HILLSBOROUGH: Seven candidates running for three open seats on the school board

HILLSBOROUGH: Seven candidates running for three open seats on the school board

Andrew Martins, Managing Editor
On Election Day, voters in Hillsborough will be tasked with selecting three new members of the Hillsborough Township Board of Education from a crowded pool of seven candidates. Each open position carries with it a three-year term on the school board
Judith Haas and Dr. Lorraine Soisson are the two incumbents looking to retain their seats for another three-year term on the school board. Back in July, Soisson was chosen to serve out the remainder of former board member Steven Cohen’s unexpired term following his resignation.
Current incumbent member Jennifer Haley, whose term ends this year, is not seeking reelection to the board.
The five remaining candidates, Linda Fu-Fung, Ann Harris, Nicole Risher, Kiru Thangavelu and Thomas Zobele, are hoping to become the newest addition to the nine-person board.
Linda Fu-Fung is a Hillsborough High School graduate of the Class of 2000, who now has two daughters, aged 1 and 5 years old. After high school, she moved away to attend college, but frequently returned to her hometown on the weekends. Three years ago, she opted to move back into Hillsborough to be closer to her family.
Judith Haas is a 28 year resident of Hillsborough who raised her son Lenny and two step-sons Marc and David with her husband Lloyd. Over the years, Haas has enjoyed a long, 12 year tenure on the Hillsborough Board of Education. During that span, she has: served three years as its vice president; been the chair of a number of committees, including the Education Committee, the Communications and Policy Committees; been a member on the Governance, Curriculum, Finance, Personnel, and Facilities Committees; and served as a liaison to Garden State Coalition of Schools.
Haas is also the president of the Board of Directors of the Somerset County Educational Services Commission; a former president and treasurer of the non-profit Hillsborough Public Library Advisory Board; a Principal’s Advisory Committee member; a co-chair of Project Graduation; a former Hillsborough Township administrator; and a former Deputy Commissioner and Assistant Comptroller in NYC government.
Harris is a 30 year resident of Hillsborough, whose son and daughter have gone through the school district. With K-8 teaching experience that spans more than three decades, she retired from the Hillsborough Township Public School system after 23 years of service at the elementary level. During that time, she also served as the Elementary Science Specialist for K-6 for seven years.
Over the years, Harris also served in a number of leadership roles, including two international educational honor societies. She is now serving for the tenth year on the Sustainable Hillsborough Steering Committee.
Risher is a 42-year-old, 18-year resident of Hillsborough. She has been married for 18 years and has three children, a 15-year-old daughter named Kya in Hillsborough High School, a 12-year-old daughter named Aaliya at Auten Road Intermediate School and a 7-year-old son named Edward Justin at Woodfern Elementary School. She also has custody of a younger cousin, who she raised since he was 15, that has since graduated from Hillsborough High School in 2015.
By her own admission, Risher is a newcomer to service within the school district, though she has served on committees and educational counsels elsewhere.
Soisson is a 17-year Hillsborough resident and a 50-year-old mother of two daughters, one of which graduated from Hillsborough High School and is currently a college sophomore, while the other is currently a seniors at the high school. She has previously served on the school board for one term from 2012-2016 and was selected by the board to fill an open position left vacant with former board member Steven Cohen’s resignation this past summer. Prior to running for the school board in 2012, she served as Home and School Association President at Triangle School and Auten Road School for six years.
Thangavelu is a five-year Hillsborough resident, whose eldest son attends Woodfern Elementary School. He has never held any elected position in the past, but professionally he is an IT architect in the banking industry with more than 17 years of professional experience that includes budgeting, resource management, vendor contract negotiation and conflict resolution.
Zobele is a 24-year-old, lifelong Hillsborough resident who personally went through the Hillsborough Public School District. He has never held any publicly elected office.
In order to provide candidates with an equitable platform to discuss their plans for the school district, all seven were given the same questions and the same amount of space for their responses.
Why are you running for a spot on the school board?
Fu-Fung: I am seeking a position on the board of education in order to give back to the community. I am very passionate about education because our future depends on the positive education that we give to our children. They are our future teachers, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, mechanics, programmers and leaders.
Our students’ needs is my priority. As a former member of the educational system, I want to help and support our educators and support staff by helping them receive resources for their students in an efficient and timely manner.
