Meet your candidates for Sparta School Board

SPARTA. The school district has a total of 17 candidates running for six seats.

Sparta /
| 11 Oct 2022 | 07:28

Residents of the Sparta school district will fill six seats on the Sparta Board of Education for the 2022 general election. Early voting begins October 29, with election day set for November 8.

Sparta has 10 candidates vying for three seats with three-year terms, and seven candidates running for the three open seats with one-year terms.

Sparta Independent asked each candidate to provide a 300-word statement about their candidacy.

Gregory Rosenfeld, three-year term

I am running for a seat on the Board of Education as an independent, without a team backing me up.

Being a victim of bullying before moving to Sparta, I understand how difficult school can be as a growing adolescent, and Sparta High School was a place that shaped me to be the person I am today. I appreciate everything this community has given me, and I want to give back.

I feel the introduction of the sex curriculum is way too extensive. Most of the curriculum is definitely not age-appropriate.

In the review of last year’s budget - I have seen many errors of judgement. There is absolutely something wrong with the process. I dealt with millions of dollars on deals for well over a decade. The board needs assistance from a person who can adequately review, bring attention to and negotiate inconsistencies. I can do such a review.

I would like to see the immediate implementation of one member to represent the student body to formally address the BOE prior to the start of each meeting.

I also would like students to have the ability to participate in business-minded courses, serve their country in the military, and also assist with socialization skills – both with each other as well as with professionals.

I started a non-profit organization that socialized cats for adoption. The cats were socialized with children under the direction of a student teacher.

For over 12 years, I was the CEO of a fitness brand that employed well over 100 staff members in New York, Virginia and Florida. We had numerous daycare and nursery operations in which I hand picked the staff.

Do keep this in mind as you make this imperative decision about your vote: Leaders stand alone. Not in groups.

Note: For full statement go to and select blog

Kurt Morris, three-year term

I have been a Sparta resident for the past 33 years. I am a father, active member of the community, and current Sparta Board of Education member (in office since 2019). I am a proud father of two daughters in third and eighth grade, I volunteer my time both in the school and on the court coaching my daughter’s basketball team. After graduating from Sparta High School, I attended The County College of Morris and William Paterson University. I have been in law enforcement for the past 22 years and I am currently employed by the Sparta Township Police Department, having also served as FOP Lodge 26 union president for several years.

I am a decision-maker and collaborate with the district superintendent and fellow board members. I am experienced as a board member and committee chair, focusing on policy and personnel, as well as the liaison between the school district and township for shared services. My negotiation skills and focus on shared services and cost-savings with Sparta Township ensure tax dollars are maximized for the benefit of our students. I know how to stand up for the students, ask questions, and work to provide accountability to ensure the district is well-run. The school district has always been a part of my life and will continue as my daughters attend Sparta schools.

I wish for the district to continue striving and improving while operating under a reasonable fiscal budget. I believe that Sparta schools can only improve when the Board of Education and the community work together for all of the students.

Note: These statements are made in my capacity as a private citizen and not in my capacity as a board member. These statements are also not representative of the board or its individual members and solely represent my own personal opinions.

Lauren Collier, three-year term

As a sitting board member since December 2021, I’m thoughtful in my work in policymaking, planning, appraisals and voting. With each decision, I consider the impact on our students, staff, and community. I’d love to continue working to bring out the best in Sparta Public Schools by supporting:

Student achievement — Promoting literacy, subject mastery and sparking curiosity for learning at every level.

Curriculum —Curriculum transparency fosters a strong home-school connection for our students. Parents should be regularly apprised on what their children are learning.

Fiscal Responsibility — Tax dollars must be student-focused. Goals like building a new elementary school and strategic plans require every dollar to be managed responsibly.

Communications — Promoting respectful dialogue and focusing on clear, concise, and consistent communication improves trust in our district with all stakeholders.

My husband and I have four children. Three of them attend Sparta schools in grades 5, 3, and kindergarten. I have a BS in marketing/computer systems and professional experience in marketing and project management.

