There are five seats on the ballot for school board for four-year terms on election day, Tuesday, Nov. 3.
David Cohen is not new to public affairs in Cheltenham Township, although his candidacy for school board is his first run for public office. He is chair of the township’s Economic Development Task Force and a leader of the effort to rewrite the local zoning code, now under review. He also serves as president of a local performing arts organization, White Pines Productions, and is a board member of the Montgomery County Planning Commission.
Cohen has been a consistent and outspoken observer on school district issues over the years, especially around long-term facilities planning and development questions as well as issues of transparency related to board and administration decisions. A resident of Elkins Park, he is a senior planner with a statewide economic development program.
Cohen wants to see the board play a more active role in overseeing the district’s administration and in asking critical questions. Improved strategic and long-term planning are on the top of his agenda. He supports establishing a 10-year capital plan as a guide for facilities decision-making and major capital expenditures and linking the process to meaningful community engagement.
On improving academic achievement, Cohen advocates strengthening operations analysis of programs and practices to find out more about what works and what doesn’t. He agrees with the view that an emotionally safe environment and strong learning culture are important. “We shouldn’t get stuck on tests as the be-all and end-all,” he said at the recent school board candidate forum.
On parent and community involvement, Cohen wants to improve accessibility of board members outside of meetings, including direct email access. To facilitate the flow of communications between the district and the community, he supports greater use of social media, upgrading the district’s website as well as an active marketing campaign touting the district’s strengths.
While Cohen supports the district’s strong activity offerings in sports, music and the arts, he believes decisions on expansion in that sphere should be based on a clear assessment of costs and benefits.
On the revenue side of the budget, Cohen wants to move ahead with ideas for new revenue generating programs independent of taxpayers.
Joel Fishbein is an employment law attorney with two children currently in the district and another who is a recent graduate. This is his first run for office. He was vice chair of the Cheltenham Township Human Relations Commission and has been involved with youth soccer and his synagogue.
As a parent of a current student with special needs and two others having been in the gifted program, Fishbein brings a passion to the need for strengthening the district’s special education programs. The complex legal and educational process involving providing students with vital learning supports is often a challenge for school districts and parents. But “it shouldn’t be an adversarial process (between the district and families),” said Fishbein at the recent UPG school board candidate forum. “It has to change and I will spearhead that change.”
Fishbein proposes bolstering student achievement by instituting a category of “master teacher” in which those teachers with track records of superior performance would formally coach and assist others in areas such as adapting to the new PA core standards curriculum. He sees a strong opportunity to address the Achievement Gap, the gap in academic performance between whites and Asians and other students of color, given the new superintendent’s expertise and commitment in this area in conjunction with the support of the board. He also favors a system-wide mentoring program as a structured part of the education experience for students.
Fishbein wants to raise the level of parent and community involvement as well as improve the image of the school system by building a campaign of awareness of the district’s strengths in the arts and academics. “We have a deep and wide range of AP offerings, an excellent music and theater program, and a sense of community and diversity that may be unrivaled. This needs to be our message and in order to communicate that message the board of directors of CTSD and the commissioners of the township must work cooperatively to develop, fund and implement a strategic public relations plan,” he wrote in Citizens’ Call prior to the May primary. At the candidate forum, he said he was “encouraged” by the recent success of the car magnet effort jointly sponsored by the township and school district.
On the question of the district’s high taxes and spending, Fishbein called it a “vexing problem,” considering the township’s small tax base and the “poorly designed” structure of the property tax, which affects neighborhood real estate markets. “We’re on a tipping point,” he said. High taxes, he noted, “could stop attracting new residents and keep others (existing residents).”
Julie Haywood, the board’s current vice president, is seeking a second term. She is a health insurance industry attorney and parent of three children who, she says, secured a strong educational foundation through the Cheltenham schools.
Haywood, a Wyncote resident, sees long-term facilities planning as a key priority and an area of weakness she and others on the board have acknowledged. As the district approaches the final stages of planning for the rebuild of Cedarbrook Middle School, she has called for a framework for investment decisions for the Elkins Park School, CHS (Cheltenham High School) and the Administration Building (if retained rather than sold). She also wants to see a structured program of maintenance for the newly constructed elementary schools, which is supposed to arise from the district’s recently approved contract for a master plan.
Haywood strongly supports curriculum alignment efforts to raise test scores and meet PA Core Standards, which includes more rigorous critical thinking and teaching. She sees the board’s role in this area as an oversight responsibility to evaluate whether the standards are in place and functioning effectively, using a variety of data points. Haywood also believes it is time for a focused effort to address the Achievement Gap, an area she notes the district has made good progress on at the middle school level. At the candidate forum, she called the need for improvements in special education and higher academic achievement for those students as “not just a legal requirement, it’s a moral imperative.” She wants to see appropriate training on learning differences for all teachers so the burden is not just left to those in special education.
