WEST WINDSOR: Four in contest for two school board seats

There are two West Windsor seats up for grabs in the Nov. 5 election for the West Windsor-Plainsboro Board of Education.

By Jennifer Kohlhepp, Staff Writer
   WEST WINDSOR — There are two West Windsor seats up for grabs in the Nov. 5 election for the West Windsor-Plainsboro Board of Education.
   The four candidates vying for the two seats are Yingchao Zhang, Rakesh Kak, Louisa Ho and Scott Powell. Ms. Ho is the incumbent.
   Mr. Zhang has three children in the school district.
   ”My twin boys, Jasen and Jeremy, are in High School North in tenth grade, while my younger son, Julian, is an eighth-grader at Community Middle School,” Mr. Zhang said.
   If elected, Mr. Zhang said he would be accessible to all residents.
   ”I will proactively gather public’s input to the school district by leveraging both the social media and online forum, and traditional way of face to face meeting and local newspapers,” Mr. Zhang said. “I will not put my own agenda ahead of what I hear from the residents at West Windsor whom I represent. I will encourage the residents to participate in school board meetings and contribute to the many task forces that the district sets up.”
   Mr. Kak has two children in the school district, a son in tenth grade at High School South and daughter in sixth grade at Grover Middle School.
   ”As a parent of two kids in the district and as a homeowner in the township I have a vested interest in maintaining the excellence in education that the district has achieved over the years,” Mr. Kak said. “I plan to work hard and bring the team player attitude to the board meetings to achieve the common goal of preparing the children for the 21st century competencies.”
   Ms. Ho has two children, a son who is in the eleventh grade at High School South and a daughter who graduated from High School South last June.
   If elected, Ms. Ho said she plans to work with the other board members and the administration to address critical issues.
   ”I also want to help our school district continue to provide an excellent educational experience for all our students,” Ms. Ho said. “This isn’t just their classroom experience. For most students, activities outside the classroom are critically important to their personal growth. I will work to insure that children in our community continue to have opportunities to participate and excel both inside and outside the classroom.
   Mr. Powell has two sons in the school district, one in fifth grade at Village School and one in second grade at Maurice Hawk. If elected, Mr. Powell said he would bring two important traits to the school board — independent thought and collaborative problem solving.
   ”On the board, I would ensure that the residents of West Windsor received equitable treatment in all manners before the board,” Mr. Powell said.
   When it comes to the pressing issues he sees in the school district, Mr. Zhang said, “Although the school student population increase slows down in recent years, we are still on the rise. We need to closely monitor the trend and plan for growth in the years to come. Budget is always the residents’ main concern, if not a pressing issue. We need to make sure to continue to optimize the expenses and focus on the core curriculums and academic excellence. We should try to gain more support from the strong local resources, from Princeton University and other colleges to large corporations in our area.”
   Mr. Kak said one of the major challenges faced by the school district is managing the budget while staying within the mandated 2 percent cap.
   ”Annual increases in the cost of employee benefits, a reduction of our fair share of state aid coupled with unfunded state and federal mandates, have exacerbated this challenge,” Mr. Kak said. “Since these challenges are here to stay, we will have to come up with a long-term plan to manage inflation in costs while maintaining the excellence in education. We need to make data driven decisions and start saving smarter, such as combining and collapsing programs and activities that are currently underutilized and investigating shared-services agreements.”
   Another important challenge facing the school district, Mr. Kak said, is the proper implementation of the new tenure/evaluation “TEACHNJ Act” passed by the state Legislature.
   ”Even though this law is designed to encourage and inspire the skilled teachers to perform better, one issue with the law is that the evaluation criteria are not yet well defined,” Mr. Kak said. “The implementation of this revised evaluation process in the coming years will be key and we will have to ensure that the evaluation criteria are fair and equitable to all teachers. We will also have to provide professional development for supervisors to yield evaluations that are fair and constructive. Lastly, we need to keep an eye on the population trends and be prepared in advance for any adverse changes.”
   Ms. Ho sees school funding, growth, and technology as three key issues in the school district.
   ”As a member of the board’s finance committee, I will work with the school administration to continuously look for opportunities to improve efficiencies, to reduce costs and to find funding for new programs,” Ms. Ho said. “The district has been particularly successful with state Regular Operating District grants, and is in the process of applying for more grants. Our school district offers an excellent educational program at a reasonable price, compared to other similar school districts. Our costs per pupil are well below those of school districts like Princeton and Hopewell. Cost containment is a focus for the district staff. In fact, for the 2013-2014 budget year, the school district was able to produce a budget with no increase in tax levies, compared to the prior year.”
   Ms. Ho said growth has been a major issue in the past.
   ”We need to constantly monitor growth and attendance for each school, to address capacity issues at individual schools and insure that class sizes are fair across the district,” Ms. Ho said.
   Another major issue is the need for the school district to respond to new rules and regulations.
   ”As a member of the school board, I will work with the administration to implement these new regulations in ways that are cost-effective, consistent, and fair,” Ms. Ho said.
   Technology is also an issue that the school district needs to continue to address, according to Ms. Ho.
   ”We need to incorporate new technology into our classrooms, where cost-effective,” Ms. Ho said. “With all that is happening in the world around us, security is an important issue for every school district. Our school district has a good school safety program, which includes a crisis management plan and close coordination with the local police departments. As part of the school board, I will work with the school administration to make cost-effective enhancements in school security, to test and evaluate new security programs, like the eyes on the door initiative at four of our schools. We need to continue to look for new ways to improve security without bankrupting the school district or creating a fortress environment for our students. And we need to help create an awareness of security within our school community so that our security measures are supported, not undermined by students, parents and staff in their everyday activities.”
   Mr. Powell said the most pressing issue facing the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district is teacher quality.
   ”A recent study by three professors at Harvard and Columbia found that teacher quality varies within school districts,” Mr. Powell said. “I have personally experienced this in the district. Studies have shown that teacher quality impacts student achievement more than any other factor. If elected to the board, I would work with the administration to build a culture of high teacher expectations. While the new state law for evaluating teachers provides a good foundation, we need to do more. The law calls for classroom observation and evaluation through improvements in test results. But we also need to incorporate parent feedback in teacher evaluation. In addition, the administration needs to show its commitment to teachers. This includes regular campus visits and a regular employee survey.”