NJ Pen Elections 2022: Meet the Haddon Township School Board Candidates


This year, five Haddon Township residents are running for three open seats on the borough Board of Education. We invited each of them to tell voters a bit about themselves in the lead-up to the election.

By Matt Skoufalos | October 24, 2022

On November 8, voters in Haddon Township will choose from among five balloted candidates for three seats on the borough school board: incumbents Renee Billingsley, Chris Cook, and Marie Dezii will seek to defend their seats against challengers A.J. O’Malley and Kristyn Souder.

We invited everyone to reply to the same set of prompts, telling voters about themselves, their priorities, and their views of the current state of the community. Answers were edited for clarity and length.

Renee Billingsley. Credit: Renee Billingsley.

Renee Billingsley (Incumbent)

Educator Renee Billingsley is a married mother of two school-aged children who holds a master’s degree in educational leadership.

Billingsley, a 16-year Haddon Township resident, is an incumbent Haddon Township Board of Education member who chairs the board curriculum committee.

She is also currently president of the Rohrer Middle School PTA.





What is your philosophy of education?

I’ve long believed that educators need to support the whole child. This means providing an education that focuses on each individual student’s academic, social, and emotional needs while teaching our children to operate independently, to communicate and collaborate, and to be the kind of innovative and creative thinkers their futures will demand.

Why would you like to serve on the school board?

I would like to continue serving as a voice on the school board for our students, staff and community. In our BOE meetings over the years, I believe it has been important for my fellow board members to hear the viewpoint of a veteran public educator as they consider the issues that come before us.

Like my fellow members, I primarily want to make sure our district is providing the best educational experience possible for our students.

What are the biggest challenges your school district faces?

Like many districts, a challenge we face is figuring out how to best balance our budget while trying to provide our children with the robust and diverse assortment of academic, social, athletic and art programs they deserve.

What are its biggest strengths?

I think the biggest strength of our district is communication. As a board, we have worked with and continue to work with our community to focus on the mission and vision of our school district. The more people and ideas we can bring into each conversation, the more likely we’ll be to realize the vision of our great community.

What are three key issues on which you’d like to focus if elected?

If I am reelected, three key issues I’d like to focus on with the BOE would be:

  • making improvements so that our schools and school grounds are as safe as they should be
  • providing access to pre-K learning and full-day kindergarten for all HT families
  • arriving at an improved academic curricula appropriate for 21st-century learners entering careers in a rapidly developing world.

The good news is that if we as a community decide that a referendum makes financial sense, it would go a long way towards making all of these things possible.


Chris Cook. Credit: Chris Cook.

Christopher Cook, 51 (Incumbent)

Software developer and IT consultant Christopher Cook is the married father of a school-aged child, a 20-year Haddon Township resident, and a U.S. Navy veteran.

Cook is the incumbent president of the Haddon Township Board of Education, a trustee of the Haddon Township Education Foundation, and a past president of the Edison and Rohrer Middle School PTAs.

In his free time, he enjoys volunteering, cooking, and knitting.



What is your philosophy of education?

Children are naturally inquisitive. They are constantly trying to learn things about the larger world around them. As such, the most important thing we can do as a school system is to ensure we never break our students of that drive.

Once our Haddon Township students leave the district as young adults, their passion for learning will be key to their success as young adults. Once they enter the workforce, today’s students will need to constantly learn new skills and technologies to be successful. The most successful adults will be the ones that can adapt quickly to the changing landscape.

It’s never been more important for our families and our schools to produce lifelong learners.

Why would you like to serve on the Board of Education?

It has been my honor to serve on the Board of Education for the last three years, including 2022, as board president.

I would like to continue on the board to support the district goals of: meeting the individual needs and strengths of all students, delivering on whole-child wellness, character and social/emotional learning, and improving our physical environment through facilities development.

What are the biggest challenges your school district faces?

First and foremost, we need continued focus on recovering from the learning loss that was created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to federal financial aid, we have been able to hire additional support staff; however, as that money runs out, we need to ensure we can keep as much of that support as we can in our budget.