Haas: The board’s work requires dedicated, knowledgeable, caring and independent members. I have spent most of my life in public service and I know how to get things done efficiently and effectively. I have a record of accomplishment, accessibility, and decision-making based on values and equity. I work hard, research every issue, communicate with stakeholders, ask questions, never rubber-stamp anything, and remain independent and passionate about education. I am proud of my contribution to improving student achievement, maintaining reasonable class sizes, attracting and retaining great teachers, minimizing administrative expenses, enhancing our curriculum, co-curriculars, and sports for all students to find areas of success, establishing our district website, parent information system, instant alerts, and social media to improve communication, adding/expanding technology, innovation, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, concurrent college classes, AP classes and special education programs, all with a cost per pupil that is hundreds of dollars less than the state average.
Harris: I like to be actively involved in serving the community which I have called home for 30 years. Completing my educational leadership doctorate provides an opportunity to serve in my field of interest and expertise to help benefit this community.
Risher: I am involved in many activities here in Hillsborough, as well as our surrounding towns. From being a swim official for the Somerset Valley YMCA swim team, to a T3 elite lacrosse team mom coordinator, to a parent of a Jr. Raider, I am around parents who have questions and concerns within the community and schools. I have seen many positive aspects of our schools, but also areas where I felt I can help strengthen. I felt like I wanted to have a voice and bring the concerns of the parents directly to the board and also to give back to the district. The school district helped me so much when I obtained custody of my cousin. He was identified as having special needs, and the programs within the High School helped groom him towards a life post high school. I strongly believe all children should be granted opportunities for success.
Soisson: I believe every child is deserving of the best education and feel that there is no better way to succeed than to obtain a great education. I want to ensure that others who live in our community benefit from the wonderful public schools that Hillsborough offers and that Hillsborough remains a sought-out community in which to own a home and raise a family.
Thangavelu: As a father of two, I have insight on what parents go through, as well as what a taxpayer expects. I bring with me fresh thoughts and experiences that would help the board to proactively identify issues and attain quicker and faster turnaround. It is important to take responsibility and resolve issues rather than getting into a rut. I have good problem solving capabilities and believe that change is a constant force that drives us to a better destination in life. To evolve into a better person, we should allow our self to look at things with an open mind and strive hard to reach the goal. As a board member, I will tailor my professional and personal experience to steer the board to a brighter path and serve as a valuable member of the committee.
Zobele: I am running for the Hillsborough Township Public School Board because I feel I can make a real difference. As a 24-year-old who went through the school system I bring a unique and different perspective. I feel this experience will allow me to more easily connect with students, teachers and taxpayers when tackling myriad issues.
What would you say is one of of the district’s strengths?
Fu-Fung: Our teachers and support staff in Hillsborough are our greatest strength. They are the foundation of our successful education system and are the cheerleaders and motivators for our students. Without their tireless dedication, our children would not be able to maximize their potential to become future innovators and leaders for their generation.
Haas: Our district’s greatest strength is our people – our truly awesome students and staff.  Their efforts and energy make us strong. We are an inclusive district that provides a comprehensive, well-rounded, excellent education with co-curriculars and sports and strong support systems for all students. Families choose to move to Hillsborough for our regular and special education programs. The best teachers and staff members choose to work here. Everyone works hard to assure that every child can reach his/her maximum potential. Our students do very well in college, in careers, and in life. I am very proud of the collaborative work in our schools.
Harris: Hillsborough is noted for its excellence in education. I helped to provide a piece of that to the community for many years. It is now a good time to give back to the community in a different venue: by helping to maintain those high standards of excellence in education and provide a perspective that no other board member has experienced, the perspective of a classroom teacher and an educational leader.
Risher: One of the district’s strengths is the early identification and intervention of children with special needs. Besides the success of my cousin, my son was one of those children who was identified at a very early age as needing additional help. I personally feel that this early identification and intervention gave my son the best chance for success. He is doing great in school. Early identification and intervention is crucial to all our children’s future success.
Soisson: The greatest strength of our district is our wonderful staff. Having served as Home and School Association President for a total of six years at Triangle and Auten Road Schools, as well as having served as a board of education member for almost four years, I can say without question that everyone in our district, including the administration, educators, and other staff, are committed to providing our children with the best educational experience possible.
Thangavelu: We have a school system with good rankings. This is definitely a strength, as this reflects our academic performance from our kids and teachers.
Zobele: Of the many strengths our district has one in particular stands out: extracurricular activities. Activities such as band, sports teams and clubs provide outstanding opportunities for additional learning. I can say from personal experience that the debate club at the high school had an impact on my education. 
