BOE Candidates Address Racial Inequities in South Orange-Maplewood at CCR Forum

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On October 8, the Community Coalition on Race hosted a virtual Candidates forum, asking the five 2020 BOE candidates how they would address various issues surrounding integration and equity in the South Orange-Maplewood School District. These included the digital divide, strategies for diversifying SOMSD teaching staff, segregated classrooms, and low expectations for students of color among some faculty.

“Our goal this evening is to challenge the candidates to consider how school policy affects integration and equity in our classrooms…Issues of equity and inclusiveness are extremely important, and cannot be ignored.” read Carol Barry-Austin, Vice Chair of the Coalition.

Each candidate gave opening and closing remarks and answered questions from the CCR, which they did not receive in advance, and from the audience. Each question from the CCR was directed to one candidate, who had a minute and a half to answer. After that, the other 4 candidates each had 1 minute to give their reply to the question. The forum was moderated by CCR Program Director and BOE member Audrey Rowe.

Video here:


Susan Bergin (7:53) stressed her “commitment to equity.” She referenced examples of her work in bringing free wi-fi to the Seth Boyden neighborhood, providing more free school lunches, and allowing 20% more CHS seniors per year to attend senior year rites of passage like prom.

Deborah Engel (9:28) described herself as a professional communicator, local independent business owner, active listener, and community builder and doer. “I believe my background and experience in strategic communications, and my ability to foster innovation and creativity in others, will be a true asset to our board as we continue to navigate this pandemic and look towards implementing the integration plan.”

Melanie Finnern (10:34) felt that “the way forward is to support the superintendent and hold him accountable to execute a policy that works henceforth. And a lot of people are going to sit here tonight and tell you their grand plans, but I’d like to remind you that personal interests and goals are not the role of the Board…Why won’t the current Board hold anyone accountable? Why is there such an achievement gap? Why is our curricula out of compliance?”

Elissa Malespina (11:37) pointed out that about 60% of residents’ tax dollars go towards SOMSD schools. “I have worked in public education for 20 years…and continue to speak nationally about education and proper integration in schools.” She has “seen the best and the worst that the district has to offer,” and believes that the district “can do a better job” in serving the needs of diverse families.

Courtney Winkfield (12:47) has worked for over 16 years in the New York City Department of Education, and currently develops strategies “to ensure equity policies have the kind of impact we want them to have” in the city. She also oversees the AP for All initiative, which has increased access to AP participation by over 40% in 4 years. Winkfield sees similarities “between the problems I’ve worked to solve in my whole career, and the problems we’re solving here in SOMA tonight.”

Finally, Rowe read the statement of current BOE member Kamal Zubieta (14:08), who said that “our district is diverse, and the demographics are in flux. Homogeneity does not serve our children well…I believe in integrating our schools and promoting a culture of inclusion, love and kindness.” Zubieta, who voted for the Intentional Integration Initiative in June, believes that “it is time for our district to become a leader in civil rights for districts across the state of New Jersey.” Zubieta is running unopposed for an unexpired one year term, and could not be present at the virtual forum.

Questions from CCR

Question 1 (16:32): Directed to Susan Bergin – Has the district done enough to address the digital divide during distanced learning, with free wi-fi hotspots and Chromebooks? What impact do you think distanced learning will have on the academic achievement gap the district is already struggling with?

  • Bergin (16:49): The digital divide has been with us in years past, but the pandemic “has shined a light on it.” She has been working on the local digital divide since 2019. “I wrote the winning proposal for a free wi-fi pilot program around the Seth Boyden neighborhood…It’s become a great partnership of the school district and the town.” She thought that we have a long way to go, but the district has the potential to “work very well towards closing” the digital divide.
  • Engel (18:57): Thought the district has done a good job addressing it so far, but that remote learning is creating more inequities in the district. “We don’t have asynchronous options for those who need it.” 
  • Finnern (19:50): Agreed that district has “done a great job” getting people what they need in terms of laptops and hotspots, and that there should be an asynchronous option for those who can’t log on during the day. She also critiqued the lack of the consistent curriculum that the district had planned on in August. “Of course we’re widening the gap, because kids in different schools are learning different things…there’s just no communication about what’s being taught in each school.”

Question 2 (23:35): Directed to Deborah Engel – Other than visiting or recruiting from historically black colleges, what strategies and/or policies would you recommend for diversifying the district teaching staff further?

