Newcomers challenge incumbents for three school board seats

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Staff Writer

NORTH BRUNSWICK — Runningmates Howard Liu and Traci Rubin will go up against Barry Duran Harris and incumbents Gangadhara “Rao” Vakkalagadda, Donna Mikolajewski and Coleen Keefe for three seats with three-year terms on the North Brunswick Board of Education (BOE) on Nov. 8.

Barry Duran Harris, 34, has spent the past 10 years living in North Brunswick. He has two children; one attending Livingston Park Elementary and one enrolled at Linwood Middle School. He works as an assistant vice president/senior operations analyst for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“I’m focused on the building of additional schools, arts as part of educational curriculum and student testing. I plan to bring a fresh perspective and ideas. I plan on using my business, finance and leadership experience to the greatest capacity to help in related areas affecting the system. As a parent I’m focused on not only the best interests of my children, but of all children in the district,” he said.

Howard Liu, 25, has been a resident for the past 21 years. He attended Parsons Elementary School, Linwood Middle School and the North Brunswick Township High School (NBTHS) Class of 2009. He is currently a U.S. Army civilian program analyst for the Army.

“I am running for the North Brunswick BOE with Traci Rubin. Together, we will not raise property taxes. This is important as we are speaking out strongly against the referendum that would raise taxes hundreds of dollars on average for North Brunswick taxpayers.

“Last year, the residents of North Brunswick voted down the $87 million referendum to dramatically raise property taxes, build new schools and a new BOE building. The current BOE insists on going against the will of North Brunswick taxpayers by trying to push the referendum again — this time for $77 million — even after the people of North Brunswick clearly voted it down in December 2015. We stand with the taxpayers on this issue. The proposal, which we vehemently disagree with, did not serve the taxpayers of North Brunswick nor did it benefit our students, and if we are elected, we will make sure to speak out against any proposal that would directly raise property taxes.

“We will build new schools if needed, but between our current budget and existing infrastructure, we believe the priorities must be focused on utilizing the budget for more programs, events and improvements that would benefit our taxpayers, students and schools. New structures cannot be our first priority because larger opportunities are within our current system. The quality of our education and the scope of our students will benefit from putting taxpayers’ money back into these existing structures.

“We must improve the quality of education in North Brunswick.The graduation rate for NBTHS students decreased 4 percent from 2014-15, resulting in an uncomfortably low rate of 84.35 percent. In 2016, it was 82 percent. This is simply unacceptable. Not only do we need to ensure more of our students are graduating, but we must work to improve the curriculum for our students. We need to get the educators and supervisors on the same page in order to wholeheartedly prioritize our students.

“Our curricula must reflect what our students need to learn to succeed while maintaining a healthy balance of engagement and structure. We need to get more students involved in extracurricular activities, especially those that are tied to civics and academics, which would be one of our first developments if elected. As previously discussed, taxpayers’ money must return to the structures already existing — our students and our schools.

“With the money we have already in our budget, we can keep our commitment of not raising property taxes and providing more opportunities to our students to enhance our success by simply refocusing our investments. We believe North Brunswick students would greatly benefit from having classes that would broaden their horizons regarding local and global issues. North Brunswick prides itself on developing students to be global thinkers, and expanding our breadth of courses would further enlighten our students.

“I will speak out against the board administrator and attorney on the current BOE and fight to return the decision-making process of education policy back to the members of the North Brunswick BOE, who are elected by the residents of North Brunswick. I will do my best to represent the students, teachers and taxpayers of North Brunswick as an elected official and do my best to stop the agenda of the board administrator and board attorney, who are both unelected officials and do not have the best interests of students, teachers and taxpayers of North Brunswick in mind,” Liu said.

Incumbent Donna Mikolajewski has been a township resident for 17 years. Her son and daughter attend Linwood Middle School while her other two daugthers attend Judd Elementary. She is currently an account clerk in the Building Department for the Township of North Brunswick.

Mikolajewski was sworn in to cover an unexpired term in August 2015. She then ran and won the November 2015 election to fulfill the remaining one year on that same unexpired term.

She has served on the Judd Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) executive board for six years and is currently a co-president. She also volunteers with events run by the Linwood Parent Teacher Student Organization.

