Nine candidates vie for three seats on South Brunswick Board of Education

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Stephen Parker
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Lisa Rodgers
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James Lavan
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Erin Popolo
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Stephen Parker
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Lisa Rodgers
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James Lavan
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Erin Popolo
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SOUTH BRUNSWICK – Nine candidates are running for three three-year terms on the South Brunswick Board of Education in the 2021 general election.

The seats are currently held by incumbents Barry Nathanson, Lisa M. Rodgers and Stephen F. Parker, who have all filed to run for re-election.

Imran Bukhari is a lifelong resident of South Brunswick. He is a 2019 South Brunswick High School graduate. He is a junior at Rutgers University. This is his first time running for political office.

“As a 2019 alumnus of South Brunswick High School, I have a very recent student perspective and firsthand experience learning in the South Brunswick educational system. This is a unique perspective compared to the other candidates. I believe it is important to have a diverse board with youth representation because I am aware of many problems facing our students.

“I was sitting in the classroom in South Brunswick from elementary school to high school. I understand the challenges of getting in touch with guidance counselors to talk about mental health and I understand the difficulties of staying engaged in the classroom because I lived it. Also, I have experienced online learning during COVID, so I understand the mental toll it takes on us students. 

“I am currently a junior at Rutgers Business School majoring in finance and political science. It was a New Jersey politics course that I took at Rutgers that inspired me to run for this position. I wish I had that same opportunity in South Brunswick to have a civics education that included local politics. Taking that civics course, it motivated me to serve the community that has given me so much,” he said.

Bukhari is firstly concerned with mental health.

“We simply need to hire more guidance counselors. According to the district website, there are less than 30 counselors for the student population of about 8,500. This counselor-to-student ratio is unacceptable. It makes it difficult to form meaningful relationships between students and counselors.

“We need to also provide more training for counselors. This includes incorporating targeted SEL (social/emotional learning) to support students and teachers affected by COVID and providing trauma training for teachers to assist students affected by COVID. 

“From my experience in the school system, there were not many planned meetings throughout the year with my counselor. I never felt comfortable talking about mental health issues affecting me in school or out of school with my counselor because I did not have a close relationship with my counselor,” he said.

Another important challenge is incorporating practical skills into the curriculum. 

“I believe there needs to be more emphasis on learning personal finance beyond the one required course and more emphasis in career exploration. These skills do not necessarily need to have their own course, instead they could be integrated into different disciplines throughout a student’s education.

“Incorporating a stronger civic education curriculum is necessary with a particular emphasis on state and local politics. We need to teach students how to be well-informed active citizens in their community.

“New Jersey is incredibly diverse which requires that our district integrate culturally relevant teaching. We should develop a community of cultural competency and incorporate culture into the classroom by adjusting teaching to better accommodate student populations and incorporate the study of relevant topics in our society,” he said.

Thirdly, the work of the Board of Education must be more accessible.

“While the board meets in person and has a website, it is lacking in social media presence. The board should provide summaries of its meetings on social media and it would be helpful to summarize and break down its financial documents in digestible forms such as graphics.

“How can the community assess the work of the Board of Education and understand how its property taxes are being spent when the board issues a 200-page financial document that requires an expert to translate?” he said.

Julie Ferrara is running under the Building the Future campaign.

She has lived in South Brunswick for 30 years. She does not have any school-aged children.

She is employed as a substitute teacher. She holds a CE with advanced standing.

She has volunteered with CASA of Mercer County (Court Appointed Special Advocates) at their 5K fundraiser. She is also a lector at her church.

She has not held public office.

“I feel this is a critical year. The teachers and staff are dealing with so much in relation to COVID regulations. They need our support, but parents also deserve to have their concerns heard and answered respectfully by the BOE,” she said. “The times we are living in are very challenging. I am most concerned about how our district can safely move forward and regain the ground our students lost during COVID. I would like to get as much transparency as possible for parents who want to view their child’s curriculum. It will ease their minds if they see we are cooperating with them.”

Ferrara said a big concern for the future is funding and how dollars are spent.

“I do believe we should invest more, not less, on our technology so that we can better prepare our students for the 21st Century. Coding should be encouraged as part of our students’ curriculum, as well as many online programs that will benefit their education,” she said.

