Board hopefuls discuss issues

Growth finances top agenda

By: Nick D’Amore
   Candidates for the Board of Education said they will work with the township, teachers, students and the community to address issues such as increased enrollment, township growth, school finances and curriculum.
   The candidates — Martin Abschutz, Matthew Speesler, Barry Nathanson and Joan Puchalski — said the board has effectively handled these issues and they would continue the course.
   There are three, three-year seats available in the April 16. The seats are being vacated by Gail Barcelo, Marci Abschutz and Bryan Laurita, who decided not to seek re-election.
   Increased enrollment, caused primarily by population growth in town, has become a major issue for the district, evidenced by the building of a new elementary school — Brooks Crossing School — and the 450 new students the district expects to enter its schools in September. These are among the factors driving the proposed $98.15 million budget, which if approved will increase school taxes by 5.7 percent.
   Dr. Speesler said the board must continue to work with township officials and educate the public.
   "We need to deal with it with long-range planning. We have to work with the township to find sites for new schools and educate the voters and taxpayers to maintain the high level of academics in the district," he said.
   He said the district needs to look for increases in state aid and for matching funds for capital improvements.
   He said to deal with future increases in enrollment, the district may have to construct more facilities. Additions are not the answer, he said.
   "Brooks Crossing will help considerably, but we’re seeing growth across the board," he said.
   Mr. Abschutz, husband of outgoing board member Ms. Abschutz, said the district needs to review its enrollment projections from year to year.
   "I think we need to see each year how the actual numbers compare with the projection to see if we’re working with a good set of assumptions. They have been pretty close," he said.
   Mr. Abschutz said the board should continue to keep the public involved and informed of the challenges the board faces.
   "Communication is one of the keys to have the community support the board. They need to know what the challenges are and how the board is addressing them," he said.
   Mr. Nathanson, chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, said the redistricting plan approved by the board in June 2001 and new facilities has helped ease rising enrollment.
   "With the expansion of the high school and a new elementary school, the board has addressed a lot of concerns already," he said.
   However, Mr. Nathanson said anticipatesneeding a new elementary school in the Kingston area because that is where much of the future growth will be seen.
   Ms. Puchalski said she would seek out the opinions and expertise of school staff and administration in dealing with enrollment increases.
   "I don’t have the best answers, but I’m willing to put the time into seeing what people want," she said.
   "I would consider available data and enrollment projections in making fiscally responsible decisions that are congruent with the needs of those I am entrusted to represent."
   The candidates said the board and township should continue to work together to address the increase in the township population.
   "The board is in a position of catching whatever happens with zoning issues," said Mr. Abschutz.
   He said the board cannot do much to curb developments that are built in residential zones, but can petition township planning and zoning boards when variances are considered for housing in non-residential zones.
   Dr. Speesler said the board needs to look at the other causes for increased growth and enrollment besides new houses.
   "It’s more than just new construction. We need to look at enrollment across the board. More older people are selling their homes to younger families, especially on the west side of town in Kendall Park," he said.
   He said the board needs to follow up on demographic studies and plan accordingly.
   "The growth is coming from areas with already established homes," he said.
   Mr. Nathanson said the planning and zoning boards have been keeping enrollment in mind.
   "Whenever we approve an application, we always ask how many kids there will be with the project," he said.
   Mr. Nathanson said he believes the population will eventually level off. He said the Township Council has been doing its part to curb growth with its continued purchase of open space.
   Ms. Puchalski said increased communication between the school board and the planning and zoning boards is necessary to deal with growth.
   "They have to make sure they’re paying attention to what the existing population wants in terms of growth," she said.
   The candidates support the budget proposed by the board and said they would continue to look for ways to provide high achievement in the schools.
   "The board needs to continue to look at creative ways to get things done and look at high achieving districts throughout the state and nation," said Mr. Abschutz.
   He said the proposed 2002-2003 budget was fiscally responsible in keeping the tax hike minimal, citing the refinancing of the bonds from the 1999 $46.99 million bond referendum, which will save taxpayers more than $1.3 million.
   Dr. Speesler said the budget should focus on high achievement.
   "If we’re really serious about providing academic excellence, I think we need to look at providing that which is necessary to achieve it," he said, citing teachers and resources.
   "I think we need to be imaginative and creative to get the most for our tax dollars. Fiscal responsibility is fine, but we need to analyze where the money is going," he said.
   Mr. Nathanson said School Business Administrator Jeff Scott and the board administration have a grasp on the district’s finances.
   "Hopefully, Trenton will straighten out and we will get more aid," he said.
   He said the 2002-2003 budget addresses all aspects of education and that taxpayers "get a lot of bang for their buck."
   Ms. Puchalski said the board has crafted a responsible budget and has spent money wisely, but that the board needs to "pay attention to community input and what will benefit students, teachers and parents."
   The candidates said curriculum should focus on high achievement and that more can be done in certain areas.
   Mr. Abschutz said the curriculum is in very capable hands with Willa Spicer, the assistant superintendent of curriculum.
   He said he would like to see more advanced placement courses at the high school level and also create classes in lower grades to prepare students for taking advanced placement classes.
   Dr. Speesler said the curriculum needs to reflect student performance on state-mandated tests and adjust accordingly.
   "We have to make sure we’re on par with everyone else. We can’t use the same curriculum over and over again," he said.
   He said there is room for improvement in science and math.
   Mr. Nathanson said the district’s move toward streamlining certain areas of the curriculum is a good move.
   "Cohesiveness is a concern," he said.
   He said keeping teachers in the district should be a priority.
   "A good percentage of the teachers are young and new to the district. I would work with (superintendent) Sam Stewart to keep teachers here," he said.
   Ms. Puchalski said the curriculum should be kept up to date as new information becomes available.
   "We have to be sure kids master the essential skills in all subjects," she said.
   Ms. Puchalski said students should be learning to communicate clearly, concisely and persuasively. She said students should learn the practical application of the math concepts they are taught and that science teachers should keep students excited about science.
   "We should solicit student and teacher input and show that we can act on what have they have to say," she said.
   She also said that focusing on professional development for teachers is essential "so they stay on the cutting edge of curriculum and teaching methods and keep the process fresh and exciting for students. We want to make sure students don’t get bored with education and understand it’s a lifelong process."