UPDATED October 18, 2020, with video of the forum.
The South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMSD) President’s Council and the League of Women Voters (LWV) hosted a virtual forum on Monday, October 12, to give voters an opportunity to hear the ideas of the 2020 candidates vying for seats on the Board of Education.
Candidates each gave a 90-second opening statement in a previously agreed upon order. Questions were then posed by the President’s Council and LWV to all candidates, which they had 90 seconds to answer, and the forum ended with closing statements and the dissemination of voting information.
The forum was moderated by Catherine Kazan, a member of the Wayne League of Women Voters.
The five candidates running for three-year terms are Elissa Malespina, Melanie Finnern, Deborah Engel, Susan Bergin and Courtney Winkfield. Kamal Zubieta is running unopposed for a one-year term; per LWV debate rules, she was not permitted to attend.
A statement was read on Zubieta’s behalf. Zubieta has lived in Maplewood for 16 years, has had three daughters attend SOMSD schools and is currently serving on the BOE. She believes that “all of our children must receive equal importance irrespective of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sex, gender identity, English proficiency, socioeconomic status, disability or other factors. I stand for all children, it would be my honor to continue serving on the board of education.”
Winkfield, who is running jointly with Bergin, lives in South Orange and has two children who attend Jefferson Elementary School. She has had 16 years of experience as an educator in the New York City Department of Education. “My experience as an educator is deeply intertwined with my role as a mom to two kids, because like you, I want my kids to have every opportunity to pursue their passions, and feel confident and excited about learning. And this is what I want for all of our students here…. It’s why I’m running for a seat on our board of education. and it’s the reason I feel so passionately, that through collaboration, we can create opportunity for all of our kids to thrive.”
Malespina has lived in South Orange for 26 years and has spent 20 years in education as a teacher, librarian, technology integrator and supervisor, nine of which were spent as a librarian at Columbia High School and South Orange Middle School. Additionally, her son is currently a senior at CHS and her husband is an SOMSD graduate. “I’ve seen the best and the worst of this district has to offer as an employee, parent and taxpayer. I am running for board of education because I believe we can do a better job of serving the needs of all of our students and families.”
Finnern is a freelance art director, teaches yoga on Baker St. in Maplewood and is the mother of two Clinton Elementary School students. She acknowledged that while her professional background differs from the other candidates, she deems that “what you do for a living does not necessarily correlate to be[ing] a successful board member.” She also believes “our district should be held accountable for providing a consistent achievement-oriented instructional experience for all students across all schools. I believe our students should reflect the diversity of our community and our approaches to serving them should be representative of such.”
Engel is the mother of three elementary school students, community volunteer with the South Orange Village Alliance and a local business owner of Work and Play and the General Store Cooperative. She also describes herself as a “professional communicator” and has 15 years of experience in marketing, to parents in particular. “I believe that the communications coming out of our district needs to be stronger as we continue to navigate through these pandemic times [and] as we look to implement the integration plan. I also believe that I’m someone who can foster innovation in others, and I believe that we need more creativity in our district.”
Bergin is a former healthcare lawyer, worked in legal services at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and was a court appointed special advocate (CASA) in Essex County for youth in foster care. She also has children attending various schools throughout SOMSD, and is responsible for initiatives such as free WiFi in the Seth Boyden neighborhood, 20% more CHS seniors getting to attend prom and the district’s allergy management policy. “After I advocated for the board to enact an allergy management policy, the district invited me to consult on writing the regulations. I got to see firsthand the policy setting role of the board and the implementation role of the district. I’m running to bring my dedication, experience and skill set to the board to have a broader impact.”
Question 1: “The New Jersey School Boards Association code of ethics states, ‘I will carry out my responsibility not to administer the schools, but together with my fellow board members, to see that they are well run.’ What is your vision for a well run school? How will you know whether the district is achieving that vision?
Malespina explained that “the districts that thrive are the ones where Central Office Administration aligns the diverse voices from its building administrators and teaching staff to help shape the curriculum and environment. … It’s incredibly important that central office administration and staff spend more time in our schools so that they can see for themselves the challenges our teachers and students face.” She also said that “well-run schools must actively work to hire and retain a teaching staff that represents its student body.” She presumes “we will be able to see success through improved teacher morale and retention of teachers and administrators, more transparency, better communication and allowing all stakeholders to have a say in major decisions.”