Next, we have an opportunity to expand our pre-K and kindergarten offerings with state funds; however, while those finds will pay for teachers and aides, they do not cover any construction of new classrooms that would be needed. They also don’t cover any necessary special education services.

Finding the funds necessary to support any pre-K and kindergarten expansion will be important work we do as a district and as a board in 2023.

What are its biggest strengths?

Clearly, the teachers, administrators, and staff of the Haddon Township School District are its biggest strength. So many young families move to Haddon Township to get access to the amazing schools and educators we provide.

In many cases, Haddon Township students grow into adults, move away, and move back to Haddon Township when they start a family to gain the same level of support and achievement they knew as students.

The community also plays an important part in creating the tapestry that makes Haddon Township what it is today. Our community consistently supports the district with their time and their wallets.

It is incumbent on the board and the administration to be good stewards of that trust, to always look to make the best use possible of the resources the community provides, and to do what we can to keep Haddon Township a great place to grow up and learn.

What are three key issues on which you’d like to focus if elected?

  • Recovering from learning loss that occurred during the COVID pandemic.
  • Careful consideration of a possible school bond referendum in 2023. We need to balance the financial impact any new debt will place on property taxes against those capital expenditures that are critical for Haddon Township schools to be safe and excel in the future.
  • Adding new programs that will better prepare students for the future.


Marie Dezii. Credit: Marie Dezii.

Marie Dezii (Incumbent)

Educator Marie Dezii has spent nearly 30 years as a parent in the Haddon Township School District.

A married mother of four, Dezii’s extensive service record in the community includes work with PTAs at the elementary, middle, and high-school levels.

She spent 12 years helping produce the middle school yearbook and direct its talent show, and became president of the Haddon Township Visual and Performing Arts Guild, the booster group for fine and performing arts in the community.

After years in the profession, Dezii has become a mentor teacher, and was named Collingswood Elementary Teacher of the Year in 2015.


What is your philosophy of education?

As an educator, I believe that all students are natural-born learners. It is the job of families, educators, and the community to nurture students. Education needs to be engaging and meaningful to help each student find their passion from a young age, and build upon those passions.

We also need to recognize that not all students fit into the same mold. Some are bound for college, some the military, some trades, and some will find a job that does not exist yet. Educators need to embrace and foster the love of learning for all students.

Why would you like to serve on the Board of Education?

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time serving on the Board of Education for the last nine years. This role has shaped who I am as a person, a mother, a proud Haddon Township graduate, and community member.

The district is setting groundwork to support a referendum that will help us to meet the individual needs and strengths of all students. We would like to improve our school’s physical environment through facilities development.

In addition, our school district is looking to expand our current kindergarten program, after being offered a state funded Pre-k program.

I would love the opportunity to continue serving this community as a member of the Board of
Education to see all of these initiatives come to fruition.

What are the biggest challenges your school district faces?

Funding is one of the biggest challenges in our school district. We are a district that does not fit perfectly into the state funding formula, which gives more resources to poorer districts.

In prior years, the formula created a negative impact on our district budget, so I understand how difficult altering a budget can be after it has been approved.

Our athletic fields need upgrades. The high school field is a multi-season field, which does not allow for regrowth and repair. Adding turf and lights would allow for the field to become a community hub, hosting games and events for the whole town.

What are its biggest strengths?

Our biggest strength is the community of Haddon Township. Everyone has a vested interest in the schools and the students. Not to be outdone by our community, our teachers are equally one of the biggest strengths of the Haddon Township School District.

Our teachers are dedicated beyond the classroom. You will find them at athletic and visual and performing arts events, community gatherings, and working alongside the PTA and board to ensure the best for our children. They arrive early and stay late to meet with students who need extra support or just someone to listen to them. They make sure our community and students thrive together.

What are three key issues on which you’d like to focus if elected?

One key issue I would focus on is having a full-day academic program for kindergarten. Currently, our students have a certified teacher for only half the day, and I would love to see that extended to full-day.

Having a full day academic program would allow us to include a stronger math and literacy focus. There would also be time to integrate social studies and science for our youngest learners.

