After discussing issues of budgets, a focus on core subjects and making sure the needs of students are addressed, the candidates for board of education focused their attention on improving communication during a forum filmed by BR-TV Wednesday.
The forum was held at the Bridgewater-Raritan High School, and allowed all seven candidates to answer questions in an event sponsored by the Council of Schools Association, and moderated by the student members of BR-TV.
The candidates for board of education this year are incumbents Patrick Breslin, Cindy Cullen and Daniel Petrozelli, and candidates Jacqueline Barlow, Aaron Kurdyla, Taha Marhaba and Hany Mostafa.
Discussion began with a question about the biggest issues facing the board of education and the school district at this time. Among the candidates, they discussed the budget; maintaining the focus on science and other core subjects; and providing more opportunities for all students throughout the district.
For Petrozelli, the most important consideration should be technology.
“One problem we face is teachers keeping up with the technology curve,” he said. “The students themselves are way ahead of the curve, and I believe it’s an issue that cannot be ignored.”
The students themselves need to be addressed, in terms of their abilities, according to Barlow, who said it is critical that identification and intervention are done early.
"We must do better in tailoring academic programs to support education across all levels of ability, achievement and needs," she said. "I hear of too many cases where students are falling through the cracks across the grade levels and across content areas."
"We need to find innovative ways to provide additional differentiation so that no child sits in class bored due to lack of academic stimulation, overwhelmed due to unidentified areas of difficulty or underachieving due to our not understanding the true ability level of a child," she added.
Cullen said she would also support creating a program that allows high school students to earn both their diplomas and their associates degrees by the time they graduate from Bridgewater-Raritan High School.
The second question for the candidates concerned communication, and how the district is doing with this issue overall.
For several of the incumbents, they said they are pleased that there are so many options available, including the audio recordings of the meetings, the schools websites and continued hearings to relay information about critical issues.
“The district has one of the most comprehensive communication efforts of any place,” Breslin said.
Among the many offerings, Breslin said, are the Honeywell alert systems for emergency closings; email broadcastings from individual schools; the Parent Portal; online board meeting schedules and agendas; public comment at meetings and more.
“And we have adopted a practice for critical issues, with representation of facts and a comment period,” he said. “That has improved the transparency on issues, and affords the opportunity to give comments.”
Cullen said she also believes there are a great deal of opportunities for the district and the residents to communicate with each other, and she, along with Breslin, believes it would be important to live stream board meetings, rather than just providing the audio.
“I think it is absolutely essential that we start utilizing technology to get feedback,” she said. “It is great to have in-person communication, but we all have very busy lives. It is easier for communication to happen at home or the library.”
Cullen said she would want to set up a log-in for Bridgewater-Raritan parents and community members to expand the ways in which people communicate.
Mostafa said he believes the in-person communication is an important aspect of the board of education, and needs to be improved upon, particularly by reaching out to the PTOs of each school.
“We see them engaged in their kids’ lives, and we should utilize that,” he said. “Communication is a two-way street, and there is communication broken in the middle.”
In addition, Mostafa said, he would like to see milestones set for the progress of the board, perhaps allowing for a district meeting every three months to talk about the progress they have made.
“We want to see the results moving,” he said. “We need to capitalize on building the communication back on track.”
Like the idea of engaging the PTOs, Marhaba said he would like to see the board engaging in two public feedback sessions throughout the academic year to engage the public.
“And I would like to see an orientation program at the beginning of every school year to familiarize parents with public meeting dates, information and procedures for voicing concerns on issues,” he said. “We all want to be better informed.”
But most importantly, Kurdyla said, is the idea of face-to-face communication.
“It is the best way to get to the core of concerns,” he said. “The only obstacle of two-way communication is the time and a proper forum.”
“Maybe we can have a scheduled time, maybe after a board meeting, for open informal discussions about any type of issue,” he added.
For all the candidates, their hopes if they get elected are to do what they can to move the students in the district toward a better future.
“We must prepare the students for the next steps to become productive and responsible citizens,” Barlow said. “The vision is to raise Bridgewater to a level where we are a role model district to emulate because we have a fiscally responsible model that addresses the needs of all students.”
For Breslin, he believes it will be about tailoring elementary school programs to help all students, redoubling efforts for basic skills in the intermediate schools and providing a supportive environment for students in the high school.
“We have to maximize our investments in personnel, continue personal development and protect facilities developments,” he said. “The students deserve a safe environment that promotes education.”
Mostafa said he is hoping to ensure that there is money available to improve that education.
“I want to make sure that in the general fund where we have $4 million where there was $10 million, that we will still have money four years from now,” he said. “It is a good education for this generation and the next and all to come.”
The candidate forum is expected to begin airing on BR-TV within the next week.