I’m an active community volunteer. Being in the schools gives me joy! I’m a room parent and PTO volunteer. I’ve helped in projects like the 30/30 elementary lunch and recess initiative, the committee that helped bring the Mohawk Avenue playground to fruition and the Return to School Parent Feedback Group.

I serve on the Personnel and Policy committee, and as board liaison to the Diversity Council and C3 Committee, supporting efforts to foster a healthy learning environment. I’m completing my new board member boardsmanship certification, providing governance skills needed to carry out my responsibilities faithfully as a board member.

Note: These statements are made in my capacity as a private citizen and not in my capacity as a board member. These statements are also not representative of the board or its individual members and solely represent my own personal opinions.

Leigh McMichael, three-year term

My name is Leigh McMichael and I am running for a three-year term on the Sparta Board of Education. A Sparta resident since 2016, my husband James and I have two young children, with our oldest attending Alpine Elementary School. I graduated with honors from William Paterson University, earning a BA in psychology and a certificate in education. I continued to obtain my master’s degree in educational technology from Ramapo College. Before moving to Sparta, I dedicated 10 years to teaching fifth-grade students in Oakland, NJ. Locally, I utilized my teaching experience to discuss best practices in the schools throughout the pandemic as a member of the Return-to-School Parent Feedback Group for Sparta Township Public Schools.

With my knowledge and expertise in education and curriculum development, I would work hand-in-hand with my fellow board members and our superintendent to restore our school system’s stellar reputation, prioritize addressing pandemic learning loss and fulfill the strategic plan that addresses the needs of our students, our staff and our facilities.

I pride myself on my ability to actively listen to and engage respectfully with varying and opposing viewpoints, and I welcome the opportunity to serve as a unifying force on the board during such tumultuous times. I recognize that, at times, there will be difficult decisions to be made. Board members may not always agree with each other at the table, yet need to engage diplomatically and function as a whole. It’s imperative that our elected officials work together to understand and represent the entire community and consider all stakeholders. Lastly, providing our teachers with the highest-quality, district-approved resources and supplementary materials will assist their endeavors in reaching all students. Continued policy development will set forth guidance to support and protect all stakeholders, including staff and the most vulnerable: our students.

Niamh Grano, three-year term

I am a current Sparta Board of Education member, and the vice president since 2021, who is seeking an additional three-year term. I have a BA in mass communications from Iona College and am currently employed as a senior communications manager. I have experience working in marketing, public relations, brand messaging and communications in non-profit, corporate, and technology fields. I’ve served on teams that provide brand vision and communications strategies. I handle crisis communications and have experience in advising other companies in handling them. These skills served me well the past three years as a board member as I worked with many stakeholders and other trustees.

Prior to being a BOE member, I volunteered in Sparta’s schools to create a home-school connection for my three children, Nicholas, Lilly, and Emma. I was the president of the Alpine School PTO from July 2017 to June 2020, and also served as the co-vice president for Alpine’s PTO for two terms. I served as the co-president of the Mohawk Avenue School PTO in addition to serving as the co-secretary for the Mohawk Avenue PTO.

I am a lifelong Sparta resident and am passionate about serving our community. I assumed my current seat in January of 2020 and helped the district to navigate uncharted territory during the pandemic. I wish to provide experience and consistency to the board by continuing to help the Sparta Public Schools build on its successes.

I wish to thank the Spartan community for allowing me to serve for the past three years, and I hope to continue to do so!

Note: These statements are made in my capacity as a private citizen and not in my capacity as a board member. These statements are also not representative of the board or its individual members and solely represent my own personal opinions.

Jennifer Miller, three-year term

I am a Sparta Board of Education trustee and an elementary school principal who has been in the education field for over 20 years. I earned my BA in secondary education-English from Clemson University and later earned my MA in education leadership, management, and policy from Seton Hall. I taught English and journalism at Wallkill Valley High School for six years. In 2007, I was the recipient of Sussex County’s “Inspiring Teacher Award.”

