MADISON, NJ - Short Stories was the venue Sunday for an informal meet-and-greet with three candidates for the Board of Education. Candidates Sarah Fischer, David Steketee and incumbent Thomas Piskula were joined by inquiring residents and current Board member Pam Yousey. For over two hours, the candidates discussed issues, which for the most part they were all in agreement.

The achievement gap reflected on PARCC testing was discussed. Fischer expressed that reasons for the gap in results between economically advantaged and economically disadvantaged students are not readily apparent by looking at the data alone and should be looked at through a different lens and with different emphasis. The candidates feel that each guidance counselor at the high school has approximately 200 students which they feel is too cumbersome. Piskula stated that “Madison counseling would love to increase its robustness.”

Much discussion was had about special education in Madison. Steketee opined that “the program is growing and has improved over the past three or four years.” Piskula expressed that it would be valuable for the Board of Education to have more frequent contact with the special education community. Fischer opined that the program in place is effective for some children and praised new leadership in the special education program with the addition of a new counselor, a new director, and a new supervisor. Dr. Frank Santora was named Director of Special Services in 2017 and Kristine Seminerio is the new Supervisor of Special Services. Fischer explained that there is a change in “how we’re talking about special education and I would like it to change even more. Having special education in the district is not a negative but a positive thing. If an aide is added to a classroom, that is a benefit to all students. And empathy is good for all kids.” The candidates agree that a back-to-school night for PPC parents would be helpful.

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There was considerable discussion about building a new turf field at the Madison Recreation Complex (MRC). It was acknowledged that much of the discussions at BOE meetings was dominated by talk of sports. This led to a broader discussion of where sports fit into BOE priorities. Starting in 2008, the Junior High School sports program was cut from district financing and has relied on user fees and parent-provided transportation. In the next budget, the possibility of the district absorbing these costs will be posed. Fischer opined that the primary duty of the district is on education and if money comes in and, for example another literacy coach is needed, the money should be spent on that. Piskula stated that Madison has a sports legacy environment with an active sports community. He would like to reemphasize academics and highlight academic achievement such as the naming of a Madison High School student as a national merit semifinalist. (See https://www.tapinto.net/towns/madison/articles/madison-high-school-emma-andersson-named-national-merit-semifinalist).

The candidates discussed the REACH program, which is offered to third through fifth graders at each of the district’s three elementary schools and starting in January will be held during recess. The program is project-based and adaptable for children interested in pursuing the projects further. Fischer opined that this a good program offering challenges beyond the classroom.

The candidates agreed that the district could do a better job advising residents of the services offered by its schools and that newcomers to the town often have difficulty finding out about available programs. Steketee opined that parents should not have to be advocates for their children but that professionals working with these children should advocate for them. Piskula opined that “the more we broadcast the district’s accomplishments, the better.” Fischer advocated for meet-and-greets with members of the BOE. Piskula recommended videotaping the BOE meetings and airing them on the local TV station.

The candidates agreed that the experiences in the three grammar schools were very different and a goal should be to replicate what is good at one school in the others. As a result of these differences, some students start at the Junior High School at a disadvantage. They also stated that the PTOs at the schools were very different, some offering more and better supplemental programs to the students. Piskula opined that the BOE should take more advantage of what the PTOs offer. Steketee would like to see the PTO presidents communicate more with each other.

A resident proposed that there should be more empathy training throughout the school system. It was noted that there is great income diversity in “this little town” and it should be examined how this factor affects inclusivity.