Morris School District candidates talk taxes, scores and televised meetings

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Should school board members send their children to the district they represent?

Morris School District Board President Leonard Posey believes so. “I think anybody that aspires to this role should be all in,” he said Tuesday at a candidates forum, contrasting himself with his challenger in next month’s election, Kenneth Sharperson.

It was the sharpest difference of the evening, a polite affair at the Alexander Hamilton School sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Five people are vying for three, three-year seats — a rarity in a district where elections often are uncontested.

Both of Posey’s grown children attended district schools. Sharperson has boys in kindergarten and 2nd grade at the Woodland Elementary School, but his daughters in the 6th- and 8th grades are educated at private schools.

Posey, a 16-year board veteran who called this his last race, and fellow incumbents Lisa Pollak and Teresa Murphy touted a fiscally sound district that delivers a strong education while serving a more diverse population than almost any other district in the state.

“I think we work well as a team,” said Posey. He is head of global diversity for a large consulting firm and is married to a retired teacher.

League of Women Voters candidates forum, Morris School District, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
League of Women Voters candidates forum, Morris School District, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The 10-school district will be debt-free in two years, Posey said, asserting that class sizes are low, test scores are high, and the board has kept within the state-imposed 2 percent budget cap without resorting to layoffs. 

Challengers Sharperson and Meredith Davidson agreed with the incumbents on most issues, including future expansion of preschool and addition of civics classes. But they said it was time for new faces.

“I can bring a fresh perspective…new eyes to things, and energy,” said Davidson, a former high school social studies teacher who has children in grades 2 and 4 and is president of the Alexander Hamilton Home and School Association.

The Morristown resident said she would work to improve communication with parents and promote district programs more vigorously, if elected. She favors televising board meetings, and has been campaigning with lawn signs, meet-and-greets and a website–a level of campaigning more commonly associated with mayoral and council races in Greater Morristown.

Sharperson, an attorney and former phys ed teacher, said the District should work harder to recruit a more diverse faculty that reflects the Hispanic and African American populations in the district, which serves more than 5,200 pupils from Morristown, Morris Township and (for high school) Morris Plains.

Video: Should district schools offer civics classes?

He also wants “smartboards” in all elementary classrooms, and is enthusiastic about the possibility of televising or live-streaming board meetings.

“I think what I bring is a fresh, new perspective on education, a fresh new thought process to the board, because I’m not a native of Morristown,” said Sharperson, who moved to Morris Township from Virginia in 2009.  He coaches in the Morristown United soccer and Junior Colonials football programs.

Posey said other televised districts have seen some “grandstanding,” though he doubts that would occur here.

The board president added that he shares community concerns, both as a taxpayer and as an African American parent. The Frelinguysen Middle School encountered incidents of racial insensitivity and anti-Semitism last semester.

“We’re not perfect. We’ve got a ways to go,” Posey said.

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin:

League of Women Voters candidates forum, Morris School District, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Leonard Posey, Morris School District board president, from Morris Township, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Kenneth Sharperson, Morris School District candidate, from Morris Township, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Lisa Pollak, Morris School District board member, from Morristown, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Teresa Murphy, Morris School District board member, from Morristown, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Meredith Davidson, Morris School District board candidate, from Morristown, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Marlene Sincaglia, moderator, League of Women Voters candidates forum, Morris School District, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Audience at Alexander Hamilton School for League of Women Voters candidates forum, Morris School District, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Crowd at Alexander Hamilton School for League of Women Voters candidates forum, Morris School District, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Spectators at Alexander Hamilton School for League of Women Voters candidates forum, Morris School District, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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P1660510 - League of Women Voters candidates forum, Morris School District, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Fielding audience questions, the candidates agreed that fiscal prudence and academic excellence both are vital to the community.

As the next round of union negotiations approaches, “experience and knowledge count more than ever,” said Pollak, a Morristown resident who has served on the board for 21 years and been involved in the prior six rounds of contract talks.

The retired attorney is former general counsel to the Newark and Paterson school systems.

“I’ve learned what makes a district functional, and what makes it dysfunction,” Pollak said.

School taxes are the biggest chunk of residents’ property tax bills, and Pollak said the board economizes “every way we can.” If the state eliminates the 2 percent cap, she said, she is confident the board will continue to keep increases small.

The district has managed to add a new wing at the high school and run a tight ship without benefit of relief from Morristown’s booming development, said Pollak, whose twins graduated from Morristown High School.

Some apartment- and office projects have won town approvals granting them “payments in lieu of taxes”– enabling them to bypass school taxes. And while the town reaped a bonanza from a landmark 2015 tax settlement involving Morristown Medical Center, “not a dime comes to the school district,” Pollak said.

Update: The district receives more than $500,000 a year in tax payments from the hospital’s parent company, Atlantic Health, as a result of the historic settlement.

At the same time, she said, the district is committed to the success of students from disparate backgrounds.

“We have the most affluent and the most desperate,” including “kids coming in at 17, fleeing Third World countries, with no schooling for the last five years,” Pollak said. 

RELATED: New report by The Fund for New Jersey cites Morris School District as model of racial integration

She’s not a big fan of televised board meetings, based on what she’s observed elsewhere. But she is keen on extending STEM programs — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math– all the way to preschool, an idea she said the district is exploring. And expanding preschool is a wise investment, she said.

“A dollar spent at preschool level is worth hundreds of dollars later on,” Pollak said.

Murphy, a board member since 2005, said the district has worked hard to recruit minority teachers, ranging “far afield” to job fairs and conferences.

Top teachers and administrators want to come here, sometimes for less money than they could make in other places, she said, because of the district’s reputation as a progressive, innovative place. It’s why Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast was excited to come to the Morris District two years ago.

“This school district is a gem. People look to us to see how we do things,'” said Murphy, a mother of four whose youngest daughter plays for Morristown High School’s powerhouse field hockey team.

The Morristown resident holds an industrial engineering degree from Stanford and works as a principal trainer for Atlantic Health Systems. She also serves on the board of Teen Pride, a nonprofit that helps youths handle emotional challenges. 

Televising or streaming board meetings would be good experience for students from the high school’s broadcasting classes and radio station, Murphy said.

 

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