Election Day 2019: Interview with HVRSD Board of Education Candidate John Mason

Without a local debate this year, MercerMe asked questions of candidates running for HVRSD Board of Education based on ongoing community issues in the vicinity. The answers in this article have been provided by John Mason, who is running for HVRSD Board of Education.

What professional and personal skills do you bring that would make you a successful board member?

As a USMC combat veteran and having worked within the criminal justice system for the past 16 years. I have various perspectives that will help me serve the community as an effective member of the School Board. Serving in the military, I have learned the importance of working as a team and finding common ground when facing difficult situations. I have worked as a bail bondsman for the past 16 years. In 2015, I was tasked with opening a new office in Philadelphia where I leveraged  my relationship building skills with many different stakeholders in the criminal justice system to create and continue to run a successful office. My calm demeanor is a strength when navigating different opinions on the many issues that the School Board faces. My willingness to keep an open mind and my desire to continue to learn about the issues, will no doubt help me serve the schools and the community as a whole. 

How would you balance the need for students’ safety with the need for a welcoming school climate? Do you support any staff members having a gun in school?

First and foremost, keeping our students safe in school has to be our number one priority. I believe we need to continue to build a strong relationship with local law enforcement and continue to evaluate trainings, drills, and security protocols that are currently in place. We should begin by ensuring that adults responsible for implementing student safety measures have thorough training and relate to students in an age-appropriate manner. For example, we don’t want to stoke unnecessary fear in students during mandatory shooter drills. In addition, policies related to safety should be reviewed for effectiveness and consistency. I also believe that consistency is key to a successful plan therefore, doing a needs assessment and looking at our drills with a critical eye will help keep all our schools in line and on the same page when it comes to security.  Although I am not in favor of arming staff members in the schools, it would be naïve of me to make any assumptions before being able to assess exactly what is in place and in what areas are our strengths and where we can work to make improvements.

How well does the District address issues related to racism, bullying, the lgbtq community, and income disparity? What, if anything, should it do differently?

As a district and community as a whole, we need to introduce the students to a more diverse society. We need to teach students the skills to be successful in life. We need to teach them to be resilient, good communicators, intellectual thinkers, and to be more involved in their community. There has been a number of disturbing cases of racism in our community over the past year, and I feel strongly that the only way to counteract these issues is to introduce more culture and diversity into our programs and teach our students the skills they need to be successful community members. The District began this work in February 2019 when they initiated a very impressive “community conversation” that included community and municipal leaders as well as administrators, students, and parents. Unfortunately, a recent MercerMe article stated, “Student-led focus groups and community meetings also proposed solutions to the Board of Education, however, the BOE has yet to meet to discuss these ideas.”

For above reference article, please see HVRSD plans initiatives to improve racial conflicts, Race & Diversity group hosts meeting.

I feel that the BOE needs to meet and discuss proposed solutions made by students and the community. In addition, I’d also recommend that the Board evaluate each planned action to ensure it does not further contribute to disparity issues. Pricing people out of living here, canceling elementary inter-district choice, and ignoring community input all compound disparity issues.

In addition to academics, our schools now educate our students in such topics as social-emotional wellness and suicide prevention. Do you think this is appropriate?  How well do you think the schools do in communicating with parents and the larger community about sensitive subjects?

Yes, I believe it is extremely appropriate and necessary to educate the whole child. Mental health and social emotional issues are among the most important challenges facing our district and our students. In our fast-moving social media-oriented society, our kids are growing up in a more stressful environment than ever before. Our District needs to adjust to the changing times to address the needs of our students. We need to look at the CASEL framework and use it to help our students grow not just academically but socially and emotionally. Educators serve students with different motivations for engaging in learning, behaving positively, and performing academically. Social and emotional learning (SEL) provides a foundation for safe and positive learning and enhances students’ ability to succeed in school, careers, and life. Integrating SEL experiences into schools will be important so students can continue to improve in recognizing and managing emotions, effective decision making and behaving ethically and responsibly. We need to continue to get all stakeholders involved (especially parents) because wellness strategies and social emotional learning can not only be taught in school; they need to be cultivated and enforced at home, in order for these strategies to be successful.

Please comment on this year’s budget process.

We need a more open and transparent budget process that includes specifically identifying the purpose of all spending, but especially, excess residential tax increases. The 2019-20 budget passed in May 2019 included unjustified spending (spending not applied toward any staffing, programs, or facilities) over $2,300,000 OVER the 2% cap. At its next regular Board meeting, in June 2019, the board authorized the transfer of $2,500,000 to its Capital Reserves account  (an account that explicitly forbids spending on salaries or programs). Prior to this action, HVRSD already had more than double the Capital Reserves balance of all similarly-sized districts in Mercer County.  Not surprisingly, HVRSD had by far the highest spending increase and our per-pupil costs are the most in Mercer County, eclipsing the #2 (Princeton) by over $1K per-pupil.

Do you think that standardized testing is the best way to measure student achievement? If not, what do you think is better and how would you implement it?

Even though standardized testing can be used as a metric for learning, I believe that there are better ways to assess student achievement than with high-stakes tests. I feel that these assessments do not always provide an accurate picture of a students ability. Standardized testing has greatly harmed our low-income and minority-groups and we need to take a deep look at standardized testing and how it neglects disproportionately and diminishes equity as a whole. We need to make progress toward leaving the high-stakes testing era behind. An idea to combat high stakes testing is to create a student performance assessments or portfolio showcasing their achievements. These assessments are created by teachers and rooted in inquiry-based curriculum and teaching. Students will learn to investigate topics in depth and to explore their own interests within each subject. Some ideas include a literature essay, a history research paper, a student designed science experiment, and possibly a high-level math problem with real world applications. 

Are you running as part of a slate, and if so, why?

Bill Herbert & John Mason are running as a slate because we feel that the most effective school board is one that is open to and incorporates a variety of thoughts and experiences. We believe that our complimentary skillsets add more value taken together, than what any candidate can bring separately. In addition to a welcoming, inclusive school atmosphere that promotes resilient college and career ready students, we have identified Transparency, fiscal responsibility, and good Board collaboration/operations as needed focus areas. In its self-evaluation, the school board identified Board Performance, Finance, and Board/Community Relations at historic lows. We believe Bill’s financial acumen and John’s community experience can fill those known voids and result in a higher functioning board that can help improve outcomes for all students and the community.  

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