I later accepted a position at a large urban high school as the assistant principal of student management. I also have experience as a middle school assistant principal. Before heading to West Milford, where I have been for the last 10 years, I served as supervisor of the humanities including the English, History, Music, and Art departments for the Clark public schools.

I am the product of Sparta Public Schools, as well as a proud graduate of Pope John High School. Sparta is a wonderful, beautiful place with an amazing school system. My daughter, Olivia, attends Alpine School.

I take great pride in my role as a current board of education member. I seek to support the efforts of the superintendent and the administration to make the best possible decisions for the district’s stakeholders but with the students’ interests in the forefront. I am an informed board member who asks questions but who also listens. I also feel it is important to truly understand the role of a Board of Education member and to be a communicator between the school district and the community.

Note: These statements are made in my capacity as a private citizen and not in my capacity as a board member. These statements are also not representative of the board or its individual members and solely represent my own personal opinions.

Patrick McKernan, three-year term

I am Patrick McKernan and I am honored to be on this year’s ballot for the Sparta School Board. I hope to continue the efforts and responsibilities that were initiated when I was sworn into the school board back in January.

I moved to Sparta six years ago. One of the main reasons why my wife and I decided to raise our children here was because of the school district. My mission is to put Sparta back on the map, not only as the best district for children to gain a supreme education, but also one where the most qualified professionals want to work.

I do believe that the main way to achieve this is to stretch our budget as far as we can, and make each and every dollar count for something important. We must be creative with our financial thinking to provide the most up-to-date resources in education, while remaining fiscally responsible to our tax payers. We must offer competitive salaries and benefits along with building a culture where everyone feels respected and appreciated.

After completing my collegiate education, I began my career at my family business. Since becoming president, we grew to five locations of varying services. Daily, I must implement budgets, hire and hold accountable my managers, set company policy and ensure that those policies are being followed, act as a liaison between customers and my staff, and ensure that customers are receiving the best possible service. These are the exact skills that make me a well-rounded and qualified candidate. Further, I am honest, unbiased and a true team player. I am highly communicative, organized and empathetic. These are all qualities that every great board member must possess and, if elected, I will continue to fight for Sparta to be the best school district in NJ.

Kaitlin Gagnon, three-year term

Kaitlin has lived in Sparta since 2017. She and her husband Aaron have two sons (ages 8 and 5). She graduated from Ramapo College where she studied communications with a concentration in journalism. An award-winning writer, she performs freelance work remotely from home and spent the last decade as a reporting manager in the healthcare industry. She established Sparta’s One for All Initiative in hopes of promoting a nurturing, inclusive environment for all residents, in alliance with the Sparta Police Department. She is currently the co-president of the Alpine Field in Sparta. She has been a class mom for several years and a baseball coach for both sons, in addition to providing community/volunteer support wherever needed.

Kaitlin has been attending Sparta school board meetings since her oldest was in kindergarten during COVID; she has spoken out against BOE overstep, unethical member behaviors, the politicization of BOE processes, dubious book “challenges,” breaches of policy and protocol, and the maltreatment/targeting of teachers and staff. Kaitlin is eager to bring back the pro-teacher culture that once was, to expand opportunities, support, access, and safety to all students and staff members, to initiate stronger lines of communication between the BOE and the public, to hold the BOE accountable for its budgetary spending and allocations, and to restore the public’s trust in the BOE by rebuilding its reputation. She understands Sparta’s community holds a vast spectrum of political and ideological views and will ensure equitable options are provided so each resident feels represented and secure. Kaitlin will uphold a strict adherence to the limitations of her role as a board member and the utmost respect for public education itself, while advocating for every student, teacher, professional, and parent along the way.

Jen Grana, three-year term

I have lived in Sparta for 17 years and I have four children (ages 18, 11, 7, and 3). My youngest is just entering pre-K at Alpine this year and my oldest graduated from Sparta High School last year so I have spent the last 13 years following the Sparta School District and will be doing the same for at least the next 15 or so. As a result, I have a serious investment in all of the decisions made and issues discussed at the board table because those decisions directly affect my family.

