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Monty School Board Candidates Answer Voters' Questions, Define Issues & Clarify Their Positions

By Barbara A. Preston | October 13, 2022

Montgomery School Board candidates had an opportunity to introduce themselves to voters via television, live stream, and on-demand during a forum held at Montgomery High School on Tuesday, October 11. The six candidates who participated offered similar views on ensuring school safety, retaining teachers during a time when many are leaving the profession, and boosting social-emotional support for students who were forced to learn via a laptop for almost two years because of the pandemic.

One candidate differed significantly on a new state mandate that requires public schools to include specific standards regarding instruction on diversity and inclusion in the curriculum.

Montgomery Township School Board Candidates at a forum for voters at Montgomery High School on Tuesday night. From left: Michelle Dowling of Skillman; Craig Rothenberg of Belle Mead; incumbent Richard Specht of Belle Mead; Douglas Herring of Skillman; John A. Sangiovanni, III of Skillman, and incumbent Phyllis Bursh of Belle Mead.

While in-person attendance at the forum was low (about 30 people), the live stream viewing was much higher (more than 320 views). The forum is now available online for those who are interested.

All 10 candidates were invited. Six candidates attended the forum, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area, Central New Jersey Network Television, and The Montgomery News. Information about the four candidates chose not to attend is available on The Montgomery News Website. The candidates are: Mohammed Fahd Ansari, Danish Mirza, Joanna Filak, and Ania "Anna" Wolecka-Jernigan.

Excerpts from Each Candidate

Opening Statement: "I've lived in Montgomery since 2013 with my wife Dara [Zimmer] and two daughters, Summer and Marina. My decision to run for school board was made at the July 19 Board of Ed meeting. There was a presentation by Dr. [Stacy] Robustelli of HiTops describing the HiTops organization's direction and guidance on the [Montgomery] School District's curriculum writing. Suggested subjects were connected to Chapter 32.

"There were many parents at this meeting who voiced concerns about the new curriculum and I felt that their concerns were not being heard. Since 2014, I've attended school board meetings at a somewhat regular basis.

"I feel now that the current board members are pushing ahead with the new Health PE curriculum without any compromise. For me, that have crossed the line and it's time for a change.

"This new initiative is erasing parental rights... The new curriculum ... as well as other curriculums in regards to gender identity, topics, and sexual content ... is not appropriate for students in certain grade levels.

"The school's inappropriate curriculum ... has been pushed through by the current school board and the administration."

Richard Specht (incumbent)

Opening Statement: "I've lived in Montgomery for 40 years. My wife Ellen and I have raised two daughters who graduated from this district. I'm standing for reelection because I care about the community and the students."

"I know what it takes to be a board member because I served ... from 2000 to 2006 during some of the most rapid growth in this township, when this building [Montgomery High School] was built."

"My professional and executive experience gives me insights that are useful to being on the board of a $100 million organization. Hopefully we will have questions about some of the biggest challenges facing the district ... the Health PE curriculum; communication is a perennial issue. We've had some recent town halls, but we still need to do more. Full-day kindergarten is coming up [referendum on November 8], and we need to plan for the future."

Article continues after ad from our sponsor:

Opening Statement: "I've lived in Montgomery for 15 years. I have two daughters in school now, a seventh grader and a third grader. I know our schools are amazing. We rank at the top of the state. ... There is a lot to be proud of."

"The thing is: There's a lot of contentious activities that occurred in the recent school board meetings. A lot of them had to do with people not understanding. I think we need to be clear about what is happening."

"I've been a criminal trail attorney for 25 years, and I'm good at communicating. We have 4,598 students in five schools. We need serious people to do this and to work to keep these schools amazing.

"I was appointed to the school board, by the current board [to fill a vacancy left by board member who resigned this summer], and I get sworn in next week. I want to work with the current board to keep our schools as ... incredible as they are."

Opening Statement: "I'm an attorney with an office in New Brunswick. I have been living in Montgomery for 10 years. I'm married with three children, ages eight, six, and four. This forum is a wonderful opportunity for the public to get to know the candidates and for the candidates to have our first forum give-and-take with the public."

"I say formal, because as anyone who knows me will attest, I'm always engaged in casual conversations with fellow community members about important issues in our town and in our schools. I enjoy having these conversations with that diverse group of individuals regardless of whether I agree or disagree with their positions."

"You will notice my purple signs around town. My choice of purple is deliberate as I want to convey what I believe is a middle of the road approach to combining blue and red. For example: I am strongly in favor of adding LGBTQ and diversity to the curriculum, but I understand it must be done in an age-appropriate manner based on prevailing research with transparency and respect for parents rights."

"Despite the political polarization we have seen in recent years, I truly believe that most people share this middle-of-the-road approach and want their elected officials to implement policy reflecting that."

