GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — The COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on student well-being and a potential lack of state funds to deal with pandemic-era challenges took center stage at a recent town hall for the school board race.
The Galloway Family School Associations hosted the town hall Tuesday at the middle school. Five of the six candidates running for three seats on the Galloway Board of Education took part and fielded prewritten questions about their priorities for the future of the district, which includes four elementary schools, one middle school and one preschool. Dozens of residents watched and listened.
Incumbent James Gentile, a former deputy attorney general and attorney who works youth and family-services cases, said his focus is on the growing responsibilities being placed on schools, teachers and administrators to care for students in a holistic way.
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Saying those growing expectations are the consequence of a lack of other mental health resources in the area, Gentile said schools have to become more active in providing students with the needed services.
“The roles of schools seem to be changing … have gotten, it seems, more complicated,” Gentile said before the town hall. “We’re at a point of time where I think school boards have to become more advocates for the kids in the community than they have been traditionally, and I think particularly on issues pertaining to mental health.”
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Citing increasingly costly health insurance policies as an obstacle to getting mental-health services for some, Gentile said the board must cooperate more closely with municipal and state governments, mental health professionals and social-service agencies, so it can better provide for students in need and help the district meet its financial needs.
Incumbent Belinda Chester echoed concerns for student well-being. She said that among her goals was to raise awareness and petition the state for more funding even as federal pandemic aid expires.
Chester said the pandemic had stunted many students’ academic and social development and that Trenton risked leaving children behind, especially those with special needs or disabilities, if they did not provide more academic and mental health resources.
“Coming out of COVID, the needs of our students are vastly different,” Chester said. “There are so many areas that are really going to require people who are willing to be loud, be vocal and say, ‘Our kids have needs right now, and we can’t ignore them.’”
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Joshua Smith, the current president of the Galloway-Port Republic Democratic Club, is running for school board for the first time. Smith said he was inspired to enter the race by the experiences of his daughter, who he said was bullied in middle school. After seeing how much it disrupted his daughter’s life and harmed her well-being, Smith said he wanted to grow resources for her. He said he wanted to see a partnership between AtlantiCare and local high schools be expanded into Galloway’s primary schools.
“I want to make sure that no child goes through what my daughter had to endure when she was attending middle school,” Smith said.
Smith said he wanted to work more closely with Galloway police in light of recent instances of violence at schools nationwide to give students a better sense of security and explore shared service agreements with local governments to control costs. An electrician with IBEW Local 351, Smith said he wanted to expand vocational opportunities.
Incumbent Suzette Carmen, who currently serves as board president, said she would be able to continue to help the district respond to financial challenges. The insurance audit director stressed her volunteer coaching work with local sports teams and her experience.
“My interest is not just serving the children in this community, making sure that everybody gets an equal education, but also fiscal responsibility and balancing the budget for those needs,” Carmen said.
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Challenger Muhammad Ayub said he hoped to diversify the board and introduce the district to overlooked perspectives of parents, guardians and students in the community. Ayub has served in high-ranking positions on the staffs of former Atlantic City mayors Lorenzo Langford and Frank Gilliam and has received a distinguished service award from Stockton University.
“We have members of the community who have concerns, and we need to hear from them,” Ayub said. “My inclusion will bring diversity and new ideas.”
James Delcane was absent Nov. 1 but told the crowd via a proxy with prepared remarks that he wanted to fight to keep tax dollars in district.
As in other districts, there are concerns in Galloway that the nominally nonpartisan school board race had grown too enmeshed in party politics. Smith’s role in the race has sparked controversy, given his status in the local Democratic Party. Township Councilman Tom Bassford has criticized Smith for his decision to run, claiming Smith was only promoting the Democratic Party’s influence. Smith, however, has stressed his commitment to being nonpartisan while serving on the board. He told The Press of Atlantic City on Thursday that he would resign his position of Democratic Club president if he were elected to the school board to ward off the appearance of impropriety.
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While more muted than in other districts, debate over the new state Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Standards, especially its sex education curriculum, was a topic. The candidates broadly acknowledged that the school board was limited in what it could change about the sex education standards. Smith said part of his anti-bullying platform was to make students feel included regardless of their identity.
Ayub said he would work with parents to fight the implementation of standards they felt to be inappropriate.
“It is our children, it’s not the state’s children,” Ayub said.
Contact Chris Doyle