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School Board Election Preview: The Six Candidates, In Their Own Words

The Board of Election race isn’t the only one upon which Franklin residents will vote on Nov. 4, but it is arguably the most important.

That’s because of all the candidates voters will choose – a U.S. Senator, a member of the Congress, two Somerset County Freeholders and four school board members – the latter category has the most direct and strongest impact on our tax dollars.
The Franklin Reporter & Advocate does not endorse political candidates; we firmly believe that there’s a reason for curtains on voting booths. Besides, why should our opinion about a candidate hold any more weight than anyone else’s?
What we do instead is provide our readers with the information they need to make an informed choice when they head to the polls.

By the way, you are voting, aren’t you?

Candidates for the three, three-year seats are:

Potosnak

Ed Potosnak

Ed Potosnak, the incumbent. Potosnak was selected in the spring to fill in the rest of the year in the seat vacated by former board member Robert Trautmann. Potosnak, a former teacher, is the head of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. He is a 15-year township resident. Potosnak holds degrees in teaching and chemistry.

 

 

 

 

Walton

Latee Walton-McCleod

Latee Walton-McCleod. A 1996 graduate of Franklin High School, Walton-McCleod is an administrator in a public school and also co-owns an early childhood center in Essex County. She has lived in the township for 25 years.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Alex Kharazi

Dr. Alex Kharazi

Alex Kharazi. The 28-year township resident retired from a major chemical company and is the founder of Educational Excellence, a local company which tutors students for SAT, PSAT and ACT tests. He is also an administrator for a weekend school with an enrollment of 200 students, and is the coordinator of the Franklin Township Interfaith Committee. He holds a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering.

 

 

 

 

stanley

Patricia Stanley

Patricia Stanley. A 21-year township resident, Stanley is an IT consultant with AT&T. She holds a teaching certification.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walton-McCleod, Potosnak and Kharazi are running as a slate.

Candidates for the one-year, unexpired term of Trautmann are:

Steele1

Margaret Steele

Margaret Steele. Steele has lived in Franklin since 1974. She is a pre-school teacher for Bright Horizons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Merris

Laurie Merris

Laurie Merris. A consultant for Cardinal Health, she holds a B.S. in Nursing and is a Registered Nurse and an M.B.A. Merris is a 13-year resident and has a daughter in MacAfee Road School.
 

 

 

 

Here are the candidates, in their own words.

Why are you running for the school board?

Laurie Merris: Because I recognize that the reputation of our district as far as academic achievement is not what it can be. My daughter is in the school system; I want the school system to be all it can be. I felt like it was incumbent upon me to step up and at least offer my services.

Margaret Steele: My neighbor asked me to consider it, and I did and I figure it’s a good way to serve and be a part of the community. I’m active in my community as far as being active in my church, St. Matthias. It would be a great opportunity to work with people and serve my community. I think that’s a good thing.

Patricia Stanley: I have to harken back to when I was growing up. I went to public and private schools. I remember learning things in school that stuck with me, like music and theatre and history; things that I could use throughout my entire life. I think our kids are missing something. I think there are holes in their education. Education for a lifetime, not just for getting a job. I think a guy can be an electrician or a plumber and still appreciate real good jazz.

I am bent out of shape because of Common Core. I think Common Core is an overarch of the government and the teachers have lost control of the classroom. I feel bad for teachers. Teachers who entered the industry went into it because they like kids and they like to teach. I think Common Core will turn it into a treadmill, and I think that will make teachers unhappy.

Alex Kharazi: Over the past couple of years, I realized our township is going through some challenges: Having a board which is not working as a team; we have challenges that many of our students’ grades are not meeting the minimum standards; our facilities are getting older and we are expecting almost 700 new students in our district over the next five years, and we have some leaders whose positions are not filled.

As a concerned citizen and a taxpayer, I feel that I have experience of a lifetime that I can bring to the board and I can work with the board to overcome these challenges. My vision is to make Franklin a place of choice for education. When we talk to many of the real estate agents, when the question is whether I should buy a place in Franklin Township, their answer is, if you’re looking for a good school, don’t come to Franklin Township. That’s not right.