I previously served on the Sparta Board of Education from 2019 to 2021 until I resigned from the position due to consistent misinformation being presented by other members of the board at the time and a damaging lack of transparency. These issues, among others, ultimately led to me feeling as if I could no longer be effective as a board member and decided to stay engaged as a parent. I am running this year with the hope that six new Board of Education members will usher in new, higher standards along with a restored energy and spirit to the Sparta district and a renewed focus on its needs. I have been attending board meetings for over 10 years and have stayed informed with the happenings within the Sparta School District. Despite its disappointing end, I feel that my past experience on the board still provided me very valuable insight into how the public education process works and what the role of a board member truly is. Recently, I think the definition of that role has gotten skewed and, with the right people, this is a huge opportunity to restore what it truly is meant to be.

Jessica Nelson, three-year term

Jessica and her husband Joshua have lived in Sparta for 15 years. She has a 16-year-old daughter, two sons ages 12 and 6, and has been a foster mom to 11 children over the past nine years. Jessica is the founder of “Wished Upon A Child Inc.,” a Sparta-based 501c3 which provides holiday and birthday assistance to local families and children experiencing financial hardship. Her non-profit organization collaborates with Sparta Township, local police departments, all three Sparta elementary schools and Sparta High School to grant Christmas wishes. Her organization brings the community together by hosting its annual wrapping event, a magical night of volunteering and giving back that has become a Sparta holiday tradition. Jessica is also the director of the “New Jersey Documentary Film Festival” which is held annually in the spring at the Sparta Avenue Stage. Jessica was on the PTO board for three years and has been a class parent more times than she can count. She adheres to the principle that you should “be the change you wish to see in the world” and tries her best to live her life focused on that philosophy.

Jessica first started attending Board of Education meetings when “full day kindergarten” and “food at class parties” were considered hot topics. She has attended meetings regularly over the past year and a half. Jessica believes less formality and more transparency when it comes to the Board of Education will benefit the community tremendously. She would like to strengthen the communication between the BOE and the public, particularly students. If elected, Jessica plans to focus on equality, making sure everyone’s voice is heard while genuinely advocating for all.

Carlos Mohammed, one-year term

I am running to add a different perspective to our current Board of Education. I am also running because I have three kids: a second grader, kindergartener and a 2-year-old entering in a few years.

I believe that in any successful business or organization people will have differing views. It is our responsibility to find common ground for the betterment of the group. While we may have our own personal or political views, we need to leave them behind and make the best decisions for our children and educators. As members of the Board of Education, we should advocate for our school system’s employees. We should empower our educators to teach the curriculum in the best way they see fit as professionals. Furthermore, we need to look at how we can be more financially responsible as a school system. We need to ensure that Sparta is a desirable place for great teachers to want to become a part of. I believe it is our duty to help out educators, as it is their responsibility to help mold our children into well-rounded, and productive adults.

In my current role as a senior executive chef for a large-scale corporation with multiple dining venues, I am tasked daily with operating a large team from different backgrounds and assisting in finding common ground to arrive at the best outcome. A large part of my job is bringing people to the table and having a healthy conversation about how to make things better, while also being financially responsible. I am a driver of developing a culture that promotes open thought and discussion, and also attracts the best, and most qualified talent to join our team. I believe that my experience in my career has helped to make me a qualified candidate for the board of education.

Christina Longo-Keiling, one-year term

When my family was looking to put roots down, Sparta was an obvious choice. We have lived in Sparta since 2016 and have three beautiful children. Our girls are in Sparta Middle School as sixth and seventh graders and our son just entered kindergarten. I’ve worked as a registered nurse for nearly 15 years.

As the mother of two children with severe visual impairments that require special accommodations, I’ve experienced how overwhelming it can be advocating for my own children. I hope that my personal experiences will improve how our district serves all students.

