BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ -- Candidates for the Bernards Township school board at a forum Thursday night supported the proposed change to a block schedule at Ridge High School. Some, however, expressed uncertainty about the desirability of a referendum to approve an addition to enable the change to happen.

Most of the five candidates vying for three seats on the Board of Education said they saw positives in a schedule in which students would have longer, but fewer, classes in a day, and not have to attend classes for every subject every day.

The election for three three-year terms will be held on the Nov. 5 ballot.

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The candidates are:

  • Ruchika Hira, an attorney who practices in the area of family law;

  • Karen Gray, the board’s current vice president and a member for six years;

  • Stephanus "Iwan" Juwana, a senior industry analyst for a risk management firm;

  • Suzanne Skalski Schaefer, who is finishing her first full year on the board;

  • Lauren Beckman, a 20-year corporate engineer who has substituted in district schools.

Schaefer pointed to a block schedule’s prospect of additional time in the classroom, as well as effects of lessening student stress. Students wouldn’t have to prepare for every subject every day, and there could be multiple activities within a class period, she said.  Beckman liked the idea of a single lunch period and fewer dashes at class periods. Gray referred to reports that there was “a calm” in visited schools using rotating drop schedules, and said it would allow more collaboration among teachers. Hira said the change should bring “a different way to learn” and give students “an opportunity to breathe.”

Juwana said the change could be successful in helping students achieve, if properly implemented, but wanted to know more about costs. He wondered about the prospect of how it might affect a larger school population from future housing development.

The five were asked about undertaking the $7 million project without a specific approval by voters in a referendum; the school proposes to use accumulated reserves and annual budgets to pay for a larger kitchen and four classrooms. In response, candidates mostly continued to talk about the benefits of a new schedule.

Schaefer talked about the inconvenience of having lunch five of the nine periods of the school day. Beckman passed on the question of a need for a referendum. Gray said the cafeteria has been too small for 15 years, and one common lunch period for all students would give students a needed social break in the day. Responsible planning that saved money over years for capital projects has put the board in a position to avoid a vote to authorize borrowing money.

Juwana said he didn’t know how the $7 million figure was arrived at, and needed more information.

The debate, sponsored by the Somerset County League of Women Voters, took its questions from the 60 or so people in the audience.

The questions ranged from morning traffic at schools, drugs in school, reducing the schools’ carbon footprint, teacher turnover and how to weigh concerns of property taxpayers in making decisions on the board.

The video of the 90-minute program is available through a link on the school’s website (bernardsboe.com) and Youtube.

Schaefer said the money that goes into making a quality school district makes real estate desirable and increases values. Juwana said he would always be cognizant of the board’s fiduciary responsibility and to be cognizant of taxpayers. With a $100 million budget the district can deliver the best for children, he said.

Hira said the school should be responsible and work smarter, but that teachers deserve a good salary and resources.  Beckman said she recognized that New Jersey was an expensive place to live, and that teachers deserved the money they received.

 Gray said she thought the district has been responsible to taxpayers and judged classroom enrollments to be full but not overly so.

Asked what was one thing at which the district excelled, candidates praised the staff in the district.

Gray said the staff was committed to students educationally and personally. Hira said residents were generally satisfied with the rigor and challenge of the curriculum.

Juwana cited the high level of academics, too. Schaefer said the faculty, course selections and other opportunities were strengths. Beckman said she was impressed with school music programs.

Conversely, candidates were asked about an area where the district could improve.

Gray said the district could be more prepared to change and improve its overall communication. Hira said she was disheartened by the fact that parents had to come to the last meeting to ask support for a worthy after-school middle-school program like Mathcounts.

Schaefer said perhaps the school could focus more on learning for development, beyond results. Beckman echoed a board’s student representative’s dissatisfaction with a recent speaker on motivation. Juwana said he wanted more transparency in curriculum so he could know more about what was being taught daily basis.

Candidates were asked on what committees they would like to serve.

Schaefer said new board members are first assigned to policy, and she found she liked it and would like to stay. She said she was also interested in social-emotional learning issues.

Juwana said he would like to serve on the finance committee. Beckman said she would like to be on the curriculum committee, but would enjoy any assignment. Gray, the current chair of the personnel committee, said she has been on all five committees, but too liked serving on the policy committee. Hira said policy and curriculum were her choices.