BRIDGEWATER, NJ — Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School Board has four candidates vying for two seats in the upcoming election on Nov. 3.
Scott Mihalick is one of the candidates running. Other candidates include Barry R. Walker, Jessica Levitt, and John-Paul Levin, who are all running for the two, three-year seats on the board.
Chingchaun “Jean” Lee is running unopposed for the one, one-year unexpired term. Lucretia “Lucy” Sandler is also running unopposed for the one, three-year seat representing Raritan.
Are you running for office in Bridgewater? Contact Alexis Tarrazi at [email protected] for information on being featured in a candidate’s profile and submitting campaign announcements to Bridgewater Patch.
1. Why are running for Board of Education?
In the back of my mind, being a Board member was always something I knew I wanted to do.
My wife and I have three daughters who are all within 19 months of each other; having three
very young children so close in age meant that for many years, I just didn’t have the time to
devote to this type of endeavor. But now as they’re getting older, my time is opening up. And I got kicked into high gear in June, when a seat became open on the BR board. I, along with a
dozen others, threw my hat into the ring; and while I ultimately was not selected to fill the open
seat, it made me realize that this was the right time for me, and something I wanted to do.
I have been a Bridgewater-Raritan resident since 2010, and have lived in Bridgewater since
2018. When my family moved to the district in 2010, our children were not yet in school. We
knew the schools were good; but it wasn’t until we were enrolled that we were able to see
firsthand just how good of a school system BRRSD was. We chose to enroll our younger two in
the district’s kindergarten system, even though it was just half-day, as we felt it was a better
environment for us than some of the full-day options we had. And when family circumstances
necessitated another move in 2018, we limited our search to exclusively Bridgewater and
Raritan, so that we could make sure we stayed within the school system. Our daughters are all
at Eisenhower School this year, and have attended Hamilton and JFK.
I am running for three reasons. First, as explained above, I have the time, effort, and energy to
devote to being a Board of Education member. I understand the time commitment involved,
and am up for the task. Second, my professional experience has given me tremendous insight
into the operations and finances of public school districts. I can hit the ground running, already
armed with significant public school operations understanding. And I can use this experience to
give back to the community that I live in and expect to continue living in for many years to
come. Third, and probably most important, is to be a voice for what folks in BR are looking for
from the school district. To that end, I am not running on any particular platform I am pushing,
or any particular single issue. I’ve already gotten to hear from some of the BR residents, which
is informing (and really confirming) what I personally think some of the more pressing issues
are. I pledge to keep an open mind and consider the viewpoints from both community
members and my fellow Board members before making decisions.
2. What are your qualifications for this position?
I have spent the last 22 years in my day job as an architect designing additions, alterations, and
facilities/infrastructure upgrades for New Jersey public schools. I have significant experience in
working with K-12 public school districts, having worked with, and been directly involved with,
school boards in almost every county in the state. My substantial experience with school
facilities is critical as our district is struggling with aging infrastructure, the impact of COVID-
related enrollment adjustments, the potential for housing a full-day kindergarten program, and other facilities-related issues. Within my firm, I have a particular expertise in public bidding / procurement, finance, and contracts; I have worked very closely with school business administrators and business offices in developing budgets, preparing bid documents, overseeing NJDOE submissions, long-range facilities plans, and managing bid processes. In addition, I have worked directly with school principals, curriculum directors, and teachers, as we design new facilities and renovate older buildings. I have spent countless hours and days in the last two decades dealing with, and being in, public school buildings.
I understand the importance of schools and education to the students and the community as a
whole, and my experience working directly with other school boards and administrations can
help inform the BR board. I’ve worked with boards that are so divisive that they can’t get out of
their own way to accomplish anything, and I’ve worked with boards that appear to be so hands-
off that it’s a wonder what they even do. As an aside, from what I’ve experienced, I’m glad to
say that the BR board doesn’t seem to hit either of those extremes.
Outside of my day to day work as a licensed architect, I am one of the founding members of the
Somerset County Business Partnership’s Emerging Leaders of Somerset County, a young
professionals group. I was named one as of NJBIZ’s “40 Under 40” and was selected to serve on
the Advisory Committee for the American Institute of Architect Young Architects Forum’s
“YAF15” summit in Washington, DC. I have previously served on various committees for my
alma mater NJIT, and was involved in the ACE Mentor Program, which brings professionals from
the design and construction industry to work with high school students. I have provided
teaching modules in architecture and participated in career day activities for grade levels
ranging from early elementary to high school. In my spare time, I perform improv comedy,
which has broadened my ability to not only think on my feet, but to be a better and more
3. The single most pressing issue facing our school district is ____ and this is what I intend to do about it:
First and foremost, we need to get through the pandemic. There are obvious worldwide,
economic, and social impacts; but from a Board of Education perspective, we need to ensure
that all of our students are receiving the high-quality educational experience that BRRSD is
known for. We know that the 2020-2021 school year is different. It’s different than the 2019-20
year, which was forced to take such a left turn midway through. And it will probably be
different than the 2021-22 year; at this point, who knows what that will look like. The Board’s
ability to make decisions and take action in a consistently fluid situation will be key.
