Meet the Lake Forest School Board Candidate: Stephanie Justiniano Johnson

Stephanie Justiniano Johnson is running for the At-Large seat on the Lake Forest School District’s School Board. Other candidate Q&As can be found here: Phillip Thomas and Austin Auen.

Stephanie Justiniano Johnson 

Age: 42

Occupation: Assistant director for DelDOT’s Division of Planning

Educational Background: “Just finished my last class for BS in Business Administration, Wesley College”

Tell us about your involvement in the community?

“Within the district, I served as a community member on the Lake Forest Superintendent Interview panel in 2015. I also was part of the Families, Communities & Businesses subcommittee that contributed to the Lake Forest School District Strategic Plan for 2016-2017. Additionally, my husband and I have organized book drives during the holidays to provide books and coats to the children in Harrington’s low income housing apartments. To assist in these drives, we enlisted the assistance of Lake Forest High School Football players who, along with the books and coats they handed out, also provided some inspiration to their younger, fellow Spartans. I believe the experience benefited not only the gift recipients, but also our student athletes that distributed them.

“On a more broad community level, I have testified several times in front of the Delaware General Assembly advocating for Early Intervention funding for families of children with special needs as well as in support of SB 229 of the 147th General Assembly that provides special exemptions from the DCAS and DCAS-Alt 1 for students with significant cognitive disabilities. I’ve also served as a parent member of the Interagency Coordinating Council which works to ensure services provided to families of children with special needs throughout the state are well coordinated and communicated.”

How will your experiences shape your views on the school board?

“I believe both my personal and professional experiences have prepared me for a seat on Lake Forest School Board. First, my husband, two older children and I are each graduates of Lake Forest School District. Generations of our family have either graduated or currently attend Lake Forest schools so Spartan pride runs deep in our family. Second, as a parent of a child with significant special needs, I have had to advocate strongly in support of or against decisions that were going to affect my child and others. As a result, I believe my ability to advocate in a professional yet assertive manner will serve the community, teachers, families and their students well. My professional experience in creating, administering and overseeing both capital and operating; federal, state and private funding for DelDOT will be easily translatable to Lake Forest’s use of funding and decisions around it. Finally, my experience as a supervisor effectively motivating, guiding and evaluating the work of diverse staff of varying educational and technical backgrounds will be useful in decisions around staff resources and conduct.”

What are your top hopes and goals as a candidate?

“I want the stakeholders within the Lake Forest community (students, families, staff, business owners, community members, etc.) to feel that their needs and desires are represented by at least one member of the board; I hope to be that person for many. It’s a huge responsibility which I take very seriously. Based on my experience, management decisions should be focused on maximizing the resources we have (human resources as well as financial) to provide the best outcome which would be the educational experience for our kids, positive atmosphere for our teachers and support for our community. Decisions should be based on two things: First, on information that is provided by the district itself (data, education requirements, input from administration and faculty). Second, based on the needs and input from the community. The community is not always privy to all information so they have to have confidence that the person they choose to represent will do what is best given their needs and desires. All of this requires open and honest communication between the community and district as well as a level of appropriate transparency from the district.”

Where could LFSD improve?

“No matter how good something is, there are always areas that could improve. Lake Forest is doing well in many categories but not a standout in most. As a homegrown Spartan, I want to be able to back up our motto that Lake Forest is ‘Your Best Choice’ based on concrete data that proves that we DO offer the best in graduation rates, teachers’ salaries, revenue spent per pupil, as just a few examples. We can’t say that right now. I think leadership plays a big part in the success of any team. Within Lake Forest, the administration should be strong, supportive leaders to the faculty which results in faculty being motivated, nurturing leaders to our students and, in turn, our students will grow to be proud, successful leaders of our community.”

What is LFSD doing well?

“Based on DOE statistics, Lake is above state average in student scoring in math and language arts on the Smarter Assessment which is a great accomplishment. I also think we’re doing a better job of trying to include the community and others in district events like I Love Lake Forest Day and the Father/Daughter and Mother/Son dances. Lake is a very unique, diverse, tight-knit community that offers many opportunities to continue to leverage the resources within it to nurture and invest in our students and community at the same time. I think Lake is making an effort to do that.”

How should Lake Forest handle finances going forward as state leaders consider some school district funding cuts?

“If I was evaluating Lake’s finances, I would start by going through the budget and each encumbrance/obligation line by line to see where we are not spending and why — these could be opportunities in which to reallocate funding to cover funding shortages in the future. We’d need to ask some in-depth questions: Where are the opportunities and what are the risks? Is funding remaining because we don’t need it and cuts can be made OR because things aren’t running as efficiently as they should (and why) and therefore money isn’t being spent (which creates other delays which costs money). Are there funding lines for things that aren’t really bringing an added value or where the value added isn’t worth the investment? Are there areas where we can streamline processes or make things more efficient, be more innovative? I would scrub our budget as much as possible before ever considering cutting positions or programs as there is a greater risk to our level of quality education when we start losing teachers.”

The final draft of the Every Student Succeeds Act has been released. What are your thoughts? How will this affect students in the LFSD?

“I think the ESSA is a good thing for our state and our district. It provides more flexibility for the state on measuring student achievement yet maintains a level of accountability including test scores and graduation rates. I love how ESSA requires parent involvement at the state level as well as that it encourages personalized learning, recognizing that all students learn differently whether they have learning issues or not. Each of my three kids learn very differently and have excelled in different ways so I don’t believe there should be a cookie cutter standard in teaching all students. I’m excited to be a part of the implementation of ESSA at Lake through the school board.”

Bullying: Is this a problem for LFSD? What are your thoughts on how it is handled within the district?

“I have not seen the data related to bullying in Lake Forest School District, but one case of bullying is one case too many. I know many schools are dealing with this issue. Lake Forest has a very in-depth Bully and Cyber Bully Prevention policy which includes a definition of bullying and cyberbullying, mandates that each school adopt a school-wide bully prevention program and establishes consequences for bullying as well as reporting procedures including an electronic means for students to report bullying. I’d like to know how many parents and students are aware of this policy and the resources and steps within it. If parents and students are intimately aware of the policy and what it includes AND Lake is following through with it, I would say Lake does an excellent job handling bullying. If parents and students aren’t aware OR Lake isn’t following through with the mandates and consequences, I would say there’s an opportunity for Lake to do a better job. A policy is only good if people know about it and enforce it. Otherwise, it’s just another piece of bureaucratic paperwork used to check a box.”

What else, if anything, would you like to tell voters?

“I’d like everyone to know that my decision to run for school board and the five-year commitment of the seat is something that I take very seriously. I’ve been interested for several years but recognized that as a working mom with a very busy husband and active kids, I may not have been able to dedicate the time and energy that this post deserves. Our older children are now off to college and so I’m excited to channel my passion for advocacy, accountability and teamwork to help steer Lake to truly becoming Delaware’s ‘Best Choice.’”

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