FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – Mask mandates and other COVID-19 policies, along with ongoing concerns about budgets, race and LGBTQ curriculum, are among the top issues in the Board of Education election on next week’s ballot.
The race, which has eight candidates vying for three seats, features incumbents Mary Cozzolino and Kerry Vendittoli, along with challengers Frank Brooks, James A. Gresavage, Renata Brand, Renee D. Pepia, Neil D. Garguilo, and Jennifer Ruhl. Board Member Kay Poklemba-Holtz is not running for re-election.
The district serves 3,700 students in Grades K-8.
Those seeking to serve on the nine-member board had sharp differences over masking of students, which is mandated by Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order, while offering different suggestions for how to keep students safe as the school year continues.
Elsewhere:Some parents want Brick superintendent to push back on school mask mandate. Why he says no
And:Mask fights and getting called Nazis: Why would anyone want to run for school board?
Garguilo, Brooks, and Brand opposed the mask mandate while Cozzolino, Vendittoli and Ruhl supported it, noting it was a state directive that must legally be followed. Gresavage and Pepia did not respond to requests for their positions on issues.
“I oppose mandatory masks for student,” Garguilo, 68, wrote via email. “If their parents are not wearing masks, why are our children. Children have a very low incident rate of COVID-19.  The death rate is very low. Studies show having a mask on for eight hours per day is having a negative effect on children both mentally and socially.”
Brooks, 54, agreed: “I strongly oppose ALL mask mandates.”
But those in favor, such as incumbent Cozzolino, pointed out the legal aspects of the directive.
“My No. 1 priority is to keep kids in school, full time for the full school year,” said Cozzolino, 45, who has been on the board for four years. “As a district, we need to follow the state requirements and the advice of the Department of Health.  As soon as we get the-all clear from the state and the Department of Health, the masks will be gone.”
Fellow incumbent Vendittoli echoed that view but stressed she would keep her children unmasked in school if she could.
“As a current board member, I support the district following the law. As a parent, do I want my child to have to wear a mask? No, I do not,” said Vendittoli, 42, and a three-year board member. “I do not believe anyone wants this to be our reality. However, our children need to be in school. And after the last 18 months, having children in school, full time, needs to be our priority.”
On other issues, the candidates highlighted budget needs, curriculum and overall support for students in need, especially following the so-called “lost learning” of the past 18 months due to Covid-19 restrictions.
“My priorities for this election are to bring the classroom back to basics,” said Brand, 67, a retired CPA, parent of four and a five-year township resident. “Education must focus on teaching our children reading, writing, arithmetic and S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Parents have rights that must be respected and promoted. Schools must return to being a place of knowledge and facts not of ideology or politics.”
Also in the district:Freehold Regional blankets web to promote ‘critical’ $14 million ballot measure
As well:Ocean State Job Lot in Freehold Township
Ruhl, 46, is the mother of two and a 10-year resident of Freehold Township. She cited as her top priority keeping students in school and helping boost those left behind due to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, most kids have suffered learning loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and our focus must be on keeping kids learning in school and recovering what was lost while also rebuilding,” she wrote via email. “We must also try to minimize any further learning loss by developing better, more consistent methods for learning when kids are forced to quarantine.”
Cozzolino, a mother of three township students and a 10-year resident, cited fiscal accountability among her top issues
“Sound financial planning needs to play a central role in our decision making. We need to devise budgets that are fiscally prudent, sustainable and are designed to maximize educational impact,” said Cozzolino, who describes herself as a stay-at-home mom and community volunteer. “As a board member, I will work with administration and the rest of the board to explore alternate revenue streams, make smart decisions regarding energy improvements, and work to ensure that freehold students get their fair share of state educational dollars.”
Garguilo, a retired manager for several firms including FedEx, DCH Auto Group, and Hertz, has lived in the township for six years and has three children. He pointed to race-based and LGBTQ curriculum as among his concerns.
“We must seek to be more neutral in our approach. For instance, Critical Race Theory goes way beyond the pale of just teaching children that bias is wrong in any form,” he claimed. “Another priority would be on how to express the contributions of the LGBT community while at the same time being neutral. So, in my opinion, it is good to list the historical and social contributions of LGBT community to our society. And we must respect everyone.  But, going into details on sex is not proper for the children.  If the latter is in the curriculum, I believe in parental rights and giving them the option of ‘opting out’ of this teaching.” 
State legislators have approved a plan to require all districts to institute curriculum that highlights contributions by the LGBTQ community throughout history, as well as racial, ethnic and religious tolerance.  
Some parents have incorrectly asserted that the curriculum will incorporate “critical race theory” or CRT, a college-level concept that considers, among other things, the role of systemic racism in society. State education officials have said no such thing is envisioned, but detractors of the new mandate say they are skeptical and unconvinced
Brooks, a utilities employee and father of three, is a nine-year township resident. He also points to some of the controversial curriculum as a key issue to address.
Asked for his top priority, he wrote, “to return the focus of schools to educating the children in the areas of literacy, mathematics, science, civics/history and the arts. To protect the children from the Marxist indoctrination of Critical Race Theory and The 1619 Project as well as the often pornographic and oversexualized LGBTQP ‘sex-ed’ curriculum.” 
In sports:Freehold Township Girls Soccer shut out Howell 4-0
Also:Monmouth County superintendents to Gov. Murphy: It’s time to take the masks off
He later wrote, “I will never bow down to the hysterical leftist mob, I will never stop fighting to protect our children.” 
For Incumbent Vendittoli, a marketing professional with three children and 16 years in town, the top issues are parent involvement, staff shortages, and keeping education levels high with fiscal accountability.
“We are experiencing for the first time in a while a teacher and staff shortage,” she wrote. “Making sure that the school district has the resources to find and employ the best teachers and staff members for our students and community is paramount to keeping the high-quality educational experience we have here in Freehold Township.”
She also noted, “providing students with all the resources they need to succeed while also trying to keep the burden on the taxpayers under control is very important to me. Public education comes at a cost, but the reward and benefits it provides to the majority of our residents is worth it.”
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and several local communities for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of two books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at [email protected] and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp

source