Large Candidate Field Vies for Stafford School Board Seats

By DAVID BIGGY | Oct 25, 2017

With three seats available on the Stafford Township Board of Education, a whopping nine candidates – the largest school-board race in Ocean County this year – are in the hunt. Deborah M. Lyons is vying for re-election on Nov. 7, while the rest of the field challenging for the three spots includes Gerald “Jerry” Simonelli, Patricia Formica, Michael Dunlea, Michelle Weiss, Steven E. Derion, Joshua Smith, Suzanne Caporrino and Erin Sharkey-Coxen.

The board oversees the overall operation and goings-on of the district’s five elementary buildings and their administration, teachers and support staff. The schools are: Oxycocus, Ocean Acres, McKinley Avenue, Stafford Intermediate and the Ronald L. Meinders Primary Learning Center.

With so many candidates involved, the intention here is to provide readers with a brief look into each candidate. Besides an introduction to each candidate, all were asked the same two questions, whose responses were submitted via email. The following is presented in random order:

DEBORAH M. LYONS – Seeking re-election because “I love the town I live in,” Lyons is a product of both the Stafford and Southern Regional schools – as are her four children – and has been heavily invested within the community for decades. Lyons believes in having continuity and consistency within any board of education. “I believe board members should listen to the whole community, not just one segment, as schools are a partnership of the students, staff and taxpayers.”

Q. Which of your character traits do you believe most benefits the board of education and why? A. “I believe the character traits that qualify me are my experience on the board, my willingness to listen to all sides, my impartiality with regard to affiliations or special interests, and my belief in providing the best education our community can afford.”

Q. Should you be elected, which one thing would you want to see improved upon within the schools and why it is so important? A. “Should I be re-elected, the first thing I would do is try to rebuild the relationship between the educators and the administration. The teachers need to have a fair contract, but also need to understand that the burdens placed on the budget by those in Trenton are extremely restrictive. I completely respect the educators we currently have and want them to be compensated at a rate our community can afford, not a penny more or less.”

MICHAEL DUNLEA – A former teacher in the district, Dunlea has called Stafford home for more than 18 years, and his three children have gone through the district. With a slew of local, regional and national accolades as a teacher – including 2011 Ocean County Teacher of the Year and the 2017 Henry Ford Innovative Teacher Award – Dunlea has served on multiple N.J. Department of Education committees and councils, and is nationally certified in early childhood education. He also serves as president of Alliance for a Living Ocean. “I have a long record of advocating for students and teachers, and my qualifications will help me improve our district to be the best it can be.”

Q. Which of your character traits do you believe most benefits the board of education and why? A. “As a teacher, I am a solutions based collaborator. I have spent countless hours teaching students how to honor differences while respecting others’ opinions and thoughts on a myriad of subjects. I’ve served on the New Jersey State Standards committee, which created the new standards currently used in all classrooms across the state. My ability to maintain respectful and open communication with others will benefit the board as we move away from these most recent contentious months.”

Q. Should you be elected, which one thing would you want to see improved upon within the schools and why it is so important? A. “The morale of the district is one of the biggest issues facing Stafford Township School District. Teachers have been dealing with a tremendous amount of stress and pressure and it is impacting students and student learning. If elected, I hope to make big gains in turning the morale in this district around to where the staff wants to come to work and is happy when they leave each day. From first-hand knowledge, I know morale impacts how effective teachers can be with their students, and low morale is a critically important component of what needs to be fixed in our school system.”

PATRICIA FORMICA – A wife and mother who grew up in Stafford Township, Formica is most interested in “giving back to the district I love.” With a college degree centered on elementary education, Formica later turned to real estate for her career, and “I negotiate for a living and have extensive experience dealing with all personalities.” Formica is seeking a board position to “ensure the children are receiving the best education we can provide and to represent the taxpayers’ interests by improving communication between the board and the public.”

Q. Which of your character traits do you believe most benefits the board of education and why? A. “The character trait that best suits me for this job is my love of people. I am fair and ethical, and will dedicate my time to serve in the best interest of the children and the public. Currently, only two of the nine board members do not have any conflicts with regard to voting and negotiating. I have no conflicts and will be able to vote on all board matters presented.”

Q. Should you be elected, which one thing would you want to see improved upon within the schools and why it is so important? A. “If voted onto the board, I will work endlessly to improve communication and fight for the betterment of the entire district. Our children represent the future and they are worth the fight.”

JOSHUA SMITH – A Stafford resident of 17 years, Smith is highly involved with his daughter’s education, “whether helping out in class or volunteering with the PTO, where I served as vice president.” Smith has been a fixture at board of education meetings for the past few years and routinely asks questions. With a strong corporate background, Smith has “experience leading teams, developing projects and enhancing processes, all while working with people from various backgrounds. It’s that kind of expertise we need on the board to help bridge the gap between the administration, teachers and parents.”

Q. Which of your character traits do you believe most benefits the board of education and why? A. “I’m an inquisitive, analytical person, and I think that’s something we need on the board. We can’t be content to just go with the flow. Our board needs someone who will stand up and ask questions – someone who will dig into the process and reasoning, instead of just accepting the superintendent’s recommendations. I’ve done that as a member of the public, and will continue to do that as a member of the board.”

Q. Should you be elected, which one thing would you want to see improved upon within the schools and why it is so important? A. “Communication is the number one area of opportunity, as it will improve the connection between teachers, parents and administrators. The board must be more transparent in its decision-making, accountable to the community and fiscally responsible in all decisions, and all of that can happen through better two-way communication. We must give the public an opportunity to voice their concerns and ask questions, and then address them by explaining what factors are going into certain decisions and makes them the best choices for our children. That additional openness and clarity will go a long way toward rebuilding trust within the school district.”

