Four candidates are seeking one of three 3-year terms on the Hamilton Township Board of Education.
The election will yield at least one new board member, as incumbent Albert Gayzik opted not to run for a new term. Incumbents Liam Z. Gonzales and Susan Lombardo and challengers Janna Sheiman and Christina Vassiliou Harvey are running for election.
Liam Z. Gonzales, 27, has served on the Hamilton Township Board of Education since being appointed in July. He is a special education teacher in the Ewing school district. He earned bachelor’s degrees in history and secondary education from The College of New Jersey, as well as special education certification from TCNJ. Gonzales is a PenningtonAG Youth Leader and a Ewing High School lacrosse coach.
Susan Lombardo, 52, has served on the Hamilton Township Board of Education since May 2014, twice running re-election.
She has been board president for the past three years and was vice president in 2017. She works as an administrative analyst for the State Department of Human Services’s Medicaid Division. Lombardo completed two years of college at Mercer County Community College. She volunteers with nonprofit organizations The Jeremy Fund and Joey’s Little Angels, and has done work with the Sunshine Foundation and other nonprofits.
Janna Sheiman, 38, is an attorney.
She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami and a law degree from New York Law School. She has not held elected office, but has served as a Hamilton Township School District Strategic Planning Committee member and a co-chair of the district’s Student and Facility Equity Subcommittee for the Facilities Planning Committee. Sheiman also is chairman of the Board of Directors for the Next Level Youth Mentoring Program and Pageant.
Christina Vassiliou Harvey, 42, is an attorney.
She has a bachelor’s degree from Douglass College, Rutgers University, and a juris doctorate from Rutgers School of Law–Newark. She has not held elected office. Vassiliou Harvey is a Girl Scout Troop leader, a member of the Langtree PTA, a member of the Daughters of Penelope, a member of the New Jersey State Bar Association and American Bar Association and a founding board member of Community Justice Center, a non-profit organization.
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:
Hamilton Township public schools have begun the 2020-21 academic year with remote learning. With the benefit of hindsight, would you change the decision to go remote or anything else from the district’s plan? What conditions would you like to see before returning all children to hybrid/in-person learning? Should students wear masks during in-person instruction?
Gonzales: COVID-19 has been taken very seriously by the Hamilton BOE. Currently, students with severe disabilities have been given the option to participate in school virtually or primarily in-person. The decision to allow that option to students with severe disabilities I still believe was right. Some of these students’ development can be adversely impacted immeasurably by forcing them to try and learn solely virtually. In Hamilton, 65% of students have elected for the hybrid plan, clear evidence that the majority wish to go to school in person. For the families that wish to continue to social distance or quarantine that option is available while at the same time supporting the majority of our community which has already made up their decision by saying they would like their students to go to school hybrid.
Lombardo: These are very tough questions with really no right or wrong answer. The district had to come up with a decision on what to do about the school year, while getting (almost daily) changes to the protocols/guidelines set by State and County, these had to be followed and the plans had to be approved by a higher authority, in order to get the kids back into the schools. The decision to go remote first enabled the district to be sure all the mandates are in place. There were a lot of factors that weighed into the decision, first and most importantly the safety of all our students and staff. I would like nothing more than to see our students back in the classrooms, with all of their friends getting back to some sort of normalcy, but unfortunately that is not just a district decision it goes beyond the district on how/when this can happen. Hopefully the plans to go back in the hybrid model will go well and we will eventually be able to get them all back together in a more normal way in the future. As for wearing masks, that is a decision that the district cannot make, that decision has to come from the Governor’s office I would assume. The Governor has implemented everyone wearing masks indoors for now, which includes in schools also.
Sheiman: I believe that going remote for the start of the 2020-2021 school year was necessary, as we still have new cases being diagnosed. School districts had to go remote quickly due to the positive diagnoses. Moving forward, should the district reopen, I believe we need to address the rotation schedule. While we are a large district, a three-week rotation with students’ schedules changing weekly will mostly impact families struggling to return to work. When we return to in-class instruction, we need to ensure that the students can maintain social distancing, and if possible, bring in HEPA filters to help address any risk for airborne transmission. I believe that students will need to wear masks during their in-person instruction to help protect them and their families from transmission for an initial transition period while students and teachers adjust to the new norms.
Vassiliou Harvey: The current administration’s remote learning plans ignored the reality for working parents. For example, children who do not yet know how to use a computer need constant help from a caregiver. Learning involves a give and take. For instance, a kindergartener cannot learn to draw the letter “f” when the teacher cannot see the child in order to provide correction. Younger children learn via a live format, which could be accomplished from a social distance consideration given there are less younger learners. There also should have been consideration for parents needing dependent care to set up “pods” where one aide can supervise multiple students at work stations separated by Plexiglass. For live learning, desks should be spaced more than ten feet apart with Plexiglass barriers so that they do not need a mask. Masks must be worn whenever social distancing is not possible.
The deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this summer has launched conversations on racial equity around the country. This conversation has extended to school districts. What would you do to ensure equity in Hamilton schools? How can the Board of Education include more diverse voices in its decision making?
