Five candidates vie for two open seats for Hopewell Township on the Board of Education

HOPEWELL: Committee approves annual salary increases

 When Hopewell Township residents head to the polls next week, they will be deciding on two candidates to represent them on the Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education.

Five candidates are vying for the two open seats during the general election on Nov. 5.

The candidates are Michael Coco, incumbent Peter M. DiDonato, William Herbert, John Mason and Ashutosh K. Pathak.

Michael Coco is a registered nurse and an attorney with two children in the school district. He attended public school in New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers Law School. In addition to experience volunteering on non-profit boards, he has experience with contracting, budgeting and negotiations.

Peter M. DiDonato was elected to the Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education in November 2016, and represents Hopewell Township. He currently serves as the chair on the Finance and Facilities Committee and a member on the Policy Committee. He has lived in Hopewell Township for seven years. He has daughter in CHS who has been through Bear Tavern since second grade and one the first through STEM. His son has been at Bear Tavern since Peech and will be graduating fifth grade this year. He owns and operates a consulting services business and has over two decades of experience focusing in areas of collaboration, business intelligence, disaster recovery, security planning, date center architecture and more. DiDonato continues to sponsor or donate to local programs like Cub Scouts, FoHVOS, HVEF Events, Bear Tavern OLA, district-wide sporting events and more.

William Herbert has lived in Hopewell for 20 years and is also a father of two. He currently is the chief financial officer of the International Products Corporation. Herbert attended Duke University on a Navy ROTC scholarship and earned a degree in mechanical engineering, he also served in the U.S. Navy for four years as a surface warfare officer, achieving the rank of lieutenant. He has an MBA in finance from Vanderbilt University.

John Mason has lived in Hopewell for 17 years and is a father of two. Mason is a Marine Corp veteran who fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He attended Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and majored in criminal justice. Mason, currently, works as a bail bondsman.

Ashutosh K. Pathak is a physician scientist and global head of medical affairs at Ascentage Pharma. He has lived in Hopewell for eight years. Pathak has a medical degree and PhD from India and earned an MBA from Columbia University.

Pathak was unavailable for comment, as he was away in China.

In order to provide candidates with an equitable platform to discuss their plans for the Board of Education, all five were given the same questions and the same amount of space for their responses.

Why did you decide to run?

Coco: I decided to run because I want to make Hopewell Valley Regional School District the best it can be, while taking the budget and property taxes into consideration. We can prepare our students for college and the workforce, and prevent property tax increases.

DiDonato: My job on the board is not complete. I continue to push for balance and support for our teachers, students, our school district and community. I have pushed for and enforced the change for all board members to be a part of the annual budgeting process to provide greater transparency into the decisions that will enable the success of the school district and community. Continuing to give back to our children has provided more fulfillment in my life than I could ever have imagined. I decided to run for re-election because I would love to see the positive changes carefully applied throughout the next few years.

Herbert: I ran for three reasons. The first was that this community has given our family so much that I’ve wanted to give more back. I’m at a point where I can contribute the time and dedication befitting a school board position. Second, my concerns about increasing evidence of additional needed student support. The district’s primary responsibility to students is ensuring they’re prepared for life beyond our doors. There have been notable cases of both current students and recent graduates having difficulty coping. The schools are trying, but I want to do more, and be part of the solution. Finally, the budget process. Not only did the board sharply increase taxes, they poorly communicated their reasons for doing so, cut over $300,000 in staff in response to public outcry, but then didn’t make a commensurate cut in the tax levy. So, taxpayers absorbed a $3.8 million increase and students lost programming. Our community deserves better. The board has self-identified needs in finance, board performance and community relations.

Mason: Serving and giving back to my community and school district comes naturally to me. My two sons are in high school and have attended Hopewell Valley schools since first grade. We love the schools and experienced the advantages of being in our strong district. I do believe that our district could better prepare students for their futures after leaving school. The models for educating students should focus less on memorizing information and more on teaching students the skills needed to be successful members of society. Critical reasoning, collaboration, communication and social emotional education are important; promoting that priority was one of the key factors in my decision to run. Also, the board’s last budget revealed significant opportunities for improving the entire process. The board president and vice president stated at the public budget hearing that the board never consider optimizing costs, until after passing a preliminary budget with a 5.27% tax levy increase. We should take a holistic approach and only increase taxes after exhausting other sources.

