WESTFIELD, NJ — If the school board should weigh in on gun laws and how students can best be kept safe are topics that candidates running for school board differed on during a forum Wednesday.
Incumbent Amy Root led the majority of candidates who argued a school board should not weigh in on the highly politicized topic of gun legislation. Incumbent Brendan Galligan, however, said gun safety issues are not entirely out of school boards’ purview.
“As a public school district we need to be careful about taking a political position,” Root said. “And unfortunately, in our current environment, advocating for gun control is taken as being a political issue.”
Challengers Patrick Justin Fahey and Andrew Bauer agreed that a school board should not put forth official positions on gun legislation. Galligan did not agree, pointing the federal Gun Free Schools Act.
“We’d probably oppose repealing a gun free school law,” Galligan said. “I can’t speak for all of our [board] members, but I have a pretty good idea that’s what they’d support.”
Discussions of school security in Westfield are no abstract matter. Following the man’s grand jury indictment, the public was on Wednesday reminded of a June incident on the grounds of Tamaques Elementary School during which police arrested a Delaware man on numerous weapons charges.
Bauer said feedback from school officials about school resource officers, or SROs, show they are well-received and suggested the board consider expanding the SRO program. In addition to providing a basic security function, the police officers — who are currently assigned to the intermediate and high schools — work proactively with staff and students to prevent crime at schools.
“There is a broad range of security measures that we should be thinking about paired with more SROs to evaluate what the best way to spend our monies,” Bauer said.
Fahey said he would support bringing SROs to elementary schools, arguing that it could be done without raising school taxes. — “It would cost about $300,000,” he said. “We could take that from the surplus we already have.”
Galligan, however, said that the SRO program is more robust than it had been in prior years and ventured that the town would not likely split the cost to bring additional police officers to all schools.
“Our costs are about $50,000 per SRO,” he said. “I can’t imagine the town would extend that to 11 SROs at half price. We would have to pick up their entire salary.”
Discussion of student wellbeing was not limited to physical safety. Candidates also discussed reducing student stress.
Top school officials should work harder to assess measures addressing students’ emotional health, Bauer said.
“I applaud the district and the board for bringing social and emotional learning to the forefront last year as one of the district goals, but some of my frustration is I could not see any accountability or track-ability if the things we invested in and tried actually worked,” he said.
Incumbent Robert Garrison, who is running unopposed, gave opening and closing remarks, but did not participate in the discussion by contested candidates. Garrison will fill a vacancy for a two-year unexpired term. He had previously been slated to run against Noelle Ebler, who on Sept. 6 withdrew her candidacy.
The moderator at Wednesday night’s forum read opening and closing statements for incumbent candidate Michael Bielen, who could not attend the forum, following his mother’s death that same day.
“No decision is ever political,” Bielen said in his remarks. “A decision is based on what is the right thing to do. Is the decision fiscally responsible? Will the decision enhance our district?”
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