Meet the Candidates: Haddonfield School Board 2018


We invited candidates for the borough board of education to tell voters a little about themselves ahead of Election Day. Here’s how they responded. 

By Matt Skoufalos | October 23, 2018

On November 6, Haddonfield voters will choose from among four balloted candidates for three seats on the borough Board of Education (BOE). Incumbent president Adam Sangillo and vice-president Susan Kutner are seeking re-election. They face challenges from Satwick Seshasai and Roosevelt “Justin” Benford.

We invited each candidate to respond to the same set of prompts, telling voters about themselves, their priorities, and their views of the current state of the district. Here’s how they responded.

Haddonfield BOE candidate Roosevelt “Justin” Benford. Credit: Roosevelt “Justin” Benford.

Roosevelt “Justin” Benford, 36

Roosevelt “Justin” Benford is a senior vice president and managing counsel for TD Bank of Mount Laurel, where he advises on digital, data, technology, and payment-related matters.

A father of two, Benford volunteers his services as an attorney to numerous pro bono causes, chairs a local United Way campaign, and coaches Haddonfield girls youth soccer.

What is your philosophy of education?

“I believe that a strong educational foundation not only prepares students for careers, but also for life.

“To me, a strong education is one that is diverse in experiences and wide in breadth—one that makes students knowledgeable not only about subjects such as Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (“S.T.E.A.M.”), but also about entrepreneurship, teamwork, health and well-being, and life experiences.

“We all have different strengths, weaknesses and interests. Our education system ought to support certain core competencies, while allowing students to maximize their full potential in other areas.

“I also believe that education should be tailored to the world in which we currently live—one that is increasingly interconnected and both technology- and data-driven. Some of the subject matter students learn, and the manner in which they learn, is changing. But in the twenty-first century, as in centuries past, the strength of our education system will continue to depend on our collective community, composed of teachers, administrators, parents, coaches, students and other residents.

“The role of a board member, essentially, is to (1) hire a superintendent and hold him or her accountable, and (2) engage in strategic planning and policymaking. As a board member, I would strongly support an administration, policies and procedures, and an environment that would continue to foster such an educational system.

Why would you like to serve on the Haddonfield school board?

“I absolutely love this town and its education system, and I have the drive, temperament, and skillset to make significant contributions toward our success. We live in the best country in the world—one where opportunities abound for the educated—and I am incredibly appreciative.

“I also understand that things don’t just happen on their own. We can’t have a great educational system without having people engage and volunteer, whether that is running for the board of education, participating in PTA meetings, voting, etc.

“As a lawyer, I have spent my career leading teams that advise companies and organizations across a number of sectors on board governance matters, strategic planning, financing and technology.

“As a dad of two young girls and the member of a family that includes educators and public servants, I’m able to take a long-term view toward, and relate to, the issues facing our school system. And as someone that has spent hundreds and hundreds of hours devoted to pro bono and volunteer service, I’m serious about making a difference.”

What are the biggest challenges the district faces?

“Our education system has faced a lot in recent times—from passing a $35-million bond referendum for school construction and having tough conversations about Bancroft, to dealing with a divisive lacrosse incident and hiring a new superintendent. One of our biggest challenges will be to move forward and successfully engage in a robust strategic planning process that sets us on a path to continued success for the next several years.

“We need to set goals, and then measure our success against those goals as we move forward. We rightfully have ambitious expectations, but we also have a limited budget (which is highly dependent upon property taxes) to aid us in meeting those expectations.

“To achieve continued success, it will be important that we think carefully and critically about how to responsibly utilize that budget on matters such as our curriculum and extracurricular activities, professional education, special education, and school maintenance and security.

“This process requires a transparent process and broad community engagement. But the good news is that we are uniquely positioned as a town, community, and school system to overcome our challenges, and continue to achieve success on a number of levels. The upcoming strategic planning process will be crucial to striking the right balance and planning for our future.”

What are the biggest strengths of the district?

“Our biggest strength, undoubtedly, is our people—our educators, coaches, parents, students and other community members. Haddonfield is an accomplished town of doers. We start parent communities, book clubs, chess clubs, and support groups. We participate in countless civic and community associations, such as Haddonfield Lions Club, Rotary, Civic Association and the Historical Society.

“As a community and school district, we continuously push our children to learn and achieve. And we care, and are inclusive. Because of our people, our students have excelled in all areas of academics, extracurricular endeavors and arts programs—and Haddonfield is one of the best school districts in New Jersey and the nation, as acclaimed by numerous, independent sources.