Article continues after ad from our sponsor:

Phyllis Bursch (incumbent)

Opening Statement: "I have lived in Montgomery Township for 17 years. My child began in kindergarten and graduated from the high school, so I'm familiar with every school. For the past six years I have been a school board member. I understand how to work effectively as a board members, and I have experience in every liaison position, and on every committee, including negotiations. I have also served as president and vice president."

"Professionally I was a kindergarten through grade 12 advocate at FairTest, which is the National Center for Fair and Open Testing also known as the 'optional SAT place.' I worked with teachers, schools, education experts, and teachers' unions, school boards, and politicians to improve assessments and teaching."

"I have an undergraduate degree from Harvard College, where I also worked as a student admissions representative. And, I have a law degree from the University of California at Hastings.

Opening Statement: "I've lived in Montgomery for 10 years with my family. I have an eighth, ninth, and tenth-grader in the Montgomery school system. Yes. I married an Irishman. I have been an educator and administrator for over 30 years. It is what I have been called to do: To be an educator and to be an advocate for students."

"Currently, I am working on my doctorate. I'm a few months away from finishing my dissertation with a concentration on curriculum and teaching. Specifically, I am a champion for students. I love students. I know students. And I want to make sure it's clear that I'm running with no personal agenda, no political agenda. I have no interest in sharing my own individual thoughts and perspectives. I really am interested in running for the board so that I can lend and share my educational expertise."

"One of the major responsibilities of the board of education is to make sure we are delivering the very best curriculum to our students. As an educational leader, I would like to give my service to the board and really ensure that we are giving the very best education to each and every student at Montgomery."

Candidates Who Chose Not to Attend the Forum

The forum sponsor did not hear back from Mohammed Fahd Ansari or Danish Mirza.

Candidate Ania "Anna" Wolecka-Jernigan explained the reasoning why she and her running mate Joanna Filak chose not attend the forum to meet voters — primarily, they do not trust the newspaper.

"Joanna and I have been working hard meeting with our community and sharing our views and aspirations for the future of our school district. We found that too often we enter into a debate about fundamental needs of our children, we are firm believers that school board positions are not about opposition but collaboration among members to do best for our schools and children.

As you know, we have been vocal participants at local BOE meetings for almost two years, we have worked on workshops with our community and we continue working on establishing better communication with our existing board members, the work we have been engaged in has been very rewarding and our community continues to show their desire to do the right thing for our kids.

Unfortunately our experience with The Montgomery News and some other local organizations has been concerning, filled with misrepresentation of our views, continued attacks on our character, but most importantly it has not helped our mission of transparency and partnership between schools and parents. Therefore, we are politely declining your invitation. Joanna and I will continue to engage with the community through other means and events where residents are able to share their concerns and understand how we can support them if elected."

The Montgomery News stands by its reporting, and dedicated four full pages to the candidates in the September issue of the newspaper. The Montgomery News also posted the candidates' unabridged profiles on The editor regrets that these candidates will not be able to speak live and in-person to the voters of Montgomery.

Related Story

The League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area and The Montgomery News have worked together on three previous candidate forums. They co-sponsored a School Board Candidate Forum in October 2020 and a Legislative District 16 Democratic Primary Forum in May 2021. Both events were on Zoom on account of the pandemic. In September 2021, Central New Jersey Network joined with the LWV and the paper to cosponsor an in-person LD 16 Assembly & Senate Forum at Raritan Valley Community College.

About the League of Women Voters

The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization working to protect and expand voting rights and ensure everyone is represented in our democracy. They empower voters and defend democracy through advocacy, education, and litigation, at the local, state, and national levels. Learn more at Their voter guides are available at

About Central New Jersey Network

Central New Jersey Network (CNJN), formally Princeton TV, provides original New Jersey content as well as local, national and international news coverage, CNJN delivers programming that speaks to the local community. CNJN also acts as a forum for citizens to produce and broadcast their own shows, films, videos commercials and more by providing the opportunity for use of camera equipment, TV studios and training. Learn more at

About The Montgomery News

The Montgomery News is a monthly newspaper serving Belle Mead, Blawenburg, Griggstown, Rocky Hill, and Skillman. It mails 21,000 papers first-class using the U.S. Post Office to every home in Montgomery Township, Rocky Hill, and parts of Princeton, Hopewell, Hillsborough, and Franklin Township. Another 2,000 to 3,000 papers are delivered bulk to the Montgomery Municipal Complex, The Princeton Fitness and Wellness Center, and to various newspaper boxes through town. There is also a weekly online newsletter, that is distributed to subscribers via email. And the website is updated daily.

About the Montgomery Board of Ed

As described by the Montgomery board of education website, "the board’s responsibilities include: setting and evaluating policy; establishing goals; overseeing that the district schools are well run by the administrators they have hired; and adopting a fiscally sound operating budget for the school district. Board members act on the superintendent’s recommendations, meet with civic groups, and receive input from parents, students, and community members."

The board has a total of nine members who usually serve three-year terms, as elected by residents of Montgomery Township and Rocky Hill. Three seats usually come up for election each November.


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