  • Engel (23:51): “I do think we need to look at how we are recruiting our teachers, and where we’re recruiting our teachers.” Though this is not an issue unique to SOMSD, it is important to have teachers “that our teaching staff looks like our children, and so that we create role models for all of our children.” She suggested bringing paraprofessionals back and growing them into teachers on staff. “We have some really dedicated, really amazing…people, who can then really grow into teachers.” Engel also wanted to look at “where we’re recruiting teachers” and how to increase retention.
  • Malespina (26:22): Referenced a program from her time working in Parsippany, which recruited teachers from within. High school students “would be mentored in schools their senior year…and then they would come back to the schools,” and check on their application that they were part of the program. Those students had to at least get an interview for teaching positions. “Promoting from within – what is better than having students become the teachers? They know the schools, they know the classrooms, they know the community.” Wanted to promote a program like that in SOMSD
  • Winkfield (27:35): Discussed “the inherent bias that exists in hiring practices,” which impacts who gets interviewed and hired, and have to be unpacked at the administrative level. She mentioned “the need to put really professional concrete learning plans in place so that we can make hires that ultimately reflect the communities we serve.”
  • Bergin (28:57): Cited data around the issue, and pressed its importance in implementing the integration plan. “Right now, only 13% of our teachers are black…When students see themselves reflected in the teaching staff, they perform better.” She also mentioned the importance of examining teacher retention.

Question 3 (30:21): Melanie Finnern – What do you envision as effective, fair, and equitable school safety and security practices for students in our schools? What is your position on police or other law enforcement presence in the schools?

  • None of the candidates were in favor of having resource officers or other police officers in schools.
  • Finnern (30:37): “We need to be doing the prep work to make sure our kids are the safest they can be possible in the schools.” This includes active shooter and fire drills. “We have to…make sure we’re setting up the safest place for our children to be when they’re not with us.” Did not think police officers should be “roaming around the building and making it unsafe for our children,” though some might be outside the school helping with street crossing.
  • Malespina (31:32): Though there are no SROs in schools, there are times when police have to be in the schools which are mandated by law. “I do believe that students and police both benefit from times they can interact in positive ways,” like the MPD’s Open Gym. “We have to…try to bridge that gap and try to lead to instances where community and police work together as much as possible.”
  • Winkfield (33:10): “When we talk about safety, we’re also talking about social-emotional safety. Talked about the structures we need to invest in, which should not include “punitive responses to discipline that lead to incredibly negative outcomes for our students.” Wants to implement a comprehensive restorative justice program in SOMA.
  • Bergin (34:24): Referenced the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that students not do active shooter drills without consenting. The AAP also stressed the importance of prevention, and “I would like the district to implement a security drill policy” that aligns with NJ law and those suggestions.

Question 4 (36:40): Directed to Elissa Malespina – Do you support the study of Black and Hispanic history, along with other marginalized groups, and a culturally responsive and inclusive curriculum at all grade levels in the day-to-day teaching in our district, rather than as an occasional or periodic edition? If yes, what steps would you suggest to be more inclusive? If no, why not?

  • All candidates answered yes.
  • Malespina (37:06): Passionate about “inclusive curriculums that incorporate all races, genders, ethnicities.” Mentioned that SOMSD curriculum was out of compliance and has been whitewashed for a number of years. “We just now got an elementary curriculum that doesn’t have the slave auctions as part of it.” Also emphasized listening to students when it comes to inappropriate textbooks.
  • Winkfield (38:49): “Every curriculum is responsive to someone…Who has ours been responsive to for so many years?” Students need to see “mirrors..[and] windows” in curricula. Creating “culturally competent and critically conscious educators” that can use those tools is just as important as a responsive curriculum.

Question 5 (43:33): Directed to Courtney Winkfield – How would you address the concerns of current and past students about comments from teachers and/or guidance counselors who discouraged their aspirations?