We are in challenging times, no doubt. Unfortunately, there is no precedent; no modern
historical blueprint to follow. With statewide directives changing so rapidly, sometimes even on
a daily basis, it is difficult for any school districts to plan a meaningful path forward. The issue of
whether or not to have children return to the school buildings is polarizing, with varying (and strong) opinions on both sides. There just isn’t a one-size-fits-all, right answer, that everyone will be happy with.
In dealing with the pandemic’s impact on our schools, there are several things I would look to have addressed:
1Choice. Students belong in the classroom. Remote learning has been vastly improved this year, but it is still not as effective as classroom-based learning, where students can interact more directly with the teachers and other students. However, we should not put parents or teachers in the position of having to weigh their child’s education or their job against the potential to contract a life-threatening virus. Students who are immunocompromised or have other underlying medical conditions, or who live with family members who fit this category, should not have to choose between their and their families’ own health and safety and their education. BRRSD’s path, to allow families to choose whether to send their students to the school buildings or keep them home learning remotely, is the right path. We need to continue to listen to the experts, who can advise us on the level of safety and risk involved in re-occupying our school buildings. However, until the pandemic is squarely behind us, we need to continue to allow our community to have this very important choice.
Educational adequacy. Our teachers have had to reconfigure almost everything about how they do their jobs. And we’re not through it yet; we are set to transition to another phase of reopening on Oct. 12, with who knows how many more permutations that may come over the coming months. Nobody has a crystal ball to know if the state will require all buildings to close again, or whether we will be able to increase our students’ on-site presence in the next few months. We need to arm our faculty and staff with the resources they need, which may include technology, differing physical space, or alternate teaching materials.
Social impact. Beyond educational adequacy, we need to make sure that we are providing resources to our students to get through the pandemic. Fortunately, children are resilient; but we need to always remember that they are people too. They are missing their friends and activities, scared about contracting the virus, and worried because they don’t know when or if things might be able to get back to normal. We are asking them to adapt, as us adults know we must; yet they rely on their adults for comfort and guidance, and the adults don’t have the answers either. We all have to pull together, regardless of differing opinions on the virus, politics, or other matters, and be there to support our kids.
Finances. Of course, there is a financial implication to the impact of the virus. The need to spend money on PPE, additional custodial time, HVAC modifications and upgrades, all have an impact on our budget. This needs to be weighed against any savings that might be realized, from a reduced utility load to canceled or postponed extracurricular activities to reduced transportation. As we craft the 2021-22 school year budget, we need to look closely at what’s happened and what is being planned (at least as far as we can plan).
4. What are other issues you would like to see addressed in the school district?
The district needs stability, consistency, and action. We have had multiple superintendents and
interim superintendents over the past several years, and are currently now just a few months
into another interim’s leadership. While Dr. Ficarra comes to us with an impressive background
in educational leadership, we need to move to bring in a permanent Superintendent who can
work with the Board and Administration to chart our course for the next many years. I should
note that the impact of the pandemic has given us such an unprecedented set of challenges to
work with, and I commend Dr. Ficarra’s willingness to step in at this time. However, likely
because of the changeover at the Superintendent’s post, many issues seem to get discussed
and discussed, without action having been taken. Full-day kindergarten and school start times
are two that seem to have been talked about for years; in particular, I know a bit more about
the full-day kindergarten initiative, as I was strongly behind its implementation when it was
being discussed before my children were school age. That was six years ago. Let’s do what we
need to do to study the issues, either at a committee level, the full Board, or a task force; bring
a recommendation to the Board; and take action to move forward.
The curriculum needs to continue to be modified to reflect the world in 2020. We can’t teach
subjects the way we were in 1950 or even 1990. In particular, in the social sciences, history, and
literature, we need to have exposure to the experience and stories of different cultural
backgrounds. In order to properly educate our students, we need to prepare them for the
society they will be living in. The world, our country, our state, Bridgewater, are all increasingly
diverse; and our students’ educations should expose them to this world. There is no downside
to expanding the curriculum to include contributions to history, the arts, etc., relating to more
than just the traditionally taught American and western European cultures.
Budgeting has to be in the forefront of discussion. Like many suburban districts in the state, we
continually get faced with unfunded mandates, caps, and increasing expenses. Unfortunately,
some things, such as our facilities, wind up taking a back seat (being from a facilities
background, this part really hits home for me). I’d love to say that I have the answer, but the
truth is I don’t. Raise taxes? Well, that’s not a popular option, and I recognize that nobody wants
their taxes going up. Cut teacher pay and benefits? Often, we’re working within existing
contracts and are at the mercy of outside forces such as healthcare costs; and I’d be hard-pressed to say that teachers, especially through the pandemic, aren’t giving it their all (and then
some). As with the debate on re-opening vs. virtual instruction, there are no easy answers. It
was difficult to maintain a balanced budget before having to divert funds towards these new
safety initiatives. When faced with new and unfunded emergency requirements, there is not
much choice but to proceed. In working through the development of new budgets, I would use
my experience with public school finance to be an active voice in helping to craft the budget,
and exploring ways to save funds or procure grants or other alternative options.
This article originally appeared on the Bridgewater Patch