What is the most pressing issue facing the school district? If elected, how do you plan to tackle that issue?
Fu-Fung: One area I think that the board can in improve on is the area of spending. With my background in procurement, I can assist the board in cost control without hindering quality and service. We need to examine the way we spend the school budget. Members of the community question the way that our district handles contracts and expenses. If we take a deeper dive and assess how we spend, we will be able to find additional funds for other programs.
Haas: The most pressing issue facing our school district is the constant disruption and distraction caused by the state government, i.e. underfunding, flat funding, changing state requirements, unfunded mandates, public school funding going to charter schools, instability of the pension system and more. This impacts our educational program, our staff, and our ability to properly repair and maintain our facilities. As all homeowners know, repairs are not inexpensive, but they must be done. The state needs to reclaim responsibility for providing more reasonable funding for schools.
I am tackling that issue the same way I have tackled every issue that has come before me for 12 years – by working hard, doing research and always putting the kids first. I also advocate as a BOE member, as an NJSBA member, as a GSCS member, as a SOS member, and as an individual on state issues, meet with legislators, write letters and vote for good people who support the schools.
Harris: There is a need for accountability and transparency to the parents so they understand the steps to take to help their children maximize their learning potential. Teachers do a great job of helping to convey best practice ideas, but sometimes these suggestions are not followed up on at home. Educating students in the current world does “take a village.”
The district has a human resource person in the administrative team, a “public relations officer.” Part of that person’s job responsibilities could be finding the most effective ways of communicating and providing programs to the parents about positive potentials for enhancing learning opportunities and student success. There is also a township Life-Skills coordinator working with the schools who might also be tapped to increase parent participation in programs and provide information, help or support for educational issues. Student peer-mentoring groups have also provided additional benefits for accountability in learning situations.
Risher: As with most school districts, making the budget stretch without compromising integrity is the most pressing issue. If elected, I would work closely with my peers to effectively come up with solutions to make the budget work without compromising our children’s educational needs.
Soisson: The most pressing issue facing the district is the state of the facilities. Many of our schools are quite old and we have not been making reinvestment in the infrastructure a priority due to other needs. The board has invested in some long needed infrastructure updates like air conditioning, roof replacement, etc. However, our buildings need more attention, as evidenced by the recurring mold problem and the lead issue at the high school.
I would urge the board to review the overarching needs and prioritize based on urgency, considering first those projects that affect the health and safety of our students and staff. We need to involve all of the stakeholders in this process. By adopting a holistic approach that is not just a snapshot in time, but assesses the projected needs over a five- to ten-year period, we can better plan for longer term projects and communicate these to the community with the timeline for expected completion.
Thangavelu: There are a few issues that I would like to pay more attention to. But that does not mean others are least important. I prioritize the issues and reassess and reset priorities every now and then to ensure that I am moving forward. Some of the issues I would give importance to are: infrastructure to meet the educational demands; budget for the right reason only and propose new ideas to generate income; ensure that the educators and ESPs are given the right appreciation; procrastination and deliberation in addressing any kind of issue.
Money well spent is money saved – so it is important to budget wise. I will make the right call to ensure money is not wasted. With the old buildings, we need to make sure they are safe for the kids and staff.
Zobele: I believe the most pressing issue facing our school district is the issue of fair school funding. Many in our district ask themselves how do we provide a quality education for our children while keeping our taxes in check. One of the answers to this dilemma is to make sure the state of New Jersey begins providing school districts like Hillsborough it’s fair share of state funding.
I will admit it will be hard to solve the issue of fair school funding but a good first step is to speak out forcefully on the issue.
Is there something that’s currently in place, either in terms of programs, curriculum or policies, that you think could be better?
Fu-Fung: Early education is very dear to my heart because as a young child, I was considered a ‘problem student’ and was not given the proper educational experience from first to fourth grade. I was in the midst of failing fourth grade and my teacher was considering that I repeat the grade. Her words to this day still echo inside my head; “I’ll be surprised if she makes it through high school.” Fortunately, my grandfather was an English professor, saw my struggles and dramatically changed my learning performance for the better. Through his guidance, I was able to pass by improving my foundations.
My grandfather was able to help me excel because he understood that in order to succeed, one must establish a firm foundation. I missed that foundation building opportunity and I want to make sure that every student in Hillsborough receives the best foundation that they can have.