“Since becoming part of the board, I have served on the Curriculum and Negotiations committees and as the chair of the Personnel Committee. As a member of the Negotiations Committee, I have contributed to the contract negotiations with teaching and administrative staff, culminating in the recent ratification of a three-year agreement that is fair for both the district and our employees,” she said.

If elected to a full three-year term, she said she “will continue to make all children in our district our main priority and ensure they receive the tools to excel in school and surpass their goals. I will do this by focusing on reducing class sizes, attracting and retaining highly qualified educators, maintaining a well-balanced curriculum and ensuring that our schools are able to absorb the increasing enrollment brought on by our township’s master growth plan.”

Traci Rubin, 24, has lived in North Brunswick for 16 years. She attended Judd Elementary School, Linwood Middle School and North Brunswick Township High School. She is currently a human resources executive for Target.

“I am running alongside Howard Liu and if we are elected, we will stress our concern over the allocation of funding and our current budget while remaining focused on not raising property taxes. To elaborate, North Brunswick has a well-built, resilient infrastructure that will continue to serve as the place of growth and learning for our students. There is no need to build another school. I stand against the referendum, proposing we build a new school, which in turn would raise our property taxes to new heights.

“Instead, the BOE has the opportunity to invest in our students and educators directly by using this funding to enhance our after-school, arts and athletics programs. These programs elevate our students, provide structure after school and they bring our community together.

“We must improve the quality of education provided to our students. Not only are our educators our best assets, but so are our families. The graduation rate fell to an uncomfortable 82 percent for 2016. The BOE has failed to demonstrate accountability for their roles in this number. Of course, parents and educators provide the structure for our students to succeed, but the BOE provides everything necessary to give our students structure: funding, programs and resources.

“If Howard and I are elected to the BOE, we will act with urgency in order to address the issue of fewer students graduating. A new school will not solve this problem; programs, on the other hand, will keep our students involved and motivated to continue their careers whether with a trade or post-graduate degree.

“North Brunswick must improve special education on all fronts. As a sibling of someone with special needs, I know firsthand that providing a thorough education for students with special needs or developmental delays is not easy. Our schools need to rely on our educators who are trained and experienced with this population of students in order to best provide an excellent education.

“Although our schools provide some of the inclusion and one-on-one programs already, there is still so much more we can do. This population requires an advocate on the BOE because they are often not a priority; Howard and I stand together on this issue. These students are capable of doing much more, and our schools need to enhance the existing programs in order to flesh out the thriving potential of these students. If the BOE allocated money to after-school programs instead of building a new school, we would enhance the inclusion of both mainstream and special education students.

“If elected, I will leverage my ability to drive accountability and fairness in order to best provide for our students and educators. As a human resources executive, I am constantly met with challenges and complex problems, but I always remain fair, consistent and focused on the underlying issues; I don’t act in haste, and I most definitely do not make decisions without thinking through the repercussions. I believe I will provide a sense of urgency to the BOE with being a North Brunswick alumna; I will provide a fresh look to existing issues,” said Rubin.

Incumbent Gangadhara “Rao” Vakkalagadda has been a resident for 13 years. His two daughters attend Livingston Park Elementary and Linwood Middle School. He works as a regulatory consultant for pharmaceuticals.

He has served as a member of the BOE for one year, joining last year to serve an unexpired term. He currently serves on the Community Relations, Policy and Litigation and Curriculum committees.

“I believe that my scientific background offers me an opportunity to contribute towards paving a path for our students to become future scientists and innovators. This year in June, in collaboration with the school board and ASK, a nonprofit organization, I organized the first science symposium for students of North Brunswick, grades 4-12. We had over 100 students showcasing their scientific and presentation skills, with an infectious enthusiasm,” he said.

Vakkalagadda is a volunteer for the Livingston Park Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization, a lifetime benefactor of the Friends of the North Brunswick Public Library, chairperson of the North Brunswick Township Science Symposium, a team parent for the North Brunswick Soccer Club in 2015 and an executive committee member of the NBT India Day Committee.

“My focus as a board member is to bridge the achievement gap between high and low performers, support and enhance the STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, math] programs so that children are better prepared for colleges when they graduate and provide a safe and healthy learning environment for our students,” he said.

Coleen Keefe could not be reached by press time.

Contact Jennifer Amato at