Our district has worked diligently over the past years to improve the safety of our students, but I believe that we can always improve on the safety of our schools. Adding vestibules to our schools forces people through a staffed entrance. This not only increases security by limiting visitor access but creates a welcoming environment.

One other way to increase safety for our community would be by creating ADA access to all our buildings and spaces, and making necessary upgrades to our elevators. We need to see what updates we can make to ensure accessibility for all.

Another key issue I would like to focus on is the mental health and stress management of our students. These issues were heightened during the pandemic, and since the ESSR Funds provided by the government for addressing mental health are no longer available, the district must now fund these programs within its regular budget.


A.J. O’Malley. Credit: A.J. O’Malley.

A.J. O’Malley (Challenger)

Executive coach A.J. O’Malley is a married father of three school-aged children, and a second-generation Haddon Township resident.

O’Malley holds an MBA from Villanova University and a bachelor’s degree in business management from Rutgers University.




What is your philosophy of education?

My philosophy of education is simple: the best way to support kids is by appropriately listening to and supporting the teachers and administrators.

We need to consider the whole child by providing them with age-appropriate, relevant experiences as we prepare our students to excel throughout and beyond their years in our district.

Why would you like to serve on the Board of Education?

I am running for a seat on the Board of Education because I am rooted in our community, and want to make a difference by returning Haddon Township to its status as a premier educational school district.

My children are third-generation Haddon Township students, and will be enrolled here for the next 15 years. We need to improve our educational outcomes by better supporting our administrators, teachers, and students.

I have experience driving change in competitive industries in a fiscally responsible way. While change is inevitable, we must remain prudent and strategic on where to invest our time and resources to maximize the future for all children.

What are the biggest challenges your school district faces?

Fluctuating enrollment has been challenging for our district over the past several years. The unpredictability makes budgeting and planning for the future challenging for a district our size.

We need to remain thoughtful and creative to ensure we are providing a continually improving educational experience.

What are its biggest strengths?

Unequivocally, the Haddon Township Community is our biggest strength. Our community has a passion for coming together and helping others. The passion is contagious and has made me want to pitch in and help out.

If elected, I would like to invite more members of this great community to share their talent to help make our schools even better.

What are three key issues on which you’d like to focus if elected?

Due to the focus groups over the past two years, I have been fortunate to hear from many members of the community on where Haddon Township could be better. Based upon that experience, I would focus on the following areas:

Community Involvement. Over the last few years, communication with the community has been good, but we can further improve by allowing people to contribute more than just their voices.

I not only want to continue to hear more from the constituents, but also create ways for members of the community to get involved. Haddon Township is full of talented people looking for an opportunity to help make our school district better.

Focus. The board of education cannot boil the ocean. If we set out to accomplish too much, nothing will get done.

We need to be focused and prioritize our time and resources appropriately. We can drive change quickly if we are disciplined in how we prioritize.

Fiscal Responsibility. Taxes in Haddon Township are already high, and it will be important to understand which areas of the educational experience we prioritize. If everything is a priority than nothing is a priority.

I would like to understand the key performance indicators of our fiscal decisions to ensure we are meeting the objectives we set out to accomplish.


Kristyn Souder. Credit: Kristyn Souder.

Kristyn Souder, 38 (Challenger)

Information systems developer Kristyn Souder is a married mother of a school-aged child, and a 10-year Haddon Township resident.

A Philadelphia native, Souder has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and digital media from La Salle University.

She is the current president of the Thomas Edison Elementary School PTA, volunteers with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop, and is a member of the Haddon Township Equity Initiative.

Souder also spent a decade on the Board of Directors and communications team of regional nonprofit, Zenkaikon, an anime and sci-fi convention.

What is your philosophy of education?

My philosophy of education is one of educating the whole child, academically, socially, and emotionally. I believe that all students can learn, and want to learn, and when all of their needs are met, they can reach their full potential.

It is my belief that the ability to think critically and differentiate information is also increasingly crucial. Students should always be questioning the world around them and feel free to utilize their creativity to come up with new ideas. As a district, we should be developing lifelong learners.