What are three key issues on which you would focus if elected?

“I think it is important for any board member to recognize the importance of not having his or her own agenda. Haddonfield is comprised of approximately 12,000 residents (two-thirds of whom do not have school-aged children) and 2,700 students across five schools. It is important that all residents be represented, and in a way that reflects their relative priorities.

“I also believe that being a good Board member requires focusing on many issues (large and small) and paying attention to the details. With that said, here are three key issues:

“Strategic planning: Proper planning is vital to most successes in life. For anyone that has ever written an essay or watched the Food Network, you know that taking some extra time to plan properly can pay huge dividends in the future. As Benjamin Franklin recognized, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

“We need to plan now (and regularly) for our future, set clear goals, and then measure our success relative to those goals. This is a huge undertaking—it would be the first in over 10 years for our district—and necessarily requires the consideration of a number of topics (e.g., special education, facilities maintenance, class sizes and space, curriculum, security, etc.).

“Transparency and communication: Transparency leads to better-informed educators, parents, students, board members, administrators and other community members. It can lead to important questions or the identification of issues that need to be corrected. It can also lead to trust as well as correct for inefficiencies—for example, when numerous residents have to ask the same thing several different times through a number of different channels (e.g., Facebook, e-mail, phone calls, etc.).

“I know the Board is excited (as am I) about the rollout of a new-and-improved website for our school district, as well as the recent hiring of a part-time professional to assist with communications. As a board member, I would continuously seek to enhance transparency and communication.”

“Taxes, budget, and financing: Aside from our great people, taxes and other financing is the lifeblood of our school district. Fortunately, our great education system has contributed significantly to property values in Haddonfield.

“Nevertheless, we need to be mindful of the strain our property taxes puts on our community—particularly those that no longer have school-aged children and are trying to do more with less.

“Rather than continue to be so reliant on local property taxes, we need to advocate strongly for our fair share under New Jersey’s funding formula. And we also need to find ways to increase alternative revenue sources (such as our tuition program) and find new revenue sources.

“We also need a tax and grant strategy that maximizes financing for our teachers, students and district and takes advantage of resources available to us in our region. And we need to do this while maintaining sound and responsible fiscal management.”

Haddonfield BOE candidate Susan Kutner. Credit: Susan Kutner.

Susan Kutner

Incumbent board member Susan Kutner is a 29-year Haddonfield resident who works as the Director of School Facilities for the New Jersey Department of Education.

Prior to that, she was a private-sector architect specializing in school facilities projects.

A married mother of two children, including a member of the HMHS Class of 2019, Kutner was first appointed to the Haddonfield Board of Education in 2015 to fill the unexpired term of Andrew Berlin.

She was re-elected to the body in 2016, since which time she has served as its vice-president.

Kutner’s remarks are presented here as a private citizen and not in the context of her employment with the state of New Jersey.

What is your philosophy of education?

“I believe education should be student-centered, acknowledging individual learning styles, capabilities, and unique talents.

“In addition to achieving academic outcomes and college and career readiness, it should be mindful of the emotional well-being of the student, and foster good citizenship.

“When our students graduate, they should not only be prepared for college, but should be well-rounded people with the tools to engage in the difficult conversations facing our world.

Why would you like to serve on the Haddonfield school board?

“My entire professional career has been devoted to helping school districts efficiently provide safe and appropriate facilities to support programs and goals within the financial capabilities of their communities.

“Aware of the challenges of Haddonfield’s school buildings, as well as community discourse concerning an action plan, I first decided to serve on the board four years ago so I could offer my professional expertise and help build consensus.

“The major focus of my first term was the development, passage, and implementation of the construction referendum. Although construction should be completed this January, there is still more facilities work to be done, particularly from a planning perspective, and I would like to continue to help the district move forward in the most efficient manner possible.

“In addition to facilities initiatives, the last three years have been a period of significant change in which the board has laid the groundwork for a stronger district in the years to come. Led by an almost entirely new district administrative team, we are currently developing a strategic plan to articulate district goals, a special education audit to provide expert feedback on areas in need of improvement, and a new website to improve transparency and communications with the community.

“After playing a role in these projects as vice-president, I would like to follow through on the work started.”

What are the biggest challenges the district faces?