Winkfield believes that “a well-run school must have a combination of high expectations and high support. So this is not just high expectations and high support for our students, which I think most of us should come to expect. But we also have to have high expectations coupled with high support for our educators.” She thinks that success can be checked “through key metrics, like data showing the hopefully decreased rates of suspensions, increased rates of AP enrollment, in particular for Black and Brown students and teacher performance using Danielson indicators over time.”
Engel emphasized good communication as a key pillar for a well-run school. She explained how, “when you have communication breakdowns, as I believe we have right now, school cannot be run efficiently.” She believes “that a well-run school needs to have good communications across all stakeholders. And the way that we will determine whether it is well-run is knowing that these community communications channels are working, and that everybody is working together to create an equitable education for all of our children.”
Question 2: “Given that the first phase of intentional integration initiative is still on track to begin in 2021, what do you believe the next steps are for the district to ensure that students at all levels feel the benefits of being part of an integrated school community?”
Bergin discussed how the integration plan needs to go beyond the numbers and demographic equality and work to create welcoming communities within the schools. “Part of that includes updating the curriculum. … And I think it’s important that this curriculum update be baked into every lesson plan and not something that’s just tacked on at the end.” She also touched on diversifying staff, as “Only 13% of the district teachers are black, and students of color, especially boys do better when they see themselves in the teaching staff.” She also mentioned integration at the middle and high school levels, explaining how “The percentage of black students in AP courses has been decreasing in the last few years, not increasing, and we need to make turning that around a priority.”
Engel brought up the idea of starting the integration process on a more accelerated schedule, because with social distancing, students are not physically in the school buildings. “I would ask our district to start exploring whether or not we can start integration now that we’re in distance learning and our children aren’t tied to any physical buildings.” She would also like to examine methods used to recruit teachers to see if diversity can be better promoted. “We need to start looking at our recruitment efforts for diverse teaching staff, because I do think that our teaching staff should mirror the demographics of our students and kids do need people to look up to.”
Finnern stressed that she does not believe “the work of equity ends once we integrate the schools.” She emphasized that “We have one shot to make sure this integration plan uses the equitable allocation of resources to lift off students versus what we fear what may happen, which is just gonna be something that looks good on paper, but [is] not actually going to [become] reality. When we embark on this initiative in the fall, we see it through. That means making sure children are receiving quality instruction, taught by exceptional teachers. We have to support our staff, communicate with them and provide them the resources they need to be successful educators.”
Question 3: “Prior to this run for Board of Education, in what ways have you been involved in our school district?”
Bergin “started volunteering almost 10 years ago at the school level in our schools.” She volunteered in the lunchrooms and libraries at Marshall and Jefferson Elementary Schools, was a class parent, served as parent representative to Marshall and Jefferson’s school safety committees and organized the Marshall parent volunteers in their cafeteria. “I saw kids getting turned away in the lunch line for lack of funds, and being given warm milk and crackers in lieu of a real lunch. So I worked with the school and the PTA to create an account at Marshall for every student to receive a school lunch. And later, I worked with The Parenting Center to do that district wide.” She later went on to establish the Cougar Cares program and the senior funds at CHS, consulted with the district on an allergy policy and helped Maplewood provide free WiFi to its students.
Malespina has been a volunteer in SOMSD for 13 years. She was a class parent while her son was in preschool and then returned to CHS as a librarian, where she spoke out about a variety of issues, facing backlash from administration in the process. “When the district threatened to eliminate librarians at the middle and high school, I led the fight to restore the positions. When the district wasn’t able to stream public education meetings because of structural issues at the board of education, I attended meetings and streamed them for myself for the public to see. When we had issues with safety and security at CHS, I joined the HSA safety committee and helped organize the town hall meeting on the issue.” More recently, she helped organize donations of personal protective equipment (PPE) for district staff and started a petition to ensure that lunch aides and custodians would get paid during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was also “asked to sign on as a plaintiff in the [Black Parents Workshop] lawsuit to force the district’s hand.”
Question 4: “Part of the aftermath of COVID-19 will be budget cuts and changes. What is your experience with large budgets and using that experience? Give us an example of one current service or program we offer that you would consider cutting or one service or program we do not offer that you would add.”