Gonzales: The simplest and fastest way for the Board of Education to include more diverse voices in its decision making is for the public to elect minority board members. I am currently the only person of Hispanic descent on the board. Since I have joined the board in the summer we have taken a few steps toward improving equity. Hamilton is now a one-to-one district, meaning that any student that has asked for a school device has received one from the district. Along with that, just last month we voted on a subsidy for families that needed childcare support. This would allow the YMCA and CYO to use Hamilton public school facilitates for childcare, free of charge. Their savings would then be subtracted from the cost for the consumer. Hamilton is one of the most diverse districts in the state overall. Unfortunately, the makeup of our schools does not showcase this as well as I would like. In the future, I would like to have more interaction between our school buildings to build community and show off that diversity.
Lombardo: Equity within the school district has been one of my main initiatives while being on the School Board. I have been working hard to bring equity to the District on many different levels, one being having the tough conversations of how we need to have all our schools become more diversified throughout the district, this is a topic that comes with great debate throughout the communities, but I truly believe it is something that needs to happen in order for equity to be obtained at a greater level. The District and Community Relations (DCR) committee has been a great asset to the district; they have helped to keep the District moving in the right direction and continue to work hard at making a real change throughout the district. This is also something that is included in our strategic plan for the next 5 years. But we still have work to do, and if I am re-elected, I will continue to do just that. We need to dig deeper as a district and find ways to help bridge this divide in any way we can.
Sheiman: As a co-chair of the student and facilities equity subcommittee, I have been working to identify issues of equity and equity of access in our schools, and one goal is to improve opportunities for parent participation. One way that the Board of Education can include more diverse voices is to move meetings to both in-person and streaming, and record those meetings. We also live in a linguistically diverse district, so we need to have translators and interpreters present at meetings to help reduce language barriers. Finally, I would hold town halls for parents in my assigned schools, both in-person and streaming as allowed, with translators and interpreters, to learn more about their specific needs.
Vassiliou Harvey: Our public education system is not simply a teacher-student relationship. Students learn invaluable lessons by interacting with those who have different experiences. Remote learning has greatly diminished this type of learning. Having graduated from three levels of public education (Lawrence High, Douglass College of Rutgers University, and Rutgers Law School), my own education has been shaped by learning from others with different experiences. The Board can encourage equity in education through public partnerships with diverse groups. Like the Minority Student Program at Rutgers Law, we can create programs whose goal is to equalize the divide by giving students extra help and opportunities. This also includes teachers explaining how the curriculum affects minorities, for example, a first college-generation perspective. The Board must investigate to eradicate institutional and systemic racism, such as, by analyzing test scores. The Board should encourage the schools to form committees to encourage equality and combat systemic racism.
Four candidates are running for three seats on the Board of Education. What sets you apart? Why should voters elect you?
Gonzales: As a teacher in the Ewing Public schools I have been working virtually since March. Integrating technology and 21st century skills have been an interest of mine for years. Before COVID, I led professional development within my district on how to use digital tools, like Screencastify. Then, when everyone was forced to work virtually, some of my colleagues reached out to me on how to navigate our new reality. In graduate classes that I had taken years ago, any time we were given freedom to choose a topic to research I would always choose hybrid learning. Now, every district in the state is either looking at or already practicing hybrid learning. Since I have been researching and studying this concept for years, I am ahead of many on what hybrid learning can offer and where there are its limitations. This makes me very prepared for the challenges that our public schools face today.
Lombardo: I know some background about the other 3 candidates, all of which I believe would be a positive addition to the district. What I would say would set me apart from the others would be the experience I have had over these past 6 years of being a board member (last 3 of which I have been the President). I know the dedication and time it takes, sometimes it’s not easy, and I have had to make some tough decisions, I have always kept the students and staff best interests in mind with each and every decision I have made. Some of those decisions have not been so easy and not everyone would agree with them, but I know that I have been true to my beliefs and feel I have done a good job as a board member and would like the opportunity to continue the work that I have been doing for the district. There are a lot of new plans ahead and initiatives that need to be completed and I would like nothing more than to continue to see them implemented. Being a board member takes dedication, honesty, cooperation and an open mind to be able to work as a team for the common goal of doing the best we can for ALL students and staff within the district.
Sheiman: There are four qualified individuals running for the School Board. What sets me apart is my involvement in the community and our education department, while remaining independent. I live in the Kuser Elementary district; however, I do not currently have any children in the schools, and that helps me look at and consider the needs of every school equally. I have been part of both the Strategic Planning and Facilities Planning Committees for the school district to help make sure every student has equitable access to a quality education and that our existing resources are being distributed fairly. I was also raised in education; my mother taught for 38 years, and I saw firsthand how important education is to a community. I want to bring that focus and attention to the Board to serve all of Hamilton, its students, and its residents.
Vassiliou Harvey: I am a working mother going through the remote learning process first-hand with my children. I am a practicing attorney, so I have experience with and insight into legal issues that come before the Board. I also have experience in various community organizations, including being a Girl Scout troop leader and leadership positions in national groups like the American Bar Association’s House of Representatives, which is a large policy organization operating like Congress. Through these volunteer efforts I have learned skills that the Board could utilize to improve our public education system. The District’s biggest issue is lack of sufficient communication with parents. Through my work on these boards, I am aware of technology solutions that can improve communication to better our children’s education. Lastly, I am a frequent legal lecturer including via virtual platforms. As a remote educator, I have insight to improve teaching by computer.