Haas: Our school district’s programs, curriculum, and policies constantly evolve to meet the needs of our children and to reflect new laws and new research, and are generally in excellent shape. Student wellness is a growing challenge. I have led efforts to add Student Assistance, College, and Elementary School counselors. It is critical that we assure all of our students have appropriate support to avoid negative behaviors and make good healthy decisions. Expanded early childhood education is another opportunity for improvement, with most of Somerset County’s municipalities already enacting full day kindergarten and some seeking expansion of pre-kindergarten. I have already taken a class and spoken with other districts’ school board members about how they fund this. These subjects will be brought to the board on November 13 for review in our ongoing strategic planning.
Harris: More involvement in sustainable efforts for both educational learning and in terms of increasing efficiency in the buildings’ operational functions would seem to be a priority. Additional after-school opportunities for STEM and STEAM programs to encourage students to increase their love for learning while enjoying collaboration and problem solving, especially programs for gender equity in engineering interests.
Risher: I think the current programs for mental health for the elementary and middle school could be better. With the rise of the use of social media and the younger age kids are going onto these outlets, adding new psychologists to the schools was a great thing! I think we need more programs to address signs of anxiety, depression, and abuse in our elementary and middle school kids.
Soisson: We do very well with the existing academic programs. I think we should expand offerings where possible, including through the use of online programming. In addition, I would like to see us expand extracurricular activities in all schools. Lastly, I would like to expand the offerings for concurrent enrollment with college courses.
Thangavelu: Kids are very smart and resourceful. I will devise programs to use their resourcefulness and get them involved in the community.
Zobele: One policy that I feel should be reviewed is the district’s technology policy. Technology has helped make all our lives easier; however, I worry that as a society we may be losing our ability to simply read, write, and do arithmetic. If elected I would work toward a health balance.
What do you hope the district will be able to accomplish in the next five years?
Fu-Fung: I would like to see our overall school ranking rise up to the top 20 in New Jersey. We can accomplish that though strengthening early education and putting back accelerated math in elementary schools. School rankings are important to our community because it helps provide an overall higher level of academic excellence among our students and it helps to raise property values by having more potential families consider Hillsborough as a potential home for their children.
Haas: Hope is not a strategy; actions are. I first ran for school board after two years of budget failures and millions of dollars removed from educational purposes as a result. Since then, we have regained community support for education as a critically important investment in all of our futures. We have developed credible, responsible budgets that allow us to advance our program. We must continue to progress and enhance our curriculum, improve student achievement equitably and at all levels, and prepare all of our kids for the challenges of life in a global and technological economy. We have been guided by the Building On Excellence recommendations over several years. Our strategic planning process will shortly bring a new and wide range of recommendations, suggested by members of our community and reviewed by staff committees, to our board for action. This will provide a guide for the next five years.
Harris: It’s difficult speculating frameworks when budgets and state funding aren’t in place for five year plans, but I’d encourage grant writing as a resource to alleviate increased school taxes. STEM/ STEAM projects and initiatives for sustainable efforts provide many grant opportunities to help bring in revenue while not increasing school taxes. I’ve some experience as a grant-writer, previously receiving thirty of the forty grants written for the school district while a teacher. Maintenance of existing buildings; providing a comfortable, healthy environment for learning is a necessary part of spending. Studies show that learning and time on task are increased by maintaining a comfortable temperature, good lighting, water and air quality; these are essentials for proper learning environments. A well-balanced program, meeting the demands of the 21st-century learning goals, is an essential component to any vision. Prioritizing to make excellent curriculum and student achievement first are goals of any educational program.
Risher: I am very passionate about early childhood education. I hope that in the next five years, Hillsborough can have a full day kindergarten program. I have some ideas that I think may help aid in these discussions.
Soisson: My hope is that we can address some major facilities issues in the next several years and make a long-term plan to address more in a most cost-effective way. In addition to this, I hope we can put a new strategic plan in place and consider employing block scheduling at the high school, as well as take the first steps to implement full-day kindergarten.
Thangavelu: Set up protocols to address issues quickly, process should kick off automatically on detecting an issue rather than spending lot of time in decision making. Have strong association of every single dollar spent to schools mission, close infrastructure and staffing issues on timely manner.
Zobele: Simply put, I hope the district will continue to accomplish it’s central goal of making sure students become productive members of our society and are made ready for college life, vocational training or the workforce.