As part of an ongoing celebration of School Board Member Recognition Month in New Jersey, School Board Notes will publish brief profiles and photographs of board members who contribute to their communities in addition to their service as board members.

Board members were nominated by their board presidents or superintendents in response to two email invitations sent by the NJSBA in December. For the full list of honorees, see the Jan. 14 School Board Notes article here.

All school board members are dedicated volunteers, but many are committed to service in addition to the valuable time they spend with their boards of education. Through this recognition, the NJSBA seeks to acknowledge board members who go the extra mile, by giving their time and talent to other organizations in addition to their board service.

This is not a contest, but it is a celebration of the spirit of service. The honorees this week are Kimberly Cook, of Hillside, Union County, and Nichol Hoff, of Dennis Township, Cape May County. The others who were selected will have their profiles and pictures published in the weeks ahead, as interview schedules permit.

Spotlight on Service: Kimberly Cook, Hillside Board of Education

Kimberly Cook likes to dance – especially when she’s celebrating how Hillside in Union County raised more than $500,000 for the American Cancer Society over the past two years to fight breast cancer.

“I am proud of my community,” said Cook, who is president of the Hillside Board of Education. “We do work together. With the police, we do the Santa Express.” Parents also bring canned foods to the community food bank, and they also bring toys.

One of the things Cook enjoys most about the holidays is when she gets to dress up like an elf and help Santa distribute presents to community residents.

“We drive around on a limousine bus,” she said, “and we do it over three days. It’s a lot of fun.”

Cook, who is the town’s 9-1-1 police dispatcher during the day, says that she is especially proud of the work she does as part of the township committee working to raise money to cure breast cancer.

Celia Fernandez of Prestige Auto Wash leads the effort, Cook says.

Fernandez, who regularly shares her story as a breast cancer survivor, organizes the walk to defeat cancer with a group of dedicated volunteers. The walk ends with everybody celebrating by dancing to the Cupid Shuffle.

The Cupid Shuffle?

“You can YouTube it,” says Cook. “It’s kind of a line dance.”

When she’s not busy organizing responses to emergencies as the 9-1-1 dispatcher, or with her community volunteer work, Cook is busy with the board of education.

She helped introduce zero-based budgeting to the school district. The practice examines traditional budget line items and questions how every nickel is spent.

“We ask questions like, ‘Do we need to buy so many paper products?” she explained. Zero-based budgeting reduced costs by about 2% in the $61 million school budget. That was enough to keep the district running without layoffs, she said.

She has also helped to reconfigure the district’s elementary schools so that children from the same family, in many cases, could attend the same school.

Hillside Superintendent Dr. Debra Sheard, who nominated Cook to be recognized for her community service, said that Cook “is a regular attendee at school plays, concerts and sporting events.

“In recognition of our state championship football team, she was instrumental in the renaming of Livingstone Street to Comet Way,” said Sheard. (The school mascot is a comet.) “Thank you…President Cook, for all you do for our learning community and the community at large.”

Cook said she enjoys helping people in the township.

“I love serving my community,” she said. “I love the children. It’s a complete pleasure and an honor. I just hope I am living up to expectations.”

Spotlight on Service: Nichol Hoff, Dennis Township Board of Education

When the spotlight shines on her, Nichol Hoff, president of the Dennis Township Board of Education in Cape May County, prefers to shine the light on others.

That’s why, in this case, it is better, perhaps, for others to speak on her behalf.

Dennis Superintendent Susan S. Spiers and Paige Rumaker, the district’s business administrator, had this to say about their nominee:

“Ms. Hoff has been part of our school board for four years. In that short time, she has made an incredible impact on our district,” Spiers wrote. “For many years, Ms. Hoff had been an involved parent.  A few years ago, when our district began to suffer from low test scores and serious budget cuts, many staff and community members felt she would be a good candidate to sit on the board.  She accepted the challenge, and has never looked back.  It has been full steam ahead.  In four short years, she has encouraged and supported many important initiatives within our school district.

“First, was a focus on school bus safety.  Nichol encouraged the purchase of Stop Arm cameras to make our bus runs safer for the students.  This year alone, seven unsafe drivers who passed stopped buses with their red lights on have been addressed by police.  This was due in full to the video from our new cameras.

“The second initiative was the push to begin an Education Foundation,” Spiers wrote. She said that revisions in the school funding formula under the Senate Bill S-2 caused deep cuts in the Dennis school budget.

“With so much money being lost because of S-2, Ms. Hoff saw a need to help our schools financially. She assisted in getting our community on board to form the Dennis Township Education Foundation. I am pleased to say they approved the first round of teacher grants this summer. These grants will positively impact students from kindergarten through eighth grade.”

Hoff was instrumental in moving the district toward applying for preschool expansion funds, Spiers said.

“Because of her encouragement, Dennis Township received over $600,000 and was able to open three additional preschool classes.  Now, all three- and four-year-old children in our school district can attend preschool tuition-free. Students who previously could not afford to attend preschool will now have a greater start to their educational career.”

Hoff, an assistant branch manager at Sturdy Savings Bank, with one child, Emma, in the school district, declines credit.

“I will never take credit for any of this individually,” she said. “I am surrounded by men and women on both the Dennis Township Board of Education and Dennis Township Foundation for Education that bring the initiatives to fruition.

“I may be the catalyst or the nag behind getting things started,” she said, laughing.

Instead, she credits Dennis school bus driver Joanne Ciccotelli for leading the drive to equip school buses with cameras. Ciccotelli urged the board to act after a dump truck backed up into her school bus with nine students on board.

Hoff credits Josepha Penrose, curriculum director, who was recently elected to the school board, with the idea for the $600,000 pre-kindergarten grant. She said Penrose approached her about applying for the money late in 2018.

Hoff sat on the board for the Somers Point Foundation for Education for many years. When she was elected in Dennis Township, she decided to establish a new foundation to benefit Dennis.

So far, the Dennis foundation has raised more than $25,000, and it has disbursed more than $4,000 in grants to teachers. One grant was to a kindergarten teacher to help three kindergarten classes (64 students) watch chicken eggs hatch in an incubator to learn about the life cycle.

Another grant helped students program and code advanced robots. The robots, according to the approved grant application, have cameras on them that can capture footage, which can then be used in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) classes for video editing projects.

Hoff sees the school district as a “family,” she said, “and we need to protect that family unit as best as we can.”

“We’re very fortunate to have a fantastic board,” she said. “I appreciate being recognized on behalf of the board, as well as myself.”