The people in the township need to be proud of their board. Our board should be a role model for others. I’m running because I believe I have the skills, I have the dedication, I have the drive to work with other board members to make our township a better place, and help the future of our students.

Latee Walton-McCleod: I’m running because as a proud and somewhat successful product of Franklin Township, I feel that over the years I’ve watched a slow but steady decline in our educational system.

The multiple changes in leadership, the inability to secure qualified leaders and keep them, the high turnover rate of professional staff, the issues with our facilities and just the overall issues of the communications between the community, the parents and the Board of Education and the division between the community, the parents and the Board of Education.

Some people may say it’s an appearance, but it is an appearance that has a reality attached to it. That bothers me as a resident, as a taxpayer, but also as a product of Franklin Township. I have first-hand knowledge of what the school system did for me.

I can remember growing up, people were coming in numbers to go to Franklin Township public schools, because the image was high quality, great schools. I don’t hear that anymore. I hear, what happened to Franklin Township public schools? I see more for sale signs going up in various communities. The question is why?

Although my children don’t attend school in Franklin now, I want to be able to put them in school here and feel comfortable and confident that they will receive a high quality education. I want for my children and all children in the township to have the opportunity that I had, but even better. I think somewhere along the line, we’ve moved away from the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. We’ve come to the idea that I’ll take care of my child and you take care of your child.

If we start at the school system and open up communication, and build that back up, then it trickles out into the community. And we get back to the idea that we will work together to the betterment of our children.

Ed Potosnak: When I look at the educational opportunities that I’ve had, because I’m advanced in my education, I’ve had more opportunities and they’ve allowed me to make better choices. I think education is a key that opens doors and creates choices about what you can do for a living. I became a teacher and now I run a non-profit. All of those things came to me and I had the opportunity to do them because of education.

What do you think is the biggest issue in the district?

Merris: Getting the superintendent hired and changing the culture. Getting the board to jell with the new superintendent and getting that vision laid out to move the district forward.

Steele: There seems to be a perceived notion that the school system is not a good one. There’s a lot of negativity toward the current school board, and I think people would like some type of change. They believe the school board can be an avenue for giving that change that they desire for their children to have a better education.

Stanley: I’ve been talking to teachers and I’ve been talking to parents, and the school board has a tremendous amount of personal acrimony apparently for the last few years. It has left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. If we change personnel and focus on real education and not personalities, you can’t help but make progress.

It’s unfortunate that sometimes adults will behave like adolescents rather than adults. Some people when you put them in a particular position, they may try to use that position to their own end.

With the budget, it seems to me that funding is not the problem. It seems to me to be enough money to do what they have to do. I’m not sure the kids are getting a wide variety of viewpoints in certain cases. They’re looking at the New York Times for certain issues, and I’m not sure the New York Times is going to be completely unbiased. I saw one thing where Paul Krugman’s book on the economy was going to be purchased for an AP economics class. Some people have issues, and there has to be more than one person to see that. If I were elected to the board, I would do my own review of what’s behind those totals.

Kharazi: Franklin Township is not a place of choice for education. We need to have a board that is working as a united body. We need to improve the education for our children. We need to ensure that our children meet the minimum level for every student. I have tutored students, seniors, juniors, they don’t know how to add fractions. I wonder how come they are almost graduating and they don’t know some basic stuff.

We should not forget that we should provide opportunity for our brightest and gifted students. We need to make sure they are challenged and academically advanced. Because if we forget them, we are not doing the right thing.

I know this community has the resources to really shine, and I’m hoping that in the next few years we will see Franklin education going in a better direction.

We all believe that individual board members are trying their best to help education. When it comes to teamwork, they have difficulty working as a team. We really appreciate the effort put out by the board members.

Walton-McCleod: The biggest issue is facing our board of education is its leadership. When you have leadership that is inconsistent, when you have leadership that may not be qualified, it’s very difficult to run an organization.

Constant change at the top makes things at the bottom difficult to manage. Our children work better when there is structure. When things are inconsistent, it sometimes causes problems.