Referencing systemic racism, she said it is an evolving matter.

“The greatest voices are those who speak truthfully on how to advance greater and greater stability of one race, while not demeaning the other or its history,” she said.

 

 

 

James Lavan has lived in South Brunswick for 12 years, but his wife was born in South Brunswick. Their son, Kevin, is in fourth grade at Indian Fields Elementary School.

He is a 15-year high school teacher in New York City, teaching math and computer science. He holds a Master’s in Education from Pace University and math and business education licenses.

In the community, he tutors students in mathematics; is on the board of the Willows Swim Club; and has helped his wife, who is a former PTO president for two years, plan several events at Indian Fields.

This is Lavan’s first time running for public office.

“The most important job a parent has is raising their children. Part of that is putting our children in the hands of our public education system.

“Our children are the future leaders of our nation and we owe them the best foundation possible to ensure they can preserve and advance the cause of freedom, equality, individual liberty, prosperity and opportunity for their children as well.

“In order to do that we must educate our children in sound principles that recognize character over skin color, individual rights over group identities, and how to develop mental toughness and resilience,” he said.

Lavan said he hopes to focus on transparency and honesty.

“Parents should have easy access to all lessons, articles, videos and materials shared with their children in class. Parents have the right and responsibility to know what is taught to their children inside the classroom.

“Through the South Brunswick Parent series, I have observed the South Brunswick School District openly push hyper-racialized messages promoting victimhood that are divisive, create resentment and anger, and are harmful to students. Parents have every right to know exactly what is taught inside classrooms to their children and I would push to ensure they do,” he said.

In accordance is content of character education.

“We must reinforce to our children that true justice comes when you judge each other based on the content of their character.

“As a board member I would push the administration to reaffirm the message of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

“Unfortunately, South Brunswick schools are currently teaching our children to look at the world primarily based on skin color which is a betrayal of MLK and the civil rights movement’s values,” he said.

He said he would also seek to promote mental health.

“Many students are depressed, scared and wary of what is going to come next. I want to take positive messages of overcoming adversity and specifically make them part of the curriculum as models and examples to teach children they can overcome their current circumstance and life will get better.

“One such resource is ‘1776 Unites’ by civil rights icon Bob Woodson. The ‘1776 Unites’ curriculum offers authentic, inspiring stories from American history that show what is best in our national character and what our freedom makes possible even in the most difficult circumstances.

“While academics are obviously highly important, good mental health and a positive outlook are a prerequisite to success in life and school. As a board member, I would push to provide our kids with the skills and message of optimism and resilience they need,” he said.

Incumbent Barry Nathanson is running under the Putting Kids First campaign.

Nathanson has lived in South Brunswick since 1996. His son, Evan, graduated in 2008, and his daughter, Blaire, graduated in 2011, both from South Brunswick High School.

He handles police operations for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

He is a certified board member, master board member and certified board leader per the New Jersey School Boards Association.

He has been a member of the South Brunswick board since 2002, serving as vice president in 2019 and as president from 2020 to the present.

He is a former coach and executive board member of SBPAL, a former coach for the South Brunswick Athletic Association, a former American Legion coach, one of the initial members of the Viking Huddle Club, South Brunswick High School second president of the Diamond Club, former member and chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustment from 1996 to 2005, a current member of the Planning Board since 2006, and part of the budget committee at Congregation B’Nai Tikvah.

“As the most experienced board member currently serving, I think it was important to run again especially during COVID. Experience does count. Being on the board is more than just two meetings a month.

“Student success continues to be my driving factor for me to continue my passion in running for the board. This starts with solid foundations, incredible opportunities and the support to achieve anything.

“Of course, schools by themselves are not nearly as effective as when they have outstanding parent partnerships. My role as a board member has been to provide insight of the community to administration, infuse the thoughts of the community into decision making and provide oversight on policy implementation,” he said.

If re-elected, Nathanson said he would continue handling the effects of the pandemic as his first priority.

“Managing the disruption that comes with managing COVID and balancing with the need for high level education. Understanding gaps caused by the pandemic and how to best build up our students and our systems,” he said.

In relation, he would evaluate the impact of the pandemic on staffing in the immediate and the future, for example, in terms of nursing and transportation.