I have many areas that I would like to focus on, if elected, including:

Special needs advocacy: I want to work with the superintendent to improve the system for families, but especially for those who require special needs or unique accommodations for their students. Serving on the BOE will allow me to ensure that all students are well-protected and that a quality education is prioritized.

School safety and climate: For learning to take place, students must feel safe in school. The atmosphere of our schools needs to encourage respect for teachers, staff and fellow students. Students need to know they are recognized for their achievements and held accountable for their actions. Keeping our buildings secure and well-protected is paramount.

Student achievement: Every student should be championed to meet their fullest potential. Too many kids are falling through the cracks and the learning loss becomes compounded if not addressed immediately.

Fiscal responsibility: Taxes are high in Sparta, and everywhere in NJ. Of all the towns in Sussex County, Sparta allocates the highest percentage of taxes to school funding. I want our tax dollars to serve our students first. If elected, I would keep a close eye on the budget, making sure taxpayers’ money is spent wisely.

Walter Knapp, one-year term

I am a lifelong NJ resident. My partner Colleen and I have been proud members of the Sparta community since 2017. Our children have been through the Sparta Township Public Schools from elementary through high school. Colleen’s youngest is currently a sophomore in Sparta High School. I believe a robust primary and secondary education, coupled with family, is the most important building block to success.

I was a former regional vice president with MetLife Securities. During my tenure, I was frequently recognized as a top performer growing sales from $300 million to $1.75 billion. I have worked on budgets, operational efficiency, and integrating four separate broker-dealers into one common platform. I currently work in group health insurance sales.

I am ready to parlay my professional experience, advocacy as a father, and champion of education to our district as a board member. I want the best for all of our students and I am ready to do the work to see our district not only be #1 in Sussex County, but a top performer in NJ.

Some important issues to me include:

Fiscal Responsibility — I plan to take a close look at the budget and the facilities’ plan to ensure we spend taxpayer dollars wisely.

Keep politics out of school — We need to get our students focused on the fundamentals again. Learning needs to be the focus of our district.

Debt — I want to take a close look at our debt service to see if there is money that could be saved in that realm of the district’s finances.

Student achievement — We are top in Sussex County, but we should be top in the state! School rankings directly impact property values.

Communication — How can the district improve communication with all stakeholders, especially parents, so the district feels inclusive and builds trust?

LeeAnne Pitzer, one-year term

I have called Sparta home for 39 years. I went through the Sparta Township Public School System from Kindergarten through 12th grade and I’m a proud Sparta High School alumna. I earned an AAS degree in Paralegal Studies from the County College of Morris & Sussex County Community College. I’ve worked in real estate, personal injury, and workers’ compensation representation for 20 years.

My husband Wade, also a Sparta High alumnus, and I have two young sons who are both students in Sparta Public Schools. I’m actively involved with my sons’ school, serving as a class parent, a PTO member, substitute teacher, volunteer, and special needs advocate. This past year, I requested that handicap/special needs accessible swings be added to the Alpine Elementary School playground. As a result, two swings were installed in the spring. In 2021, I was a member of the Return to School Parent Feedback Group, led by Sparta Superintendent Dr. Matthew Beck.

I serve on the Sparta Township Recreation Advisory Committee and the Sparta Township Zoning Board as an alternate member. I was a founding member of “Sparta Helps Healthcare Heroes,” an initiative that supported local healthcare workers on the frontlines during the height of the pandemic. I am passionate about serving my community and hope to continue to do so as a Board of Education member. The well-being of all Sparta students will always be first and foremost to me.

My areas of interest include:

Special Education - I would like to see the process more streamlined and comprehensive for parents.

Facilities - Our overcrowded elementary schools are in dire need of updates. Elections - Removing voting from our public schools for safety.

Student Achievement - All students need to be raised up so our District is on par with other high-achieving districts.

