HNA Debate: BOE Candidates Discuss Communications, Campaigning, Integration, More

by The Village Green
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The Hilton Neighborhood Association hosted its annual South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education Candidates Forum on Thursday, October 27, 2022. Each candidate had 3 minutes to introduce themselves. Candidates then answered 9 questions and were given 2 minutes each to respond.

All five candidates running for three seats on the BOE participated: Regina EckertNubia WilsonBill GiffordRitu Pancholy and William Meyer.

Eckert, Wilson and Gifford are running on the Students Come First” ticket. Pancholy and Meyer are running on the “Doing Better, Together” ticket.

Candidates answered nine questions over more than two hours. Question topics included the Intentional Integration Initiative, Board Leadership and Functionality, Special Education, Teacher Retention, School Safety and Communication and Campaigning.

Watch the video here.

Below are timestamps and transcriptions for each question.

19:12 Question #1 — Teacher Retention

Last year, the HNA provided state statistics about Staff salaries. Our district was far from being commensurate with our surrounding, comparable districts. It appears that little has changed since then. We also noted our grave concern about low teacher morale and low retention rates. SOMSD continues to be the training ground for new teachers, whereby other districts entice our teachers away by providing higher salaries, better teaching conditions, sound curriculum, and an environment supported by building administrators and central office administration. What concrete plan would you propose to finally change this recurring cycle?

Will Meyer

30:01 Question #2  — Intentional Integration & Busing

HNA lauds and supports the decision for the intentional integration initiative, as our neighborhood is perhaps the most diverse in our two towns. However, we are very concerned about its rollout, lack of communication with the community, and the huge loss of courtesy busing for our district families. The school district announced that this decision would only affect 90 families. We think otherwise. It appears that number is larger, and we believe that the people most affected by this decision are families who can ill afford private transport of their children to school–perhaps the very families who would benefit the most from the integration plan. In your estimation, while already decided upon, was this the best way to tackle this initiative? What is the school board’s obligation to our district families?  What changes, if any, need to be made going forward, and how soon should these changes be made? In hindsight, was there a different plan you would have proposed had you been on the board?

Regina Eckert

42:20 Question #3 — Book Banning

In 2021, the American Library Association reported 729 attempts to censor library resources, targeting 1597 books. On September 19, 2022, PEN America published disturbing statistics: from July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s index of School Book bans listed 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1648 unique titles: 1261 different authors, 290 illustrators, and 18 translators. Angie Thomas’ s The Hate You Give, Jonathan Evison’s  Lawn Boy, Art Seligman’s Maus, and Anne Frank’s Diary are just a few examples. Moms for Liberty have led efforts to ban books in school libraries, and believe that it is about parental choice. Our question: Do parents have the right  to ask to ban books? How would you address an organized effort by local parents to influence which books are adopted by the Board of Education for classroom use, as well as which books are purchased  by the individual librarians/media specialists within each of our school buildings?

Nubia Wilson

54:54 Question #4: Board Leadership & Functionality

There has been much criticism about the leadership of the current Board of Education and the climate that surrounds the working relationships of board members. The current board president is not seeking another term; there will be a new president. Assuming you are elected, who would you specifically support for president and first and Second Vice President positions? Please give detailed reasons why you would support each of them? Additionally, what concrete steps need to be taken to avoid replication of the dysfunction that was displayed.

1:05:37 Question #5 — Special Education

The Special Education families in our district have long reported that their needs are not being adequately met by the district. Recently, several parents spoke at a school board meeting to voice their frustration regarding the current situation. Individual Education Plans are not being followed, inclusion classes are being held without special ed teachers, and communication with administration is inadequate or even nonexistent. These children are suffering and their parents are asking for an answer from the administration.  What specific actions will you take to improve the state of the special ed program in the district? 

Ritu Pancholy

1:16:50 Question #6 — School Safety

School safety is a national concern, and sadly, our local concern mirrors the current national landscape. We try not to think about Sandy Hook, Uvalde, or the very recent Saint Louis High School shooting- but they are real, and we must deal with our worst fears.  With that said, It is disconcerting that SOMSD has had no Schools Safety Director from October 2020 to May 2022, during which time there were many student fights; multiple incidents with trespassers at CHS, and a shooting death of a CHS student that occurred on school district property that was known by students to be an open, unsupervised after hour student meeting place. The student representative to the Board of Education noted that CHS students did not feel safe at school. Do you think the school district has taken student safety sufficiently seriously? Have you done any outreach to students or teachers to discuss safety with them? What do you see as the challenge for the new Safety Director, and what, if anything, would you do as a Board member to improve safety for all K-12 students, teachers, and administrators? 

1:29:48 Question #7 — Board Communication & Candidate Forums/Questionnaires

Part 1: Board of Education communication has forever been a thorny issue: with the Board members themselves, Board communication with school families; Board communication with the greater community; and Board communication with school staff. For example, in the past, the current Board has been unwilling or unable to communicate with the whole community, such as not informing families well in advance that they would be losing school bussing or saying that a survey would be conducted for the Intentional Integration Initiative, but then failing to do the survey. At times, teachers receive information after parents have been informed. Additionally, the Board of Education has not been publishing its committee meeting minutes. Some Board members have reported not being provided with information, such as the transportation cost information, that was shared at a recent Board of School Estimate meeting. How candidates communicate as they campaign matters, and often reflects how they will communicate with each other and the community if elected.  

Part 2: The next question is directed to the two teams as noted on your lovely lawn signs: For Candidate Pancholy and Meyer, noting that HNA is not a 503c , nor a PTA or HSA, can you explain why you declined to appear at a candidate forum hosted by the nearly1,000-member group, SOMA Safe Return to Schools, but you are here with us tonight? For Candidates Wilson, Eckert, and Gifford, are there any groups whose questions you have declined to answer, or candidates’ forums you declined to attend during this campaign? For all candidates, what concrete actions will you take to improve communication between the Board of Education and the diverse community groups, as well as individual community members?

Bill Gifford

1:44:07 Question #8 — District Rebranding

Recently SOMSD hired a consultant in order to “refresh” the district’s brand. As the fee for this expense  is under the financial  threshold, no BOE vote was needed or obtained. A survey is now available online to be completed by students, staff, and the community. The district is grappling with funding for necessary services for our students,  and the board said that they had “no money” this summer to pay teachers what they were owed- and what was promised to them  in terms of retroactive pay. Yet, now the superintendent feels we need a new brand.  In the past, discretionary spending was regularly reviewed by the board even though they did not vote on the issues. This is not occurring presently. What do you see as the BOE’s role in oversight of the Superintendent’s discretionary spending? How would you ensure transparency to the community regarding these expenditures? Do you believe that this rebranding is  an appropriate use of scarce funds? 

1:55:58 Question #9:

What do you see as the most difficult aspect of serving on the Board of Education?

2:06:26 Closing Remarks

Watch the video here.

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