Why would you like to serve on the Board of Education?

I am deeply invested in the school district both as a district parent and a resident of Haddon Township. I have regularly attended Board of Education meetings for several years. I would like to be more involved in serving my community, and believe there are always benefits to new people and ideas.

We have a very active school community that cares deeply about our district. I would like to be a voice for that community and all of the diverse perspectives they bring to the table.

What are the biggest challenges your school district faces?

Funding has always been a challenge for the school district. It is hard to plan long-term when changes in state governance can drastically affect state aid. Districts are also funded by the state on a per-pupil basis. Although enrollment has increased positively in the last year after a previous downturn, this is a trend we want to work to continue.

Coming out of the pandemic, there are challenges related to student mental, social, and emotional health, as well as possible academic deficits that need to be addressed. We still don’t know the long-term outcome of such a defining event. Thus, it will be important to be agile and to continue to analyze and revise our strategy to ensure we continue to meet the needs of all our students.

What are its biggest strengths?

One of the greatest strengths of our district is our community, which is highly invested in our schools and in making them the best they can be. It has been shown time and again that parental and community involvement is key to student success.

Another great strength of our schools is our teachers, administrators, and staff. Throughout the last few, challenging years, they have truly shown their dedication to our students. Their commitment, along with that of district families, is why I believe our district has been able to bounce back so well, and why Haddon Township schools are so well-regarded.

Finally, I believe our district has a blessing in our great neighborhood schools. Many districts would love to have what ours offers, and it is a part of what makes our district so desirable to new families.

What are three key issues on which you’d like to focus if elected?

1. Implementing full-day kindergarten and pre-K.

This needs to be a priority for a healthy future for our district. We are one of a small minority of New Jersey districts that do not have full-day Kindergarten, which is a community desire for many years.

If we had space this year, we could already have a 100-percent-state-funded, free, full-day pre-K program. This is state funding that we are losing. Full-day kindergarten and pre-K programs will benefit students and families, and put us on even footing with neighboring districts.

I recently spoke to a parent who said if they had realized we did not have free pre-K, they would have moved to a neighboring town. At a recent Board meeting, it was stated that six to nine additional classrooms would be needed to implement full-day pre-K.

If elected, I would advocate for making this issue a priority, and work with the Board to identify or acquire this space.

2. Increasing community involvement.

We have a very engaged community, and we should utilize community members’ input, skills, and ideas. As was shown in previous district focus groups, our community can come up with great and innovative ideas when given the opportunity.

Along those lines, I would also like us to provide additional fiscal transparency. It is well-known that New Jersey has high property taxes, and our community should know that their money is being utilized appropriately and responsibly to benefit students.

In particular, I would like to be able to provide more transparency on the annual district budget. Rather than a high-level overview, I would like to see a more detailed drill-down into individual line items provided to the community, while excluding or aggregating any confidential items.

Much of this information is already provided throughout the year in bits and pieces through Board meeting agendas, but it is not compiled. Providing more information to the community would also provide more opportunities to utilize our community’s available resources to come up with creative solutions to district issues.

3. Infrastructure and safety issues.

Water issues at the high school could cause expensive structural damage. Safety and ADA issues at our athletic and recreational facilities must be addressed. We can utilize available government funding for energy efficiency and HVAC upgrades. Beyond the long-term financial savings, studies indicate that increased air quality leads to improved cognitive and academic performance.

In addition, I would like to see the district implement two additional programs that can increase student safety. The first is Safe Storage education. Safe storage of firearms can prevent not only gun violence but also suicides and accidental shootings.

The second is Know the Signs, from the Sandy Hook Promise organization. This is a program that follows students throughout school – beginning with teaching critical skills such as empathy and inclusivity.

As students get older, it teaches them how to look out for warning signs or threats, and how to speak up to a trusted adult. By middle school, there is an anonymous app, website, and telephone hotline where students can report concerns. It also teaches students how to take the lead by forming their own Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) Promise Club.

All training and materials for the program are free, and it has already been implemented in 23,000 schools and organizations nationwide.

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