What are two of the top challenges facing the district and how would you address them?

Coco: The top challenge is making sure that students are prepared for life after high school. This is accomplished by focusing on foundations in academics in the lower grade levels and technology, science and math in the upper grade levels. Exposing students to coding, robotics, engineering and other high-tech areas of study will improve their chances of gainful employment whether they choose to attend college or enter the workforce. The second challenge is addressing the students’ social and emotional health. This is accomplished with a combination of formal education in the subject, along with mindfulness exercises, trust-building and cohesiveness among the student body.

DiDonato: School budget – A rise in the overall costs for health care, services and salaries make it difficult to appropriate funding to continue the efforts of providing an adequate system of learning for all children. The district must look for opportunities to lower these drivers. Ways to achieve this are better long-term capital improvement planning, reduction in health care costs by moving to a self-funding program, reductions in operational expenses and lastly consolidating and or eliminating smaller programs. Equity and equality for all children – I would like to continue my efforts to guide our district toward solutions where all students have the opportunity to be a part of being an active student. This directly relates to having the ability to use the late bus runs, second chance learning, media programs and expanding programs to all children with a one to one device and more.

Herbert: Our biggest challenge is preparing students for life after high school. The district does well getting students into colleges, but numbers aren’t quite as promising keeping them there. Further, all students must be equipped for success, whether attending college, trade school, work or the military. Safeguarding their social-emotional wellness plays an enormous role. Developing resilience, ability to handle adversity and courage to self-advocate empowers kids to work collaboratively, manage stressful situations and succeed on whatever path they may choose. Our second challenge, which is often related to the first, is addressing issues related to bullying, inclusion and equity (i.e. racism, gender, differently-abled, and income disparity). Since, Hopewell appears quite homogenous on the surface, many students may lack awareness of people who are not in the majority. We need to give students additional opportunities for broader engagement to develop the necessary skills to ultimately live thoughtfully in the multi-cultural world beyond our borders. The board must intentionally choose not to contribute to inequity. The Choice-STEM Academy provided exposure to and inclusion of diverse populations, offered opportunities for kids that learn differently and generated tuition income. Cancelling STEM and passing tax increases that make Hopewell unaffordable worsens disparity issues.

Mason: The most important challenges facing our district return to priming students for life after graduation. We must strengthen mental health and social-emotional supports. Our kids are growing up in a more stressful environment due to our fast-moving social-media oriented society. Constant exposure to media is proven to damage self-esteem and we need a more agile response. We need to teach students life skills to be resilient, good communicators, intellectual thinkers and to be more involved in their community. The most successful outcomes will involve everyone, especially parents because wellness strategies and can be taught in school but also need to be cultivated and enforced at home. Communication is key and the school board has identified community relations as one area performing at record lows. If elected, I can help. Another challenge pertinent to Hopewell Valley is exposing students to a more diverse society. A number of disturbing cases of racism have occurred in our community over the past year and I feel strongly that the only way to counteract these issues is to introduce more culture and diversity into our programs and teach our students at an early age to be inclusive and open.

Are you in support of the school districts random drug testing policy? If so, why? If not, how would you address drugs at the high school level? 

Coco: No. Drug testing is intrusive and does not foster a relationship of trust between the students and the administration. It also teaches students the wrong approach to civil rights and privacy. Drug problems should be addressed through counselors and in an open and trusting environment that is promoted by mutual trust among the students and between the students and the administration. Parents should also be offered educational material on how to spot possible drug addition and the steps they can take to get help for their child.

