Election day this year marks a rare occasion where candidates running for school board in Plainsboro and West Windsor are unopposed.
In Plainsboro, incumbent Rachel Juliana and newcomer Pooja Bansal are assured victory. Running for the one open seat in West Windsor is Elizabeth George-Cheniara. It is also her first time running for office.
Bansal has lived in Plainsboro since 2015 with her husband, Amit, a physician in New York City, and their three children (ages 7, 5 and 2). The oldest two attend Dutch Neck Elementary School in the Spanish Dual Language Immersion Program.
Although Bansal lived in town for six yeas, Amit grew up Plainsboro and attended the WW-P schools.
Bansal received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures from Barnard College, and then received her Juris Doctorate from New York Law School.
She has been practicing law for 14 years and is licensed to practice in New York and New Jersey. She is currently a commercial contracts attorney with a focus on the technology and telecommunications sector.
Prior to moving to Plainsboro, Bansal worked in public service for City of New York as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx County District Attorney’s office in the Domestic Violence Bureau and Felony Trial Division.
She went on to serve as counsel to Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, and later joined the New York City Employees’ Retirement System as an assistant general counsel. She has volunteered for various roles with Dutch Neck Presbyterian Cooperative Nursery School, where her youngest child attends.
George-Cheniara has lived in West Windsor since 2007 with her husband, John, and four children. She spent her childhood through high school in Westchester County, New York.
She earned a law degree from Cardozo Law School (Yeshiva University), a master’s in public policy and administration from Columbia University, and a bachelor of arts from Barnard College.
George-Cheniara works as the deputy chief of staff for the N.J. Economic Development Authority and was the vice president of legal and regulatory affairs for N.J. Builders Association) for over ten years.
Prior to that role, she was a management consultant for two years with the public sector division of PricewaterhouseCoopers as well as a policy analyst for the Office of the Bronx Borough President.
Her oldest son is a graduate of High School South, her daughter is a junior at South, and her twins are 6th graders at Grover Middle School.
Since 2018, she has served as the co-service unit manager for events for the West Windsor-Plainsboro Girl Scouts community, as well as troop leader since 2014 (currently for two troops of 6th and 11th graders).
She has volunteered for the different PTAs at various events, and participated with service projects in the broader WW-P community, such as a women’s COVID-19 mask-making group and the planning committee for the 2020 Gratitude Week.
She is also active with the regional alumnae association for Barnard College and led panels for current students and alumnae; a member of the Columbiettes of St. David the King Catholic Church in West Windsor; and a volunteer who led donation collections during the pandemic of essential needs for the women and children of the South Asian Women’s domestic violence advocacy organization, Manavi.
Juliana has lived in Plainsboro for 14 years with her husband, Chuck, and their two children, ages 12 and 13, both of whom attend Community Middle School.
In her formative years, she was educated in the Philippines until her first year of high school. For the remainder of her high school years, she went to three high schools in three different states.
She received her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley in 1992 and her law degree from the University of San Francisco in 1997. For the last six years, she has been an in-house attorney for a leading telecommunications company headquartered in New Jersey.
Prior to that, she was an attorney for a semiconductor manufacturing company and two law firms for over 15 years. As an attorney in New Jersey, she has volunteered on a number of pro bono engagements.
Juliana regularly volunteers for the Battered Women’s Legal Advocacy Project and has provided pro bono legal services to the Safe Passage Project, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, and the Street Law Project.
She has been a member of the WW-P School Board for eight years and has been the vice president of the board for the past three years. She has served on all three board committees (Administration & Facilities, Finance and Curriculum) and has chaired both the Administrators and Special Services negotiations committees.
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Bansal, George-Cheniara and Juliana responded to a series of questions posed to them by the News regarding their qualifications to serve on the board and their positions on a number of relevant issues. The questions and their answers appear below.
1. Explain how your experience, expertise or perspective will contribute (or continue to contribute) to the school board.
Bansal: I look forward to contributing to the success of the WW-P Schools by bringing my diverse perspective to the school board. As a parent of a Kindergartener and a 2nd grader in the Spanish Dual Language Immersion Program, my experience can help provide a unique point-of-view to the school board.
The Dual Language Immersion program was piloted four years ago and has grown to become a popular and sought-after program for elementary students in the district. My experience with the DLI program can help the school board champion the success of the program and highlight the areas that could use some improvement.