Also, he said school funding would be of concern, as in how South Brunswick will be impacted by state legislation known as S-2 in the future, and how will things rebound once the federal stimulus is gone in two years.

Incumbent Stephen F. Parker is running under the Every Child Matters campaign. Parker has lived in South Brunswick for 27 years. Both his sons graduated from South Brunswick High School.

He is an aerospace engineer in software development. He is a certified board member issued by New Jersey School Boards Association. He has served for 15 years on the South Brunswick Board of Education.

He currently serves in multiple positions in his faith organization, and served as a coach and as a Boy School leader when his children were younger.

He is running for re-election “to continue the effort to provide every child with equal educational opportunities.”

“Education of the next generation, our future leaders, doctors, scientists, musicians, teachers … is one of the most important functions of human society. Only as we educate our children can our society continue to progress.

“It is not an easy task. No two children are alike. Children all learn in different ways and at different rates. Families all have different ideas on what is important to teach. Public education, governed by myriad laws and regulations and plagued with unfunded mandates, is particularly difficult,” he said.

If re-elected, he said his first priority would be addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“While safety is always a concern for schools, it is particularly important during the pandemic. We must ensure the safely of the children, teachers and staff in our schools.  But we must also ensure the schools are also places of education: a place where every child has the opportunity to grow and learn. 

“If children, or their parents, don’t feel safe in schools, they cannot learn. If teachers don’t feel safe, they cannot teach. Making this particularly difficult are the ever-changing mandates from Trenton.

“It’s not always possible to manage the schools in the way this community wants due to restrictions placed on us. It is important that the South Brunswick School District continues to make sure our concerns are voiced and that we work for the changes required to properly manage the situation,” he said.

Equality in education is also paramount. 

“Every child matters. Every child deserves to have the opportunities and resources needed to learn and grow, to succeed. Each child is different. Every child has a different background. Every child lives in a different family situation. 

“The schools and the community love to celebrate the successes of our top academic, athletic and artistic achievers. The law requires, rightfully so, that we provide extra resources for our least abled learners. But we must not forget all of the other children. Every child matters.

“Another aspect of equality is how we teach children about the past. In every conflict there are two, and sometimes more, sides and often we have children from all sides in the classroom. How do we fairly represent all sides of the story? How do we make sure the children understand all sides of the conflict? It is only in understanding past conflicts that we can learn to prevent future conflict,” he said.

Another area of focus would be school funding. 

“The community is required to provide a thorough and efficient education for all children. The federal government provides a small amount of funding, earmarked for specific costs. The state government provides some funding, again earmarked for specific costs. So the bulk of the funding falls to the community.

“Educating our children is an expensive endeavor. We need to provide good teachers, ample resources, safe and efficient buildings. In New Jersey, education is funded through property taxes. Property taxes can be a burden for any family, but especially so for retirees.

“South Brunswick is a very diverse community with a wide range of economic status. It is critical the schools manage their funds efficiently, to ensure each dollar counts. This is an issue I have had a particular focus on in my years on the board.

“South Brunswick has one of the lowest equalized tax rates in Middlesex County and we need to keep it that way and still ensure each child’s needs are met,” Parker said.

Erin Popolo is running under the Your Kids Here campaign. Popolo has lived in South Brunswick for more than 18 years. Her daughter Kaylee graduated from South Brunswick in 2017. Her daughter Emily, who was a senior at South Brunswick High School, passed away in January.

Popolo works in municipal finance. She is an advocate for suicide prevention and mental health awareness. This is her first time running for office.

“My daughter Emily, who died by suicide in January, was a constant victim of bullying and suffered with mental illness. I believe we need to address the bullying in the district and also the mental health of students and teachers alike, especially returning to in-person instruction after 18 months of virtual learning due to the pandemic,” she said.

If elected to the board, she said she would focus on mental health, first and foremost.

“We need more counselors to address the growing number of children suffering from mental health disorders and issues,” she said.

In relation, another concern is anti-bullying.

“We need more programing and age-appropriate instruction on the subject of bullying and the effect you have on others. We need to address the issue of social media and cyberbullying as well,” she said.

A third focus would be fiscal responsibility and transparency.

“Over 60% of our property taxes are paid to the school district. We need to see where the money is being spent and keep up to date on current issues and how we address them financially within the school district,” she said.

