Galloway School Board Candidates Discuss Budgets and Mental Health Ahead of Elections

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GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP – The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student well-being and the potential shortage of government funds to deal with the challenges of the pandemic era took center stage at the last town hall for a school board race.

The Galloway Family School Associations hosted City Hall Tuesday at the middle school. Five of the six candidates competing for three seats on the Galloway Board of Education participated and submitted pre-written 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.

James Gentile

Incumbent James Gentile, a former deputy attorney general and an attorney who works on Youth and Family Services cases, said his focus is on the increased responsibilities being placed on schools, teachers and administrators to care for students in a comprehensive manner.

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These heightened expectations are the result of a lack of other mental health resources in the area, Gentile said, and he said schools need to become more proactive in providing students with needed services.

“The roles of the schools seem to be changing… They have become, it seems, more complex,” Gentile told the city council. “We are at a time when I think school boards have to become more advocates for children in the community than they have traditionally been, and I think especially on issues related to mental health.”

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Citing increasingly costly health insurance policies as an obstacle to accessing mental health services for some, Gentile said the council should collaborate more closely with municipal and state governments, mental health professionals and social service agencies, so that it can better provide for students in need and help the district meet its financial needs.

Belinda Chester

Belinda Chester, who is currently in charge, echoed concerns about the welfare of the students. One of her goals, she said, is to raise awareness and petition the state for more funding even as federal aid to fight the pandemic runs out.

Chester said the pandemic has hampered the academic and social development of many students 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.

“In coming out of COVID, the needs of our students are very different,” Chester said. “There are many areas that will really require people who are willing to speak up and speak out and say, ‘Our children 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 the school board for the first time. Smith said he was inspired to run the race from the experiences of his daughter, who he said was bullied in middle school. After seeing how this affected his daughter’s life and harmed her well-being, Smith said he wanted to develop resources for her. He said he wanted to see a partnership between AtlantiCare and local high schools expanded to include Galloway Elementary Schools.

“I want to make sure no child goes through what my daughter had to put up with when she was in middle school,” Smith said.

Smith said he wants to work closely with Galloway police in light of recent instances of violence in schools across the country to give students a better sense of security and to explore joint service agreements with local governments to control costs. Smith, an electrical technician at IBEW Local 351, said he wants to expand career opportunities.

Susette Carmen

Suzette Carmen, chair of the board, said she will be able to continue to help the region respond to financial challenges. The Insurance Audit Manager confirmed her volunteer training work with local sports teams and her experience.

“My concern is not only to serve the children in this community, and to make sure that everyone has an equal education, but also to be financially responsible and to balance the budget to meet these needs,” Carmen said.

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Mohamed Ayoub

Challenger Muhammad Ayoub said he hopes to diversify the board of directors and introduce the district to the overlooked views of parents, guardians and students in the community. Ayoub has held senior positions on the staff of former Atlantic City mayors Lorenzo Langford and Frank Gilliam and received the Stockton University Distinguished Service Award.

“We have members of the community who have concerns, and we have to hear from them,” Ayoub said. “Holi will bring diversity and new ideas.”

James Delcan

James Delkan was absent on November 1, but told the crowd via an agent with prepared notes that he wanted to fight to keep tax money in the area.

As in other counties, there are concerns in Galloway that the nominally nonpartisan school board race has become embroiled in partisan politics. Smith’s role in the race sparked controversy, given his standing in the local Democratic Party. Township Councilman Tom Basford criticized Smith for his decision to run, claiming that Smith was merely promoting the influence of the Democratic Party. However, Smith emphasized his commitment to being nonpartisan while serving on the board. He told The Press of Atlantic City on Thursday that he would resign as president of the Democratic Club if he was elected to the school board to stave off impropriety.

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While the debate over the new state’s overall physical and health education standards, particularly the sex education curriculum, has been a topic, it has been more muted than in other areas. Candidates widely acknowledged that the school board was limited in what it could change about sex education standards. Smith said that part of his anti-bullying platform was making students feel included no matter who they are.

Ayoub said he would work with parents to combat enforcement of standards they felt were inappropriate.

“They are our sons, not sons of the state,” Job said.

Contact Chris Doyle

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