Summit candidates spar over full-day kindergarten

Photo by Jenny Goldberg
Debatable — From left, Summit Common Council candidates David Dietzie, Matthew Gould, John Dougherty, Beth Little, Marjorie Fox and Mike Wattick debated topics ranging from commuting with NJ Transit to free full-day kindergarten at an Oct. 12 candidates forum at Summit High School.

SUMMIT, NJ — The current candidates for Summit Common Council agreed on reducing taxes, not designating Summit as a so-called sanctuary city, and working with police to make streets and sidewalks safe for pedestrians at an Oct. 12 candidates forum sponsored by the Berkeley Heights, New Providence and Summit chapter of New Jersey’s League of Women Voters in the Summit High School Library.

However, the candidates differed when it came to arguments and strategies on full-day kindergarten. Democrats Marjorie Fox, Matthew Gould and Beth Little strongly supported the implementation of full-day school for the 5- and 6-year-olds, but challenged the school board on how to pay for it.

Republicans Mike Wattick, John Dougherty and David Dietze openly questioned the advantages of expanding the current half-day format, plus a fee-based full-day system that is limited through a lottery, especially when weighed against the cost involved.

Wattick questioned what problem Summit is trying to solve with implementing full-day kindergarten. Wattick recalled a school board meeting in October 2016, when Jennifer Ambrose, the Summit School District’s director of elementary education, presented data. Wattick claimed Ambrose’s data showed that 12 percent of students who attended full-day kindergarten needed extra help with basic skills in reading and math while only 6 percent who attended half-day kindergarten needed the extra help.

Fox countered that Wattick had misunderstood the data.
“Ambrose, who presented the numbers, said those statistics weren’t valid because they were too small a sample size to make it valid,” Fox said.
Fox said the candidates should defer to experts in the educational field, where available data supports full-day kindergarten as beneficial to students.

Wattick replied that if Summit Superintendent June Chang and the school board are advocating for full-day kindergarten — which he said are not — then the city should consider this.

The school board, not the council, will eventually make the kindergarten decision.
Little agreed with Fox, saying she believes there is a flaw in Summit’s current educational system, and children are placed at a disadvantage by a public school program based on families’ ability to pay. Two-thirds of Summit kindergarten students pay to attend the program, and one-third of students do not, “because families can’t afford to pay it,” Little said.

“Our tuition-based kindergarten program costs almost $7,200 per year per child,” Little said.
Dougherty stated his opposition to mandatory full-day kindergarten, saying he considered it to be an additional burden on the taxpayer.
“Right now there is insufficient data, but if the data changes, I can get behind it,” he added, and suggested that the town instead invest in ACT and SAT preparation classes, and Advanced Placement classes for high school students, as well as bolstering the sports programs.

Dietze, a Summit Board of Education member, could not directly address the question due to his position on the BOE, saying it would be “breach ethics and be bad form to talk about details with (his) inside knowledge.”

At the debate, each candidate had 90 seconds to answer each of nine questions asked by residents. In addition to queries about full-day kindergarten, topics encompassed NJ Transit, Mount Laurel housing, diversity, “sanctuary city” status and rebuilding Summit’s downtown.
Dietze and Little are facing off for the open two-year seat being left by Democrat Richard Sun, who is leaving the post.

Dietze is a two-decade Summit resident who runs a wealth management business in Summit. He declared he has “toiled for thousands of volunteer hours,” and has served on the BOE for nearly six years and is a committee chairman.

Little is the president of Summit PTO and a former child abuse prosecutor. She said her prosecutorial experience will bring “a level of research to advocate effectively, and a willingness to tackle tough issues.”

In the First Ward, Gould, a senior television executive, is running against Dougherty, a former Summit Police Department officer of 28 years. Both are seeking the seat of departing Republican Robert Rubino.

Gould, who has three daughters in Summit public schools, drew attention to his own volunteer track record. He serves as a trustee for the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey and serves on the Summit Public Art Committee, which is working to install sculptures throughout town.
When asked about diversity, Gould questioned the affordability of the city and proposed a solution to financially assist senior citizens.

Dougherty, who was born and raised in Summit, retired five years ago from the Summit Police Department as a captain. He has volunteered on several boards, including the Traffic Bureau, Planning Board and Juvenile Bureau, saying this has made him, “aware of the major issues.” His chief concern is traffic and pedestrian safety, and he promised to offer his “training and experience to strategize with the police department in targeting these issues and using innovative traffic measure to reduce speeding.”

Fox and Wattick are vying for the second ward seat held by incumbent Republican Patrick Hurley.
Fox is a former lawyer for the city of New York and is running “to bring creative solutions” to Summit “and be responsive to its residents.” She has proposed alternatives to the large parking deck now under consideration in Summit, including a jitney service and expanding the current commuting service program with Uber. She has served on the Environmental Commission since 2005, and in 2006 started a citywide Earth Day environmental clean-up event that attracts 150 volunteers each year.

Wattick, who was named Summit Citizen of the Year in 2011, is a senior vice president at a global investment firm. In 2010, he moved his business to downtown Summit. He said he has spent countless hours volunteering for the Summit chapter of the Red Cross, and has also served as president of Summit Taxpayer Association, which provided the opportunity to “immerse in municipal budgets and be the leading local voice for the summit taxpayer.”

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.