HOPEWELL VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT: Candidates cite their qualifications

By Frank Mustac, Special Writer
Voters in Pennington in Hopewell Township will see candidates for school board on their ballots Election Day, Nov. 3, while voters in Hopewell Borough will not.
The term of office for board members is three years.
Joanna “Jenny” Long is running uncontested on the Pennington ballot for a seat on the Hopewell Valley Regional School Board of Education. The seat is held by Jon Butler of Pennington, who is not seeking reelection.
Lisa Wolff, current board president, and Leigh Ann Peterson, vice president, are on the ballot in Hopewell Township. Both Ms. Wolff and Ms. Peterson also are running unopposed.
Ms. Long lives in Pennington Borough with her husband, Jeff Long, and their three children, Gwynne, a sophomore at Central High School; James in eighth grade at Timberlane Middle School; and Annie, a fifth-grader at Toll Gate Grammar School.
Mr. Long works in the area for his family business, Long Motor Company.
The Longs have lived in Pennington for the past 13 years. Ms. Long grew up in Princeton where she attended the public schools and graduated from Princeton High School.
Currently a stay-at-home mom since the birth of her oldest child 15 years ago, Ms. Long previously worked as a special education teacher in Trenton and Connecticut.
Ms. Long said she is qualified for the school board position, in part, because of her experience as a teacher of children with learning disabilities, which gives her insight to what teachers do on a daily basis, how hard they work and what difficulties they encounter, she said.
Having certifications in elementary education and special education and having minored in education at college and taken many graduate-level classes, she said, gives her the knowledge of what goes on in classrooms and schools.
“Having children in three different schools gives me an understanding of what goes on at all levels of education in our district from a different prospective than a teacher,” said Ms. Long, who served on the Hopewell Valley Education Foundation board for four years. “I was able to work alongside a (school) board member as well as different administrators to help raise money to benefit our schools in the form of grants, programs and other financial support.”
Ms. Long spent five years serving on the Toll Gate Grammar School PTO, three as vice president and two as co-president where she also raised funds to benefit the school.
“Being involved in the schools for so many years has given me a good relationship with teachers and administrators,” she said.
Standardized testing, like NJASK and PARCC, is an issue on people’s minds, she said, including her own.
“I was a parent at Toll Gate when there was a lot of frustration over the scores, and parents were concerned that students were not being taught the same curriculum with the same methods throughout the elementary schools,” she said. “It was a very tense time for many parents, and I feel it escalated a lot of the anxiety over standardized testing.”
She added, “With last year’s change to the PARCC, it was apparent many families were against these tests, based on the number of children, who were ’opted out’ of the tests. While I am not opposed to all standardized testing, I do think we need to ensure that the children are getting a full and rich critically-thinking-based curriculum that doesn’t just ’teach to the test.’”
Another issue, Ms. Long said, is making sure students are getting the best education they can, and that Hopewell Valley is a competitive district academically.
“As a parent of three children with varying degrees of dyslexia, I understand the need for support and individual attention,” she said. “Often I hear parents mention that their student is ‘in the middle.’ Parents are concerned that if a child isn’t special needs or honors, then they may get lost. I think it is important to make sure those students are getting all their needs met as well and that every student is being challenged on a daily basis and achieving all they can to the best of their ability.”
Ms. Wolff has lived in Hopewell Township for the past 20 years. She is married with two children — one is a senior at Hopewell Valley Central High School and the other is a freshman there. Both children completed Hopewell Elementary and Timberlane Middle schools.
Ms. Wolff works as an independent business strategy consultant, helping clients improve sales, business development, messaging and marketing strategies. She previously held the title of vice president at a multinational company and an Internet startup and also taught as an adjunct professor at The College of New Jersey.
Ms. Wolff has served as a school board member for the past six years, which includes her role as board president for the last four. She has worked with the Hopewell Valley Education Foundation and the Hopewell Valley Recreation Foundation and helped launch the Hopewell Valley Arts Council.
“I am an ex-officio member of all (school board) committees, plus I chair the Policy Committee and have chaired the Education Curriculum Committee,” she said. “I founded and chaired the Alternative Resource Advisory Committee, which brings in non-tax-based revenue into the school district. Donations have included the turf field, the baseball field, seed money for the TMS engineering program, classroom iPads and more.”
Ms. Wolff added, “During my six years, tax increases have declined to record lows while our school performance has improved. We have added magnet academies and repealed activity fees. Our students are taking more honors and AP courses, and co-curricular engagement has increased. We have renewed the superintendent’s contract for the first time in decades, and that has led to more stable leadership. We have increased communication and transparency and partnered with the community.”
The main issues for the Hopewell Valley Regional School District, she said, are improving education quality for students while being respectful and grateful for taxpayers.
“We need to keep in mind that the majority of households in Hopewell Valley do not have kids in our schools, yet the highest percentage of their tax bill is for our schools,” Ms. Wolff said. “The Board of Education Finance Committee scrutinizes every major expenditure and reviews a budget by carefully considering how spending directly impacts student performance.”
The school district, she said, engages the community and has accepted recommendations from residents, including “not closing a school and adding full-day kindergarten.”
“Unfortunately, under the state mandated 2 percent tax levy cap, the HVRSD budget cannot address the updates necessary for safety and security within our numerous aging facilities,” Ms. Wolff said. “The high school roof needs replacing. Also, with no air conditioning, some classrooms can get up to 95 degrees inside. Finally, we also need to improve some district security features. All of these updates are an urgent priority.”
Improving education quality has continued, she said, “by adding full-day kindergarten, a STEM magnet at the elementary level and a performing arts magnet at the high school. Further, the district is taking a more student-centered approach on all levels by employing techniques that improves student engagement, critical reasoning and retention.”
The challenge, Ms. Wolff said, is implementing new “programs and pedagogical changes while conforming to an external environment that competes for district staff energy, time and money. For example, the state Department of Education continues to add unfunded mandates such as additional high-stakes testing and new teacher evaluation systems.”
“Our administration and staff are doing a great job finding the right balance, but the challenge is always present,” Ms. Wolff said.
Ms. Peterson is seeking reelection as a school board member representing Hopewell Township. A lifelong resident of Mercer County, Ms. Peterson was first appointed to the board of education in September 2008, then elected in 2009 and again in 2012.
Ms. Peterson did not respond to a request for information about her campaign prior to press time.
A biography of Ms. Peterson can be found on the Hopewell Valley Regional School District website at www.boarddocs.com/nj/hvrsd/Board.nsf/Public?open&id=board. 