When we do have qualified individuals here, how do we keep them here? How do we make it that Franklin Township is a place where you want to work?

Our educational system is struggling now because of constant changes in leadership, because of lack of communication, because of many people having different agendas. There needs to be one vision and one mission that we’re all working with and there needs to be goals that are created collectively to make sure we carry out that mission and vision. There needs to be an organization of shared leadership. Right now it’s not an organization of shared leadership.

As a result, we lose good, qualified people who really have the best interests of our children, and we bring in other individuals who may not have the best interests of our children.

Until we deal with the issues at the top, the bottom will continue to be the mess that it is. The only people who are hurting are the children.

Potosnak: Letting people know what we’re doing well and embracing our successes. Children that are being successful, teachers that are being innovative, administrators that are implementing new programs to meet the needs of their students.

On the flip side of that challenge is understanding and admitting when we’re not doing well.

In areas we’re not testing well, or we see behavioral issues, we need to come clean about what those challenges are. Once we embrace those challenges, we can solve that problem.

There are a lot of great things happening in Franklin Township public schools, and we often focus on the problem areas without letting people know.

Given the issues surrounding the school board, do you think the problems will be solved if you are elected?

Merris: I do. I have a lot of experience building consensus among different groups with different points of view. That’s something I feel I can bring to the position.

Steele: Because I’m not on the school board and because new people are coming in, I believe if we’re elected, things would be different. Everything I know about the school board is hearsay. With the new people running and coming in, it will be a better school board. We all agree we want to work for the children and make the best possible changes so that everyone is successful.

Stanley: I don’t know. I guess it depends upon who’s going to be elected. I think that the leadership of the board is going to play some role in that. You can change the personnel, but if the leadership is not going to take in any new views, everybody has to have a heart-to-heart talk and see how can we make things go forward and more smoothly that calls for open-mindness on the part of everybody.

Kharazi: I’ll be meeting individual board members, learning from their experience. What kind of agenda they have, what kind of vision they have. I’m going to emphasize the point that I am here to work as one of the members of this team. If each individual on a board is listened to, their observations considered, that’s when everyone feels like a team member. But if a person is put down or information is not shared in a timely manner, that’s what creates the problem. When we are on the board, we need to make sure that everybody knows that we want to work with everyone. We are there to work as a team, not to take sides with one group and put the others down.

Walton-McCleod: I take the athletic approach. We are all here for one common purpose and one common goal. The three new individuals coming in, as well as the one for the one-year term, that brings in change. Some of the previous regime is going to be removed.

First, it would be important to us to just listen. I want to listen to what it is that the current board members feel is important to them what are their challenges. Where do they feel their strengths are, where do they feel their weaknesses are. I don’t think coming in saying, we’re going to change everything, is the right way to do it.

Gradually implement new things collectively as a new unit. We have to create a team. Right now we have nine board members, it’s not a team. Once we establish that we are all Warriors and we are going to bleed blue and gold, then we can move forward.

We have to establish the fact that everybody’s views and opinions matter, that everybody will have a voice. And you may not agree with the voice of that team member, but you will allow that team member to speak.

We first have to set the ground rules of the team, because right now we don’t have that.

Potosnak: In August, when we all (he, Kharazi and Walton-McCleod) got together for the first time, there was a discussion about views. One common theme was how we could encourage the board to operate in unity, under ground rules that allow everyone to participate and every voice to be respected.

The great thing about a nine-member board is everybody brings a different perspective, and those perspectives are respected.

Individually, you can’t know everything, but together, when everyone is participating, you can improve things.

We formed this slate as a unity slate knowing that one of the major challenges this district faces is a lack of unity. We’ll expect nothing less of the people who are on the board and who are elected to work together.

Given that there will be three or four new board members in January, should the board delay choosing a new schools Superintendent this year?

Merris: I have no idea what they’ll do. I’m not privy to where they are in the process. I have heard that they have been interviewing candidates, but don’t know what phase they are in. If they were very close to hiring someone or making an offer, it would be silly to wait.