MICHELLE WEISS – A resident of 16 years, Weiss is a wife and mother of two boys, including one still in the district, and has devoted time toward being a class mother, volunteer aide and PTO member. “I am not related to anyone who works in any of the schools, so nothing will prevent me from voting on anything if I’m elected. While, naturally, my focus will be on the students and teachers, I’m also fully aware of who pays for every decision the board makes – the taxpayers.”

Q. Which of your character traits do you believe most benefits the board of education and why? A. “The one character trait I’m not short on is humility, which leads to another character trait – bravery. It takes bravery to admit you don’t understand something. I’m not so full of myself that I can tell you, or anyone else, I have all the answers. I don’t. But I’m willing to learn and make the best decisions I can for everyone involved.”

Q. Should you be elected, which one thing would you want to see improved upon within the schools and why it is so important? A. “The one thing we need to greatly improve is the relationship between the board members and parents/taxpayers. There’s a disconnect. Anyone who has been paying attention knows it. Right now, it seems like there is an us-versus-them mentality. Who does that help? It certainly doesn’t help the kids or teachers if a war takes place at every meeting. We need a ceasefire. We need all parents and board members engaged in constructive dialogue, and we need to remember who is footing the bill. How do we get to that? We start by listening to one another with respect. At least that’s what I intend to do.”

JERRY SIMONELLI – A special education teacher in the East Windsor Regional School District, Simonelli has lived in Stafford since 1998 and is on the executive board of the East Windsor Education Association as the grievance chairperson for the union. Also a member of the New Jersey Education Association’s school finance committee, Simonelli intends “to bring professionalism, an open mind and insight to the Stafford board. I will listen and not be coerced into making decisions. I will do what is best for the taxpayers and the children of the district.”

Q. Which of your character traits do you believe most benefits the board of education and why? A. “I am a no-nonsense type of person. I tell it how it is – very direct and to the point. I believe I am a good listener and will do what is best for the children of Stafford.”

Q. Should you be elected, which one thing would you want to see improved upon within the schools and why it is so important? A. “Treating people who attend the board meetings with respect and bring transparency to the board and also to the meetings. People feel that they are not being heard or listened to, which has caused many of the problems the board is having at this time.”

ERIN SHARKEY-COXEN – With a background in special education, Sharkey-Coxen grew up in Stafford and now has a family of her own, with a daughter slated to be in the district during the coming years. “I work with children in both a home and school setting, and this gives me a unique perspective and understanding of what is important, both for educators and for the families and children being educated. I also understand the importance of making our school system the absolute best without impacting our taxpayers.”

Q. Which of your character traits do you believe most benefits the board of education and why? A. “I am passionate about helping others succeed, whether it be professionally or seeing to it that each of our children in the school district – no matter their abilities – be successful.”

Q. Should you be elected, which one thing would you want to see improved upon within the schools and why it is so important? A. “I am most interested in helping improve our in-house special education programs, so we keep all of our students in district and in a program that is appropriate for meeting their individual needs. This in turn saves our school district a lot of money for the long term, as well as annually, between tuition and transportation. Doing so also has the potential to bring in revenue from surrounding districts whose students may attend our programs – a win-win for students, teachers, administrators and taxpayers in Stafford.”

STEVE DERION – A teacher in the Southern Regional district for 16 years, Derion has been a Stafford resident for 15 years and has two children, one of whom is in the district and the other soon to follow. Once a Governor’s Award recipient, Derion is the son of a teacher and studied education at Penn State. During his time at Southern, he has served on various committees, and as a coach and club adviser. “I’ve dedicated my life to education. I’ll be a voice for the parents, teachers and students.”

Q. Which of your character traits do you believe most benefits the board of education and why? A. “My experience in education will benefit the board. I have served as the adviser to our student government, as well as the committee with administration to design our class observation rubrics. This gives me a unique perspective on the needs of both students and teachers. I am a person who is level-headed, open to other ideas, but fierce in my convictions. I think my perspective as a taxpayer, parent and teacher will allow me to see issues from all sides.”

Q. Should you be elected, which one thing would you want to see improved upon within the schools and why it is so important? A. “The most important thing to improve is the relationship between the board and the teachers and parents. We want, and even expect, our teachers to go above and beyond for our students, but low morale is sure to make that less likely to happen. One of the great things we have in Stafford is fantastic parent support in and out of the classroom. If parents no longer trust the board has the students’ needs at heart, that support will erode, and our school offerings to our students are sure to suffer.”

SUZANNE CAPORRINO – A Stafford resident of 16 years, Caporrino said her four children have been through the district; her youngest, Emily, is an Intermediate School sixth-grader. Caporrino has been a volunteer with the PTO as well as Southern American Youth Football and Cheer, and she simply wants to do her part in orchestrating change and making a difference within the community. “It would be an honor to serve our children, our community and my fellow taxpayers as a member of Stafford Board of Education.”

Q. Which of your character traits do you believe most benefits the board of education and why? A. “One of my best character traits is the fact that I’m approachable and a good listener. If I don’t have the answer to your question, I’ll be sure to get it for you.”

Q. Should you be elected, which one thing would you want to see improved upon within the schools and why it is so important? A. “The one thing that needs to be improved is the communication between the board and the parents and community.”

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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