DiDonato: Based on findings within the school district and our surrounding community, walking the streets of Hopewell Township during our community cleanup events and speaking with various students as well as my own children, I feel drugs are an issue in this district. The current drug testing program is one of the best programs this district can offer for our children. Not only are the costs to implement the program extremely low considering the effectiveness, they will help children determine the best ways to remove themselves from a potentially life-threatening addiction. The new policies allow for students who are caught to be trained, guided and supported rather than punished. The rate of drug overdose can only decrease if we continue our efforts through supportive guidance programs. The random drug testing policy was designed to be effective at many levels and supports the child both in and out of school through proper training and guidance. We need to continue to think beyond this district and positively impact our surrounding communities and more. I fully support the policy and I am positive we can improve upon its effectiveness as we continue to work with the students, staff and administration on changes if necessary.

Herbert: I am in line with the current testing program as I believe it is pro-active, therapeutic and non-punitive. I think that it’s crafted in a way that appropriately respects the rights of students and, at the same time, provides a means for identifying those with problems and getting them the help they need. That being said, there is always room for the program to evolve and adapt as we learn more. One area in particular that may be tweaked is the opt-in and opt-out policy. This can lead to kids making an irreversible choice early in the year that could have unforeseen consequences.

I think we can and should always do more, such as promoting a more welcoming and inclusive environment, especially in middle school, where the need for acceptance from peers is often the genesis to experimentation. Additionally, I believe no discussion of drug use in schools is complete without including vaping. We must do more to address vaping issues, which are an increasing problem.

Mason: I do support the current school district testing policy. I feel the district has done a very good job at coming up with a fair policy that is not punitive, but therapeutic. Our district like all districts has an issue with drugs and our district policy seems to be designed to help our students deal with drug use. The earlier you can intervene and get a student the needed support and resources, the better chance we’ll have to make a difference for that child. However, I do feel the board has an obligation to constantly review the policy and to continue to make improvements to it when deemed necessary. We should also look more closely at solutions addressing vaping.

What in your experience or background makes you prepared to tackle the issues the district faces?

Coco: I have experience in law, nursing, science and practical skills in negotiations and contracting. My experience on a non-profit suicide prevention board and a community health board have provided me with knowledge in board operations. I also understand the negotiation process, which will be helpful when contracting with teachers and administrators.

DiDonato: I have over two decades of strategic planning and analysis, business intelligence, project management, re-engineering and optimizations, disaster planning and testing, team leadership and mentorship, budget development and management experience. This, along with the three years I’ve already served on the board of education within various committees as well as the continuing effort in training, discussions throughout the district, county and state offer me a balanced perspective to make more strategic decisions that will allow the district to grow and prosper along with the supporting community.

Herbert: I’ve earned an MBA in finance and have been a CFO for the past five years, so I believe my financial acumen will help me to quickly understand and contribute to the financial and budgeting process. Through years in the military, the corporate world and volunteering in the community, I’ve demonstrated the ability to work closely and compromise with people representing various backgrounds and viewpoints. We now have the highest per-pupil cost in Mercer County, a first for the district, and we need people who understand the finances and can work transparently and collaboratively with the administration, other board members and the community to come to the best solution for all parties. Additionally, I’m now among the majority in the district who do not have children in the schools, but with the perspective of having had children in the district for the past 15 years. I think that’s an important distinction, and will give me the ability to discuss and evaluate policies and programs with no personal interest in the outcome, other than choosing what is best for all of the students and the community. Finally, I have a thirst for learning and a strong desire to contribute to the community.

Mason: As a USMC veteran and having worked within the criminal justice system for 16 years, I have various perspectives that will help me serve the community as an effective member of the school board. Serving in the military, I have learned the importance of working as a team and finding common ground when facing difficult situations. In 2015, I was tasked with opening a new office in Philadelphia where I leveraged my relationship building skills with many different stakeholders in the criminal justice system to create and continue to run a successful office. My calm demeanor is a strength when navigating different opinions on the many issues that the board faces. My willingness to keep an open mind and my desire to continue to learn about the issues, will no doubt help me serve the schools and the community as a whole. For the board to have the confidence of all stakeholders it is vitally important for the board to be true to the values of being accessible, transparent and accurate. I would work to ensure that all parties involved can see why we as a board make the decisions we make, no matter how difficult that may be.

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