Haywood, a co-founder of the CAAA (African American Alliance), sees the importance of board members being “visible and accessible.” She points to the “welcoming environment” that CAAA and PTOs have created as a model for further outreach to parents for collaboration on their children’s education. New approaches may also be needed, including board members calling parents enrolling their children in the district for the first time and rotating board meetings at local school buildings, she said at the forum. On the question of improved communications at the district level, she noted the need for enhancements to the district’s website and “the need to do a better job of telling our story.” She noted the superintendent’s weekly news share and reports on board meetings as examples of progress.
Haywood said she supports current levels of resources for extracurricular activities in sports, music and the arts, but was unsure about making them a priority for expansion. She also sees the option of user fees as a disincentive to participation.
“At the four-year mark, it feels like I’m hitting my stride,” she said.
Jean McWilliams, a 14-year resident of Laverock, is a career educator, having served as a teacher, an administrator, and a teacher educator in a variety of educational settings, including two public school districts. Her academic background includes a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction and administrative certification as both a supervisor and principal. She has two daughters, one at CHS now and the other a graduate. She seeks her first term, and this is her first run for public office.
First, she sees the role of the board as “not micromanagers of educators,” but as “custodians responsible to the community. Our job is to oversee.”
McWilliams believes in the need for rigorous standards for high achievement for all students. She notes that students in the middle are vulnerable when the focus is on the highest achievers and those with special needs. To meet PA Core standards, she says the key is “empowering” the superintendent and other administrators to deliver “training for a rich and integrated curriculum that is challenging and relevant to the lives of students.” Regarding special education, she sees the need to make the process “user-friendly, rather than a challenge.
McWilliams wants to raise levels of parent involvement by promoting “openness and transparency” through relationships with parent organizations like UPG, CAAA and the PTOs. She supports the district initiating open forums for parents. She wants a more user-friendly website and to enlist “community assets” like retirees and forge additional partnerships with institutions such as Arcadia University to generate greater supports for students and teachers.
On facilities issues, she advocates “a consistent schedule of maintenance for our new buildings to avoid incurring the future costliness of ‘deferred’ maintenance, as we have done in the past.” She says board members should be in the schools with direct contact with conditions there. On broader budget management concerns, she wrote in Citizens’ Call, “I would expect a regular and periodic review of district programs, asking for data that would allow us to determine the effectiveness of these programs vis-à-vis the financial investment we make in them. I would expect a regular and periodic review of district programs.”
On the red letter issues of spending and taxes, she said, “Are we getting bang for our buck? I don’t know, but as a board member, I intend to find out.”
For the new strategic plan, she supports specific goals “that are measurable and achievable and then to hold ourselves accountable.” She said at the forum that most such documents “are beautiful, poetic and inspiring. I would like our document to be smart.”
McWilliams said she supports existing extracurricular offerings in sports music and the arts and did not rule out user fees for expanded services if adjustments were made for hardship.
Summing up, she said, “I’m a believer and an optimist. I’m not a political person, but I’m passionate about education and the promise I see in our community.”
Napoleon Nelson, the current board president, is running for his second term. A Wyncote resident since 2003, his community involvements include the Cheltenham Little League and his church. He has an M.B.A. and works in corporate finance.
Nelson’s primary concern is establishing a clear vision for expectations for student achievement and the financial parameters for achieving long-term sustainability.
On the critical issues of spending and taxes, he noted at the candidate forum “a disconnect” between household tax burdens and immediate educational outcomes, complicating any assessment of the district’s fiscal management. We need to take long-term view,” he said, alluding to the district’s continued focus on planning and financing for buildings designed to last 40-plus years. “But I can’t say the district is all that we want it to be,” he added.
Nelson has noted that the district will soon reach its peak level of contributions to PSERS, the state retirement system. At the same time, most of the major construction projects will be completed and debt payments embedded in annual budgets. He wrote in the League of Women Voters Guide, “reaching this point with a clear academic roadmap and administrative depth will best ensure our district’s long-term academic expectations are attainable.”
Nelson is optimistic but candid about the challenges ahead for the district. He looks forward to the leadership of new Superintendent Dr. Wagner Marseille taking hold, including the district’s alignment of its curriculum with PA Core Standards and stronger performance in the area of special education. He called the current level of achievement of special education students, as indicated by standardized test scores, “alarming.” He also acknowledges the difficult challenge of bridging the Achievement Gap. He believes new mentoring and other programs addressing a range of student needs, including strengthening school learning environments and raising parent involvement, can make a difference. He also calls for “more rigor” in professional development for teachers, given the clear obstacle of limited hours available.
In his closing at the candidate forum, Nelson asserted that the district is gaining capacity for maintaining its new buildings, providing 21st century learning environments and embarking on a five-year strategic planning process. He concluded, “Our policies are consistent and thoughtful . . . The stakes are high. We need a well-rounded solid board.”