Incumbent Lisa M. Rodgers is running under the Every Child Counts campaign. Rodgers has lived in town for 22 years. Her children Jessica and John were K-12 students in South Brunswick; Jessica graduated in 2019 and John in 2021.

Having been employed by American Express Corporate Services for more than 18 years, Rodgers is retired as a vice president of Strategic Planning and Management – Global Information Services.

After leaving American Express to focus on her family, she provided consulting services to multiple companies before turning her efforts to owning a small business, she said.

Rodgers is an incumbent on the school board, having served three years. This election would be for her second term.

She is a member of Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots, all-volunteer organization of supporters that believe every child in the state should have access to a high-quality public education.

She coached girls and boys basketball through South Brunswick Parks and Recreation, is the Monmouth Junction School PTO vice president, a Girl Scout co-leader and cookie mom, and a member of the New Jersey Medical Reserve Corps.

“There are multiple challenges facing all school districts in New Jersey and it is important to ensure all are addressed.

“But resources are finite (people, time, money), and it is necessary to prioritize as we have a vested interest to find fiscally responsible solutions which yield maximum benefits.

“We need to continue to embrace innovation that will benefit our students, teachers and taxpayers, while continuing to be vigilant at ensuring transparency, especially around how decisions are made.

“Every child has the potential to do great things and there are many factors involved in ensuring the success of a child and I believe it comes down to three: stress level, learning opportunities and inclusivity.

“The current Board of Education has made significant progress in these and many other areas and recommendations I have made, many of which have been incorporated, prove I have brought value to the board. I am looking forward to continuing in this effort,” she said.

If re-elected to the school board, Rodgers said her main concern would be handling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The South Brunswick School District was one of the first districts to recognize the potential impact of COVID on schools. In January 2020, I contacted Superintendent Scott Feder after listening to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official explain that she contacted her superintendent to ask what plans were in place. Mr. Feder acknowledged he heard the same and had started preparations for our district.

“Right now, any district will tell you that either the board, the administration or the unions are taking the brunt of frustration over mandates, but our focus has never changed: what is the safest position for students and teachers while following the law.

“As I have done in the past, I will continue to ensure the safety of both students and staff, while continuing to provide recommendations on safety protocols,” she said.

Another area of concern is proper funding from the state.

“Since 2012, the South Brunswick School District has experienced an annual reduction from the State of New Jersey and over the course of the last three years we have lost over $4 million in aid and there are legislators who believe the difference needs to be made up from local taxes.

“We need to continue to identify ways to fund the losses; we don’t want to cut programs, nor raise taxes over the 2% cap. I have spoken to state representatives, provided testimony to Senate and Assembly education committees, and support initiatives to ensure the funding issues stay front and center. This will continue until the funding formula is a just process for all students in New Jersey,” she said.

Another area of focus would be social justice and Critical Race Theory (CRT).

“As an academic theory that has been around for over 40 years, the basis is that race is a social construct and that racism is not just a person’s bias or prejudice, but is part of the legal system.

“For example, in the 1930s, officials drew lines in neighborhoods they deemed a risk, and it was often based on the race of people living in these neighborhoods. This was defined as ‘Redlining.’

“Right now, there is the belief that CRT is being discussed in the classroom. This is not true. CRT is not discussed or referred to in any curricula, as we follow New Jersey’s curriculum standards.

“However, the Board of Education has a responsibility to the public to understand concerns, recognize the multiple points of view and ensure the correct information is distributed,” she said.

Rodgers also touched upon anti-bullying initiatives.

“Since 2011, the South Brunswick School District instituted initiatives to reduce the amount of bullying in schools and it is clear that once these initiatives took hold, HIB (harassment, intimidation, bullying) dropped.

“The challenge to reduce bullying will be always a priority and I believe that when we encourage children to take responsibility for a living thing, they better understand emotions and feelings, like empathy, tolerance, patience, compassion and kindness.

“Therefore, one initiative I am discussing with Superintendent Feder is instituting a gardening program. When young people are involved in group activities like planting or caring for a garden, it creates a sense of altruism, which is fundamental to the learning process,” she said.

 

Deepa Karthik and Jayesh Patel, who are running under the Your Kids Here campaign, could not be reached for comment by press time.

Election Day is Nov. 2.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com.