As an Indian American, I am excited to bring my own experience to the current WW-P Board. I believe that it is important to provide representation for the South Asian community, which is so diverse and culturally robust in itself.
Since a large percentage of the Plainsboro population identifies as South Asian, I hope that my participation on the school board will help facilitate any misconceptions or communication gaps that might exist between the South Asian community and the school board. The town of Plainsboro is rich in its diversity and inclusion, and I am happy that the School board will now reflect that.
Lastly, as an attorney, I am equipped to advocate on behalf of our children, the parents, the schools, and the community. My work experience in the both the public and private sector has given me a strong foundation for understanding a variety of issues that the school board addresses.
George-Cheniara: As a mother of a 2018 WW-P graduate and three children currently attending district schools, I am very familiar with the school system structure, ranging from elementary through high school.
All of my children participate(d) in school-based aftercare programs, which enabled me to manage my career, as well as school sports teams and clubs that enhanced their academic and social experiences.
As a result, I appreciate the immense value that the WW-P school district staff and teachers provide to the residents and their children to support their education and prepare them well upon high school graduation.
As Co-SUM for the Girl Scouts leader community, I have worked with leaders to develop programs that recognize and respect others with different ethnic and religious backgrounds, as well as educational and personal goals.
My experience in working with diverse families will enable me to have an open mind to understand the perspectives of others, who have had a different experience than mine as a South Asian Indian female who completed my education entirely in the U.S.
My training, education and professional background will enable me to analyze comprehensive documents, identify potential issues—whether for the administration, staff or families, and collaborate with board members to inform the district’s decision-making and implementation of policies.
Juliana: From my eight years as a board member, the last three as the board’s vice president, I have experienced the majority of the demands, challenges, changes and successes that this district has experienced in the last decade.
I have worked with the administration and fellow board members to put forth and execute a successful referendum, to implement a number of curriculum improvements to give our students a more diverse and fulfilling offering of courses and programs, to add services to help keep our students safe and healthy, and to bring in more resources to focus on Social Emotional Learning and our students’ mental health.
I have been privileged to be a part of the leadership team that has helped this District continue to be one of the best districts in this State.
Also, as a mother of two middle schoolers in the district, I understand the issues and challenges that parents face today.
I understand our desire as parents to provide the best possible education to our children that include a strong academic program and excellent extracurricular activities, while also making our students’ mental health a priority. This balance was particularly challenging to achieve these past 18 months with the pandemic.
I believe these experiences and perspectives will continue to provide me with a strong foundation and basis to address and evaluate issues and challenges as they arise, and help me to continue to make decisions that I believe are in the best interests of our students.
2. How do you feel about the way that the school board and administration communicate with the community? What do you think they do well, and in what areas can there be improvement?
Bansal: I believe the administration, the superintendent and the school board have done a wonderful job communicating with parents and children throughout the pandemic and especially for the start of this school year.
While there will always be a myriad of emotions and opinions, as a parent of elementary school children, I feel that the administration has appropriately and timely addressed any health-related issues to parents and the community.
However, I do feel that the district can work to improve communication between the local school leadership, teachers and parents. I know how frustrating a delay in communication or non-specific responses can be for parents who are anxiously awaiting answers to their questions or concerns.
I hope to help facilitate bridging those communications and preventing those frustrations from negatively impacting the school experience for children and parents.
George-Cheniara: The school board and administration’s effective use of technology enables community participation at board meetings, which was very important during the earlier pandemic stages.
E-mail communications are also very informative and timely to offer context on policy decisions, which as a parent of multiple children in different schools, I have found helpful for decision-making and planning.
I would recommend greater use of video technology to allow parents and students visual access to the different schools that they would use so that they may understand a “day in the life of the student.”
Also, another avenue is to have a larger social media presence (particularly on Facebook, which more adults seem to utilize in our community) and so communications of upcoming meetings and events may gain greater traction.
It may also be helpful for communication to offer language assistance (whether through existing technology or individuals) to explain documents that may not be readily understood by non-English speakers.
The pandemic situation (early on and even today) required our community to quickly understand highly technical and scientific information, while handling the emotional uncertainty that was so widespread.
Having trustworthy individuals to convey the information in languages more comfortable for the community may help families more readily understand and feel more comfortable with the very important decisions that are necessary to be made quickly.
Juliana: I believe that the district’s communications with the community has improved each year.