“Despite the recent increases in state aid, funding continues to be the biggest challenge since it impacts all other aspects of the district. With about 82 percent of our budget funded through local taxes, we will have to continue to carefully balance the community’s desire to provide the very best education and opportunities for our students with the burden on the taxpayers.”

What are biggest strengths of the district?

“The school district’s biggest strength, which has allowed it to thrive regardless of challenges, is the quality and dedication of its teaching staff. In addition to their professional skills, their character contributes to a nurturing and supportive environment that allows students to thrive.

“Each parent can likely tell stories of teachers going above and beyond, of showing concern for a student’s well-being outside the classroom or returning emails late at night. Credit should also be given to the parents and community, which bolster our teachers’ talents and are supportive of the school district as a whole.”

What are three key issues on which you would focus if elected?

“Due to my expertise as a school architect and planner, I will naturally focus on preserving and making our facilities secure, as well as helping the district articulate a viable long-range plan for reinvestment and upgrades to deliver a 21st-century education.

“I also look forward to providing continued support for the district strategic plan and special education audit, and then helping to achieve the goals and findings of these important initiatives.”

Haddonfield BOE candidate Adam Sangillo. Credit: Adam Sangillo.

Adam Sangillo

Adam Sangillo is a wealth management advisor and the incumbent president of the Haddonfield Board of Education.

A married father of four, Sangillo is a Rotarian, treasurer of the Haddonfield Civic Association, and board member with Robin’s Nest, Inc.

He also coaches youth travel soccer.

What is your philosophy of education?

“I’ve always believed that education is a collaborative effort among students, teachers, parents, and administrators to foster a love of learning and help all students reach their fullest potential.

“As a board member, it is my job to work collaboratively with the board to develop and communicate a sound vision for our district with stated, measurable goals to ensure success for all students.”

Why would you like to serve on the Haddonfield school board?

“To continue the work we’ve been engaged in over the past three years. We are setting a new course for our district through a strategic planning process and audits of our special education programs, curriculum offerings and facilities use. I’m excited for the opportunity to see the work through and realize district-wide improvements that will come as a result.”

What are the biggest challenges the district faces?

“To implement improvements in a coordinated and effective way to address all past issues and deficiencies.”

What are the biggest strengths of the district?

“We have all the ingredients here in Haddonfield for a school system that expects and delivers excellence: eager, prepared students; hard-working, dedicated staff; and supportive, involved families.”

What are three key issues on which you would focus if elected?

“1. To complete a community-driven strategic plan that appropriately sets goals and vision for our school district.
“2. To conduct a proper special education audit to deliver meaningful changes where necessary.
“3. To use data to effectively and efficiently improve our educational offerings and facility usage.”

Haddonfield BOE candidate Satwik Seshasai. Credit: Satwik Seshasai.

Satwik Seshasai, 38

Satwick Sashasai is the Chief Technology Officer for e-commerce company, Spring, Inc.

He holds a Ph.D. in engineering systems technology, management, and policy from MIT.

What is your philosophy of education?

“Education is a lifelong process that prepares us to participate in and contribute to the world around us.

“In their years as students in our school district, our children are learning how to learn as much as they are learning content.

“The mission of our school district is to help prepare our students for this lifelong journey through deep knowledge, strong community and extracurricular experiences, and to help every student have as great a shot at success as possible.”

Why would you like to serve on the Haddonfield school board?

“The strength of the schools are the same as the strength of our town: our community. I hope my tenure on the Board will involve lots of partnering with community members to solve our toughest challenges, from creative revenue generation, to curriculum modernization, to facilities improvement.

“With a new superintendent, new state funding, a new teachers’ contract, and major construction nearing completion, this is a unique and special time to get involved and build on our district’s amazing foundation.”

What are the biggest challenges the district faces?

“Our biggest challenge is being able to provide appropriate resources to our fantastic teachers, and to allow them to meet the needs of our entire student population without some of the revenue sources other towns enjoy.

“I believe my background in managing businesses with budgets similar in scale to our school district will help me play a role in setting policies to get the most out of the resources we have.”

What are the biggest strengths of the district?

“Our biggest strength is the passion and talent of all involved, from teachers and other school staff and administrators to students, parents, and community members. Every school in Haddonfield has an incredibly strong and engaged community that both advocates for the needs of our children and uses resources effectively to serve our children.”

What are three key issues on which you would focus if elected?

“Creative sources of alternative revenue, strategic planning of our facilities to match the needs of our 21st century curriculum, and school safety.”

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