SOMA Black Parents Workshop held a South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education Candidates Forum at Maplewood Memorial Library on Thursday, October 26.
The event was distinguishable from other candidates forums in that questions came exclusively from South Orange-Maplewood School District students. Columbia High School graduate and former Board of Education student representative Nina Kambili participated, with current CHS students Valerie Trewick, Raina Hackett and Sage Johnson posing questions to the candidates.
The evening was lively, with a back-and-forth style missing in other forums.
At times, the dialogue grew contentious, as with a conversation about budget cuts and the superintendent bonus that grew out of a question on student access to the library. Candidate Avery Julien, a recent graduate of CHS, castigated Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker, in particular, for voting “yes” on the budget that cut library resources as well as approving the former superintendent’s bonus. Robin Johnson Baker, who is Elizabeth Baker’s running mate and a former Board of Education member, replied that serving on the Board involved tough decisions: “There is no pot of gold…. You are going to have to make choices…. Bomb throwing is not going to help us.”
The budget discussion begins at about the 40:00 minute mark on the countdown.
Notably, a couple of times during the forum, the candidates turned the spotlight back around to the student moderators and asked them questions about their experiences in the district.
During an answer to one question, candidate Felisha George made a statement that seemed to sum up the evening well: “It’s important that we have nights like this where students are involved with the process, students are involved in politics, students are involved in what’s happening to them.”
The candidates are: Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker and running mate Robin Johnson Baker, Shannon Cuttle, Felisha George and Avery Julien (running mates), Anthony Mazzocchi, Sheila Shidnia, and incumbent Donna Smith, Click on the names to link to candidate statements that have been submitted to Village Green.
Village Green has transcribed the questions to the best of our ability and provided timestamps (using the countdown number on the bottom right of the video):
The first question was not recorded but appeared to be about students being able to select and change courses after the start of the school year. Elizabeth Baker can be heard answering the question as the video begins.
Other questions are as follows:
1:23 How do you expect a student who is level 3 to move up to level 6, to AP, to Honors? Focus programs over the summer?
1:20 What would you recommend for student activists to have a positive relationship with administration?
1:10:20 How can the Board of Education direct the staff and teachers to encourage black students to do better because we know that low expectations result in [inaudible]?
1:00:21 What is the school district going to do to close the gap between black and white students, taking into account institutional and systemic racism?
50:38 How can the district discipline teachers who make racist comments?
40:00 (approximately) There is a lack of access to teachers, lack of study time, lack of access to the library. Is it possible to renew these resources that were recently taken away from us?
26:00 (approximately) Oftentimes you feel inferior as a student of color in honors classes. How will this board address issues of minority students who are made to feel inferior in these classes?
16:00 (a followup question about students without resources) How do you deal with students not even knowing that they are being discriminated against?
11:15 How can we make sure teachers are getting students college ready?