Steele: If they find the best person that fits the criteria and the vision that they have for the students and the schools overall, they should. I don’t think they should delay. If by chance they’re not getting candidates they feel would be the best, I don’t feel it’s something they should rush into. It’s a very important decision.

Stanley: I really think they should wait, since it has a history of being so dysfunctional. I think it should wait until the new blood has a chance to have an opinion. That’s a big decision.

Kharazi: I guess if the current board was a board that had unity, I would have felt comfortable that it’s ok for them to select the superintendent. Considering some of the issues that they have, I have the feeling that maybe it would be best until they wait until the new people are on the board, then we will start with a new board and the board members will have a say in selecting the superintendent. They’re going to be working with the new superintendent for the next three years.

On the other hand, if they find some right person, picking that person is ok because that’s one less activity that the board has to focus on.

Walton-McCleod: Given the past issues or areas of concern that the current Board of Education has had with selecting candidates and keeping qualified candidates, I feel they should continue with the interim and wait until after the election to allow the new board members to be involved in that process. That way the community will feel that they have somewhat participated in that process because they will have elected the new board members.

I personally don’t feel the community is confident in the current board’s ability to select qualified individuals to run our schools.

I would hope the current board of education would look at the past, learn from it, and allow new board members to come in and work collectively with the members who are there now and make the first choice as a new team for our district. I think that will send a strong message to the community and it will get us moving in the right direction.

Potosnak: I have mixed opinions. My overall belief is that should a high quality candidate present themselves, one the board can fully embrace, one that can be a strong educational leader and bring the community together and embrace and celebrate our successes, that individual would be a clear choice for the leader of the school system.

I think it makes sense to look at the candidates and if they fit that criteria and we have agreement on the board, then we can make that selection and move on from there.

Do you support the upcoming referendum?

Merris: I do, because I think that first of all the repairs are needed, the expansion is needed, and it’s the best financial time to do it because we have grant money and if we don’t lose it we will lose it. Plus interest rates are low; it will be the best time if we need money, as far as a bond goes. It will only get more expensive if we wait, because we’ll have to use stopgap measures to answer the need of the additional students.

Steele: I do. What I know of it I think it’s a good thing; improving the schools, making sure the children are in the proper environment to learn and succeed. It will provide the money and support to do better maintenance on the buildings or create a new school and eliminate those trailers. We can’t have those trailers. We have to provide for our children.

Stanley: At the current time, I think the referendum should be put on hold. I think it’s a tremendous amount of money. Not too long ago we built the high school. I think the community is not happy with the idea. The other thing was that I looked at those projections for the student population, and I thought to myself, that’s possible, the 700 students. There’s also the possibility that there are students in the population that shouldn’t be there. Franklin Township should only take responsibility for those students for whom they do have responsibility.

It’s a good idea to do a census. Let’s say you have any number of kids, the parents of those children are exercising their right to school choice, and other parents don’t have the right to do that. I think it might be a good idea to put it on hold for further study.

Kharazi: The referendum is something the voters will decide. My focus has been on the board election. We all know that our township faces some challenges relative to the facilities. We have growing population, we have students in trailers. I will vote based on what I believe is the right thing on Dec. 9.

Walton-McCleod: I believe that it is not a board of education decision, it is a community decision. I do believe that as a resident of Franklin Township, people want for their children to be in a clean, safe and secure environment. They want a high quality of education at whatever cost, facilities with state-of-the-art equipment, for their children to be competitive with neighboring schools. People move out of our community because we don’t have those things. We will do what we need to do for our children to have what they need to be successful.

Am I ready to say yes or no? I will say yes or no in December when it is time to make that vote. But I feel strongly about our children having a safe and secure learning environment.

Potosnak: Some of our facilities are old. We have roof leaks. We have students that are in trailers, and those come at a cost and it’s not the best environment for students to learn in. The referendum provides an opportunity for voters to decide if they want to invest in the physical plant of the school district to meet the needs of the students.

I don’t feel comfortable sharing my own position. I will say that my commitment has always been to high-quality educational environments. If it passes, it will help us meet some needs. We can’t just dot all our campuses with trailers.

 

 

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