The five candidates running for three available terms on the East Windsor Regional School District Board of Education fielded questions about topics ranging from school security to communications and how the issue of the initial non-renewal, and subsequent renewal, of an elementary school principal’s contract should have been handled during a candidates night last week.
The candidates, incumbent board members Paul Connolly, Robert Laverty and Alice Weisman, and newcomers Tina Lands and Colleen Murphy, answered questions posed to them at the Oct. 17 candidates night sponsored by the League of Women Voters of East Windsor-Hightstown.
The first question dealt with the board’s decision not to renew the contract of Heather Gladkowski, the principal of the Grace Norton Rogers Elementary School, overriding a recommendation for renewal by Richard Katz, the district’s former superintendent of schools.
The board’s decision upset many parents, who attended a subsequent board meeting to express their displeasure. Board members reconsidered their decision after additional information was presented and renewed Gladkowski’s contract.
The incumbents were asked to explain their reasoning for voting against renewing Gladkowski’s contract and whether they viewed it as a vote of “no confidence” in Katz, who resigned a few weeks later.
Connolly said it was the worst public relations event the board had ever experienced. The administration could have handled it in a better fashion, he said. Every decision the board makes is about the students, he added.
Laverty and Weisman said they did not view the board’s initial action as a vote of “no confidence” in the superintendent. The board had a “legitimate difference of opinion” with Katz on that issue, Laverty said.
“This was the worst situation I can remember on the board,” Weisman said. Not to support the superintendent’s recommendation is not the same as a vote of “no confidence,” she said, noting that when the board was presented with additional information, it reversed its decision.
Lands and Murphy, who were asked how they would have voted, said they did not know how they would have voted. The situation involved confidential information and she was not privy to that information, Lands said. Both candidates said they saw the issue as one of transparency.
Asked about school security in the aftermath of numerous school shootings, there was little disagreement that it has to be a priority.
Connolly said the board hired a consultant to review security measures that were in place. The consultant prepared a thorough report that listed measures to be taken in the short term and in the long term.
Lands said that as a parent, she views “access control” as being important. Visitors should sign in and sign out, and be admitted one at a time. There is room for improvement, she said.
Weisman said she has watched the changes over the years to tighten and enhance security. It is sad and unfortunate, she said, adding that no one wants to make the schools feel like a prison. Schools should be an inviting place to be, she said.
Murphy, who is a graduate of Hightstown High School, said she always felt safe. There were fire drills and active shooter drills, and even chemical attack drills. But she questioned the wisdom of allowing schools to be used as election polling places if the goal is to keep strangers out of a building.
The candidates favored seeking out grants that would pay for security improvements.
Lands and Murphy said if there is grant money available, it should be used to improve security so students and staff will be safe. District administrators are always looking for grant money, Weisman said.
On improving transparency and communication between the school district and the community, all agreed the community needs to be informed, but the candidates differed in how it could be achieved.
Lands, Laverty, Murphy and Weisman were not opposed to recording board meetings, but Weisman pointed to the logistics involved in taping and broadcasting the meetings.
Connolly was cool on recording meetings because “the ratings are just not there.” Connolly said the school district has hired a communications director and added that the minutes of the board meetings are more detailed.
Lands said she believes information should be accessible to the public if it is not confidential.
“It is a frustrating question,” Laverty said, and it comes with a caveat, “unless (the information) is confidential.”
For Murphy, transparency and communication are “key,” and one of the reasons she decided to run for the board. It is more than making minutes of meetings easily available, she said. It calls for finding other ways to get the information out to the community.
Weisman said she has always been looking for better ways to enhance communication and to find new and better ways to get people involved, but “no matter how you try, you feel you are not reaching as many people as you wish.”