 years. Over 40 members of the Hendricks family have graduated from Lawrence High School.
During my career in finance, I have contributed to a consortium of schools, both public and private. I believe that shared ideology can contribute greatly to the educational needs of our children. I am a female of African American and Latino heritage. I believe the district must represent the community and all of its diversity. I am interested in providing support to parents as we navigate together the emotional and social health of our children that is changing education.
Drake: I have more BOE experience than the other eight candidates combined. Now, more than ever, experience matters! During my seven-year tenure, I served as vice president, sat on all committees, and chaired Personnel, Finance, and Negotiations. LTPS has a $75M budget, 600 employees, 4,000 customers, and over 30,000 investors; my business background in HR and accounting adds needed value. On a personal level, I was raised in Lawrence, graduated from LHS, and returned to raise my family. I want what is best for Lawrence. I believe my experience, skills, and commitment to excellence and equity make me most qualified.
Johnson: As a practicing attorney and former school board attorney, I offer unique skills, experience and knowledge to the Lawrence Township Board of Education. During my professional career, I have represented both urban and suburban school districts throughout the state of New Jersey. Specifically, in the 1980’s I worked as an attorney for the Trenton Board of Education, and later on, became the former General Counsel for the Paterson Schools, where I worked closely with the New Jersey Department of Education on all legal matters, including central office reorganizations, instructional reforms and policy and student disciplinary matters. I routinely advised superintendents and senior managers on school policies, labor and employment matters, disciplinary matters and litigation cases. I have also represented parents of disabled students seeking educational programs and services provided under federal and state education laws.
Finally, as a Black man, I offer the voice of a demographic that this current Board of Education does not have and desperately needs.
Ladigbolu: My career is focused on quality and process improvement. I excel in the implementation of operational assessments and conducting functional requirements analysis. The skill set that I utilize in my profession can be used to address student achievement. I have personally experienced challenges and frustration with course selections and placement for our high school students. Our students need to be placed in classes in which they are challenged, not just placed in a class where they can get an A. Value should be placed on rigor instead of solely attaining high grades. Furthermore, greater collaboration with the community is needed for this district to progress.
LeCompte: I come from a marketing, branding and communication background, and I know how important it is to keep the lines of communication open. The diversity of our district is our strength and we need to actively engage and listen to our parents and community. I feel my experience has given me the ability to do so.
We benefit from broader perspectives than most towns, but require a bigger tool box to meet the needs of our all students. I will work tirelessly to ensure our children are provided the same learning opportunities they need for self-discovery, which will strengthen our society. I’m a big believer in strengthening our public schools. As a former PTO president, a parent volunteer and a board member for two years, I have been actively engaged with LTPS students, teachers, parents and administrators for over 17 years. During that time, I have worked to enhance programming, resolve problems, and improve our children’s education all within budget.
My two sons went through the district, explored very different facets of LTPS, and both had incredible experiences and were well prepared for life after high school. I want to ensure that’s a reality for every family in our district.
Surti: I am a parent of two children attending LTPS (Lawrence Middle School and Lawrence High School) and I am passionate about high quality public education being available to all students in our district. I am also a dedicated volunteer who is willing to roll up my sleeves and help tackle the challenges that our district is facing. I am a good listener, and I keep my promises. I also bring transferable skills from my corporate career such as team building, problem solving, and project management.