Bergin has a Master’s degree in Public Administration, and has taken graduate level courses in budgeting and finance before. She would like to have a Jitney run between the Hilton neighborhood and CHS in the morning and a few hours after school ends due to the fact that “Our district has an 8.5% chronic absentee rate, and CHS has observed spikes and absences and tardies from this neighborhood tied to inclement weather.” That “would make it possible for students to stay after school to get help, not just to attend school, but to stay to get help, join clubs and teams, be more involved in the school and connected to the school community.” In terms of what to cut, she could not think of anything since the schools are already underfunded, but did note that “we need to use our money very wisely to prevent more spending later.”
Engel is well-versed in managing, writing and following budgets through her experience as a business owner. As a BOE member, she would like to implement additional mental health resources for students. “I strongly would want to see where we can maybe pull resources from our social workers. I’d also like to explore putting our paraprofessionals back on staff and see how we might be able to help them professionally grow into teachers.” As for cuts, she does not see that decision as her sole responsibility and “would instead want to work and collaborate with my other board members to see where we can find room in the budget and where we could use our resources more effectively for the betterment of all of our schools.”
Finnern does not work with large budgets for her job, but does manage her household’s finances. She could not think of what addition should be made because as of right now because “we are bleeding money, and we are spending so much money settling and in lawsuits settling or just being sued period. And we’re also spending so much money on sending kids out of this district. So before I even come up with ways to spend the money, we really need to focus on keeping children in this district and not forcing parents to sue us just to get things done.”
Question 5: “Distance Learning has had mixed reviews in our district. What do you see as the top opportunities created from distance learning? What innovations do you hope the district carries forward when students return to the building?”
Malespina brought up how “Remote learning is easy to personalize, differentiating for students without singling out those who need a little extra help, or those who need more of a challenge. For some students with barriers that keep them from physically being in the classroom, remote instruction can be a great equalizer.” She also explained how technology can be used to enhance lessons. “ If there is a silver lining to come out of this pandemic, it’s that technology acquired and deployed by the district to support remote instruction will help drive further future in person learning.”
Winkfield (52:16) suggested that remote learning presents the opportunity to innovate and strengthen classrooms. One way to go about this is the asynchronous approach of the “flipped classroom” model, where the student may watch a mini lesson the night before in order to prepare for the next day’s class. That way, “when they’re in class, they’re not using that valuable time to hear from the teacher, but instead actually using that time to engage in discussion and debate and construct knowledge with their classmates, which is ultimately how our kids internalize, synthesize and ultimately apply what they learn.”
Question 6: “what do you consider to be the best thing about the district right now?”
All candidates praised the district’s teachers, values on diversity and equity, or some combination of both in their responses.
Question 7: “If elected, you will serve a three-year term as a board of education member. In that time, how will you collect feedback to know whether you are serving your community?
Winkfield explained how the district needs to establish intentional methods of collecting feedback from the community. “I’m really grateful for online communities that have popped up that have given families a chance to share their stories and connect with one another. But we need to ensure that all of our families have a regular and systematic way to do this. We also need to get better about regularly gathering feedback from students about their experiences in schools.” She described a method used in New York City called the student perception survey, which allows students to give non evaluative feedback to their teachers, and she would like to take a similar approach in SOMSD.
Engel stated that even though the BOE speaks with a singular voice, she is “just one person.” She herself would monitor district chatter on Facebook, make sure to respond to constituent emails, and continue to hold office hours. She also thinks that more emphasis needs to be placed on listening to the concerns of the community. “I just want to get across as the most important thing I think needs to happen is to listen. … So we need feedback from our teachers, we need feedback from our families, we need feedback from our supervisors. All this is going to inform a better school district.”
Finnern described the conversations she’s been having with teachers, parents, past and current BOE members and students to help shape her platform, and she plans to continue having these types of conversations if elected. “If I am elected to your board, I will acknowledge you. I will acknowledge you as the stakeholder that you are, and you will get a response from me. Even if it’s not with an answer, even if it’s not divulging information that’s not supposed to be divulged, you will be acknowledged because you’re important.”
[Closing Statements— to come with video when it is posted.]