  • Winkfield (43:44): Read @blackatsomsd on Instagram over the summer. “We have a pervasive crisis in our community around deficit thinking about the potential for so many of our young people,” and need a multi-tiered approach. The opportunity gap “doesn’t start with AP,” but with the messages and barriers students received in elementary or middle school.
  • Bergin (45:50): Talked about barriers to accessing plethora of options. “One of those barriers is the summer math class having a fee.” The fee is waived for students who get free and reduced lunch, but there is a gap between students who get free lunch and families who have the expendable income to spend on a summer math class.
  • Engel (47:16): “We need clear and effective communication for students and parents to report bias.” Would be “curious to see data” since the launch of new programs in the district and stressed emphasis on teacher evaluations and accountability.
  • Finnern (48:10): “This has been an issue for years…Why [are there] grand plans talked about every year? We have an evaluation framework in place…there need to be repercussions on that framework.”

Question 6 (50:09): Directed to all – The district’s Intentional Integration Initiative is a good first step to integrating our elementary schools. But in spite of existing access and equity policy classes at our middle and high schools, [they] continue to be largely segregated. What policies would you propose to integrate classrooms in our secondary schools?

  • Winkfield (50:38): AP courses should be offered to every student who wants to take them, regardless of past performance or special status. “Academic segregation will persist as the default…we need a robust policy in grades 6-12 that ensures the intentional and careful placement of students of different abilities.”
  • Malespina (52:29): Kids should all have the same curriculum. “We need to put supports in place” to help students move up and succeed, including supports during the day, since high schoolers do not want to stay after school. Need to make sure the access and equity policies are actually enforced.
  • Finnern (54:12): The Access & Equity document was adopted 3 years ago, but the goals are still not being met. The Integration plan is an opportunity to get it right, but many other aspects of district schools are subpar. “We have to integrate…but then make sure everything else doesn’t fall to pieces, so we can get our act together.”
  • Engel (55:17): Virtual learning has encouraged us to start “thinking creatively and innovating.” There are lots of opportunities via technology to start integrating earlier– even as early as the spring, maybe to test the algorithm before next fall. Can we start to integrate middle schools in 2021, given this year’s circumstances?
  • Bergin (56:50): “The AP data is so devastating,” and the percent of Black students taking APs “has decreased…under the access & equity policy.” She said that the district needs to remove barriers to summer school programs, provide support teachers in AP classes so more students are encouraged to take them, and provide a jitney option for students who live further away so that they can access after-school support.

Audience questions (paraphrased)

Anwesa Paul (1:01:48): How will you improve communication between the administration, the parents, and the teachers, and ensure that proper input is obtained from parents and teachers? 

  • Bergin (1:02:37): The BOE needs to improve trust in the district around the process of decision-making. “It’s a symptom of other problems in our district.”
  • Engel (1:03:39): Decided to run for BOE because of the communication lag. Suggests different communication marketed at parents of kids at different grade levels that would be specific to their concerns.
  • Finnern (1:04:51): “Communicate. It’s not that hard.” If the district is waiting on guidance from the state, or other holdups, it should communicate that with parents. Teachers need to know important updates like virtual learning before parents do.
  • Malespina (1:06:03): “We’re doing amazing things in this district, but we’re not communicating them, and so the story becomes the failures.” Suggested multiple means and languages of communication.

Jocelyn Ryan (1:09:03): Black and special ed students continue to be suspended at much higher rates than other students. What would you do to address the discrepancy?

  • Winkfield (1:09:24): Would call for an immediate moratorium on all out of school suspensions: “We have a crisis on our hands that is directly contributing to the school to prison pipeline.” Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time, and suspensions do not solve problems or “reflect the values that I know this community holds.”
  • Engel (1:13:08): We need a better look at the data to hold administration accountable. Wants to implement an education plan around the code of conduct, and supported Winkfield’s idea about the suspension moratorium.”These are children; we should be looking at restorative justice and mental health.”
  • Bergin (1:14:05): Last year in SOMSD, 2x as many Black students were suspended as white students, even though they make up ⅓ of district. Lots of previous data lacked information on gender, race and IEP status of students.

8-year-old Tuscan student Allie Scherzer (1:15:23): What will you do to make children’s return to school safer?

  • Malespina (1:16:48): Ask parents and students “what they need to feel safe,” including ventilation, PPE, and social distancing.
  • Engel (1:18:57): “We need to start looking at our mental support, and make children opt out instead of opt in.” All children should be talking to social workers. “And soap in the bathrooms!”


  • Winkfield – 1:21:41
  • Malespina – 1:23:30
  • Finnern – 1:25:08
  • Engel – 1:26:24
  • Bergin – 1:27:51

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