HOPEWELL VALLEY: School board hopefuls share their visions of the district’s future

Candidates for three seats on the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education fielded an assortment of questions – from how the school district can prepare students for life after high school, to how they would gain consensus on the school board – at a candidates forum last week.

Only three of the four candidates attended the Oct. 18 candidates forum, held at Hopewell Valley Central High School and sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Hopewell Valley. The fourth candidate – Sarah Tracey – had a a conflict and could not attend.

That left three candidates – newcomer Darius Matthews and incumbent school board members Alyce Murray and Adam Sawicki – to answer questions posed by moderator Joann Held of the League of Women Voters of Hopewell Valley.

One of the first questions put to the candidates asked their opinion on how well the school district prepares its graduates to compete in the post-high school world, plus any suggestions they might offer for improvement.

Matthews and Murray said the school district does a good job in getting the students ready for the next phase in their lives.

Matthews said the high school graduation rate exceeds 90 percent and that many graduates go on to attend college. He said he would like to see increasingly more rigorous Advanced Placement courses.

Students need to be ready to handle a complex world, Matthews said. There is still room for improvement, he said, adding that “we will have to see what works and what does not work.”

“(The district) does an amazing job in supporting students,” Murray said. They do well in college and in their work in the global marketplace. She agreed that students should have access to more challenging courses.

Sawicki said the district has programs for high achievers, such as Advanced Placement courses, and programs for those who need help – but it  needs to do more for the students in the middle.

Another question posed to the candidates addressed the issue of violence and substance abuse in the district, and how they would protect students. The state-mandated violence and vandalism report for 2016-17 listed 11 incidents of violence and 21 incidents of substance abuse.

“By and large, it is important that we reflect on issues as they occur,” Matthews said. The district must have policies and initiatives in place. He also suggested that an increase in the number of incidents may be attributable to better reporting.

Murray said those numbers are not a true reflection of what occurred in the district. She said that a small group of students were responsible for many of the substance abuse incidents. It was the same group of students who committed the offenses, she said.

Sawicki said there are substance abuse counselors at the high school and middle school who are available to help students who are struggling. It would be worthwhile to look to other school districts and the programs they have enacted, he said.

And finally, the candidates were asked about their approach to reaching consensus on issues.

Sawicki replied that listening, keeping an open mind and being able to express one’s opinion is important. Board members must be certain that they have all of the information, and they must have good communications with the community.

Matthews said board members must respect each other. They also need to listen to all of the stakeholders and determine the common goals. Sometimes there are winners and sometimes there are losers on an issue, but everyone must be heard, he said.

“We behave that way on the school board,” Murray agreed. “We share respect for one another. At the end of the day, if we don’t agree, we  have to find common ground.”