As they make decisions on masking and other COVID-19 health and safety protocols, school boards across the country continue to be the subject of much public scrutiny. Whether they err on the side of caution or allow parents to choose what’s best, backlash is received.
But Michael Stewart, who was recently appointed to the school board of the Bensalem Township School District, is up for the job.
“It’s exciting,” he told The Times. “It’s something that I really didn’t plan, but it’s something that I’m comfortable with and excited to do.”
Stewart was appointed to the board during its recent meeting on Jan. 25. After Marc Cohen put Stewart’s name up for nomination, the other members unanimously voted “yes.” He has filled the vacated seat of Michelle Benitez, who was elected in November to serve on the Bensalem Township Council, and will serve the remainder of her term through the first Monday of December 2023.
On Stewart’s selection process, board president Eric Price said, “I want to thank all the individuals that applied for the vacant position and applaud their commitment to the community and the students of the district. The resumes we received were fantastic and any one of the prospective community members would have been highly qualified and a great addition to the board. In the end, Michael Stewart stood out and ultimately got the nod to fill the vacancy left by Michelle Benitez. Ms. Benitez will be greatly missed on the board, but we wish her well in her new position on township council.”
For Stewart, it’s a thrill to serve the next generation of Owls. Stewart himself is a proud graduate of the Bensalem High School class of 1986, member of the Bensalem Athletics Hall of Fame for wrestling, and former high school wrestling coach for Bensalem, as well as Neshaminy and Conwell-Egan. His family moved to the township when he was in the eighth grade, and though he relocated in adulthood, he and his wife eventually returned once they became empty-nesters.
With so much tension in the current school climate, many have asked Stewart why he wanted to get involved.
“I think now, it’s more important than ever. You’d have to have your head in a hole in the ground if you don’t know what’s around. But to me, through all the craziness, through all the shutdowns, what sets the future apart for our community is the education of the students,” he said. “I want to be part of that, not somebody who’s sitting outside talking about it. There’s so many outside things happening and I want to be able to do my part.”
One of Stewart’s goals is to utilize his business background to benefit the district.
“I build a brand, that’s what I do. I want to build a brand of Bensalem, to make it a community school district that everyone wants to be part of, attract people to this community, make people excited to come to Bensalem,” he said. “I love it here. I wouldn’t have moved back with my family if I didn’t. I want everyone else to see what I see in this school district.”
Another goal of Stewart’s is to ask questions and learn as much as he can during his first few weeks on the board. He intends to have conversations with everyone from Superintendent Dr. Sam Lee to the principals and students, all in an effort to learn what is and isn’t working.
“For me to walk in and start dictating things would be foolish. I want to make sure I truly understand what’s most important,” he said. “I want to work with everybody. I think that’s the best way for this to work out.”
Regarding public criticism of school boards, Stewart understands that this comes with the territory of the volunteer position. But after working directly with parents as a coach, he knows how to handle tense situations in a diplomatic fashion.
“I’m expecting it. I’ve already been told by folks, ‘What, are you nuts?,’ ” he said with a laugh. “For me, the best way is to deal with it directly. I’ll talk to anyone. I also try to learn from everyone. The first board meeting I was at, there were three people who spoke and I tried to gather information from each to learn what people are concerned about.”
Though the topics of masking and COVID aren’t going away anytime soon, Stewart hopes the focus returns to ensuring a good education, something he said greatly benefited his own life. His belief is that, if a student learns vital skills like critical thinking and problem solving in the classroom, they’ll be a benefit to the township post-graduation.
“I think that benefits the end goal, focusing on the education of students,” he said. “And if we can show people that the money they invest [through tax dollars] is well-spent, that they see that the students are educated, that the students themselves are giving back to the community, if people can see value, it makes them happier.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com