With the implementation of recorded board meetings, we have been able to communicate with community members who have not been able to attend board meetings in person. And with the pandemic this past year and a half, we saw more added participation from the community with our Zoom meetings.
Even though we have gone back to live meetings again, I would like to explore the possibility of showing our board meetings through live video (in addition to video recordings), so that community members are able to be fully informed on district topics and issues as soon as possible.
The district has also done a good job with communicating via social media through the district’s public information officer. All 10 schools also send around a regular newsletter, which includes more specific information and updates from each school.
As a board member, I am always willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue with parents and students, regardless of whether or not we agree on an issue. I have always been respectful to those who have taken the time to reach out to me.
3. What are some challenges facing the school district that you believe deserve more attention?
Bansal: This school year and the ones to follow will be especially challenging because the current climate we are in, related to COVID outbreaks, vaccinations and mental health.
Presently, children under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccinations, leaving our elementary school children highly vulnerable and directly impacted by their parents, siblings, relatives and friends’ choices.
As we have seen recently, COVID outbreaks can happen no matter how many precautions the district can put in place, and the outbreaks will cause major disruptions to our lives.
While the parents need to trust that the district is doing all that they can to keep their children safe during in-person learning, the district needs to be able to trust that the parents are also doing their part outside of school.
Cultivating this shared partnership is one challenge that the district is currently facing and will continue to face in the future.
Mental health awareness goes together with the current climate we are in. I believe that it is the district’s responsibility to provide or offer adequate tools and resources to parents and children to help them navigate through this challenging time.
I believe that the district’s seminars, webinars and workshops have helped start a discussion on coping with parenting during the pandemic as well as addressing any social anxieties that may arise. I hope that similar discussions and workshops can be provided to students as well to help them now and in the future.
George-Cheniara: I hear from parents of a greater interest in and need for mental health services that identify early signs of concerns.
Mental health issues have stigma in some cultures and so any education in the community should be in a culturally sensitive manner and with the understanding that parents may not be able to see or accept the fact that their child is struggling.
Children also need skills to handle life’s stresses and an ongoing, stable support system to help transition through the schools and a return to the school environment.
Not all children, especially ones with anxiety and concerns about COVID or peer interactions, were able to quickly adjust to the changed school format (again) of being in-person at school after spending 18 months at home.
The mental well-being of district staff should also not be overlooked. The teachers, healthcare, administration and facilities staff have been living through the stress of adapting to instructional changes and expectations, while caring for their own families, especially as they may now be interacting directly with a large population of unvaccinated children.
Juliana: Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be one of the most challenging issues that our district has had to face.
It has in fact been even more trying this year given that the administration has been provided less guidance and options by the State than was available last year.
We no longer have the option to offer virtual learning to those families who want it due to the governor’s rescission of his executive order in May (the executive order gave schools the ability to offer virtual learning).
While I believe that full-time in person instruction is the most ideal form of education to provide to our students, I also understand that some families are simply not comfortable sending their children (particularly those under 12) back to school yet while this pandemic is ongoing.
The administration has been at the forefront of advocating for a parents’ right to choose the learning model for their children throughout this pandemic, and this advocacy continues today and is something that I fully support.
I believe that we can get through this very challenging time in our history by working together as a community. The district has been utilizing a multitude of mitigation strategies in an effort to keep our children, teachers and staff safe, but the district cannot manage this alone without the continued partnership of our community.
4. What are some ways that the district can help hold the line on property taxes?
Bansal: Once I am on the board, I will get up to speed on which financial issues may affect property taxes.
I understand the need of keeping costs down, but also understand the importance of ensuring that valuable programs and services remain available for our students.
George-Cheniara: Property taxes are a very complex issue in terms of impact on District budget and operations. This would be an area that I would work with the board Finance Committee.
Juliana: New Jersey law provides tax increase authority to its school boards statewide with a cap at 2% plus “Banked Cap” (adjustments for increased health care, enrollment, emergency and debt service costs).
As a school board member, I have not supported any tax increases that are higher than these caps. This is an annual challenge, where the board must factor in required increases like collective bargaining salary increases and special education tuition costs. In my 8 years,
I can affirm that the administration has exercised fiscal responsibility by minimizing the need for tax increases without having to cut any valuable programs.
I think the district can continue to hold the line on taxes by highlighting the needed resources that most benefit our students (such as additional counselors and nurses), while keeping costs in other areas low.