Davina Daura, one-year term

Davina is a 19-year resident of Sparta. She is married to Damon and has a son (12) and twin daughters (6). Her professional background is as a pediatric occupational therapist, and she owns Performance Pediatrics which services the families and caregivers of children with alternative learning styles throughout Sussex, Passaic, and Morris counties.

As a business owner, she believes a healthy culture and involvement of all parties are critical in driving success. With her leadership and problem-solving capabilities, she feels she can provide valuable input to the Board of Education by empowering stakeholders to collaborate in achieving positive outcomes. Running with the slogan Advocating for All means she values the investment in our youth, faculty, and the community as essential to equip our students for accomplishment as they continue on to their educational path towards graduation. Davina believes in implementing strong policies against bullying and supporting the development of new and current programs within the school district. Additionally, she hopes her work on the BOE will foster a sense of positivity and high morale within the district.

She truly believes that the Sparta school district functions as a family and supporting the progress of our district’s academic achievement, safety, and well-being will be in the forefront of her work on the board. Her top priority is to ensure that all parties are served based on their individual needs as providing support to all students and district employees is the foundation for all-around success.

Davina is very active in the community attending and volunteering in school events, serving as PTO class parent, and working with various non-profit agencies in Sussex County to raise awareness and support to families and individuals in need.

Dana Gulino, one-year term

Dana is a 16-year resident of Sparta. She is married to Greg and has a daughter (14) and two sons (10 and 5). Her professional background is in tax equity investment, property and project management, and solar and sustainability. She has extensive experience in start-up and played an integral role in the founding of six companies. A Boston University graduate and life-long NJ resident, she is currently an account executive for an HR firm. In a previous role, her team oversaw solar tax investments for a $4 billion company.

Dana enjoys volunteering and has spent countless hours in her children’s schools, fundraising for various causes, sits on the volunteer committee in her firm, and is currently the president of the Alpine Pool, LMCC. NJ’s latest DE&I legislature is what sparked her most recent interest in the Sparta Board of Education, and over the past year she has consistently attended board meetings where she’s spoken publicly on exorbitant legal fees and other fiscal irresponsibility, the breach in the competitive bidding process in selecting a vendor for the new strategic plan, and the negligence in adhering to established district policies.

Dana is running on the Advocating for All slate along with five other women who share the vision of restoring a sense of community and accomplishment to the Sparta BOE through healthy conversation between all parties, responsible spending of our tax dollars, and serving within the confines of the role. If given the chance to sit on the board, Dana plans to listen to all voices, foster authentic discussions between the board and the stakeholders, provide options to parents that achieve comfortable, safe, choices for all, ask the necessary financial questions, and remain focused on ensuring the highest quality of education for Sparta’s children.

Tammy Mongon, one-year term

Tammy is a 19-year resident of Sparta and has four children who have all attended the Sparta Township school system. Throughout her time in Sparta, Tammy has been an avid volunteer: a coach for recreational and travel soccer, the registrar for travel soccer, a coach for PAL basketball, a Girl Scout leader for multiple troops, a class parent for multiple years, and the PTO president. Additionally, the Mongon family has been very active in volunteering for a local animal rescue, OSCAR, for over 10 years.

Coming from a family of educators, it is apropos that Tammy’s chosen career is that of a teacher. Having taught for 17 years, she has encountered so many different individual minds, families, opinions, worries, and dreams. Within these encounters she has learned that all voices need to be heard and understood. Becoming a board of education member would give her the opportunity to speak for all of those individuals, and it comes with no personal agenda; Tammy is able to see the big picture beyond her own personal experiences.

While it is ingrained in humans to have individual opinions, Tammy’s composition makes her a perfect choice for the board of education. She is honest, genuine, fearless, and an independent thinker. She is aware of the roles of a board member. It is essential that trust is restored within the community and that there is an honest, positive link between the community and the school, and she believes in the expertise of the educators in their roles. Additionally, she is committed to hearing from the public, understanding their worries and concerns, and working on resolutions.

Advocating for All means listening to and supporting all students, all teachers, all parents, all community members.