AUDIO: BOE Candidates Discuss Reopening, Teacher Training, Communication, More With Hilton Neighborhood Association

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The Hilton Neighborhood hosted the final of a series of forums for the 2020 candidates for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on Thursday, October 15. Candidates were asked about how to move forward with in-person/remote learning in the pandemic, the Intentional Integration Initiative, reopening schools to teachers and students, and more.

Moderator Suzanne Ryan prompted candidates to share why they were running for BOE, “and what you see as the most important reason for doing so.” 

Each of the six candidates read a 2-minute introduction, with the exception of Kamal Zubieta, whose statement was read by HNA member Mary Boehner. Zubieta is an interim member of the BOE, and is running unopposed to complete the remaining year of the term. “With love, care, and opportunity, all children can win,” read her statement. “It would be my honor to continue serving on the Board of Education.”

“I have a track record of making a concrete difference in the lives of students and families,” answered Susan Lewis Bergin. Bergin, who is running on a joint platform with Courtney Winkfield, has worked as a healthcare lawyer and student advocate, and has a long history of volunteering with the district. “My top priority is equity…My volunteer work has centered on plugging the holes so no student is left out. As a Board member, I want to get our district to a place where there aren’t any holes.”

Deborah Engel says she has 15 years of experience in marketing specifically to parents. “I believe our district needs a stronger communication plan,” she stated, outlining that such a plan would include different information directed at parents of elementary school vs high school students. Engel stated that she would also push for mental health support, and that her work fostering innovation in others would make her an asset in the pandemic era of schooling. “Uncertainty can also bring about opportunity.”

“I believe we need fresh perspective, and the ability to think creatively about multi-layer problems,” said Melanie Finnern, a yoga teacher at Baker Street Yoga. She explained that while her background was uncommon, your career doesn’t necessarily correlate your performance as a BOE member. “If I am elected…I will not make huge promises and commitments about all the change I’m going to bring about. I will be there to support this superintendent and the administration in the path forward.”

Elissa Malespina has spent 20 years as an educator, including as a librarian and supervisor of technology at Columbia High School, where her son is now a senior. Malespina, who is a plaintiff in the Black Parents Workshop lawsuit, “believe[s] it is crucial that…the district implements the changes required by the Black Parents Workshop settlement…to foster true integration across our schools and support equity in our classes.” She has seen “the best and the worst this district has to offer,” and believes “we can do a better job of serving the needs of all of our students and their families.

Courtney Winkfield told the audience that in her experiences as a teacher, she “knew that my students needed to feel seen, heard, and supported,” and mentioned her experiences with capacity building as a school principal. She currently designs policies for the Office of Equity and Access in New York City public schools, and creates “opportunities that even just a few years ago were not possible” for some of the city’s 1.1 million students. Winkfield mentioned that in her campaign with Bergin, “we’ve seen you share stories about how you want to create the kind of school cultures that are worthy of our integration plan launching this year.”

All candidates are SOMSD parents.

BOE 2020 candidates: (top l to r) Deborah Engel, Courtney Winkfield, Susan Bergin, (bottom left to right) Elissa Malespina, Melanie Finnern, Kamal Zubieta

QUESTIONS (paraphrased)

Question 1: Originally asked questions to propose a plan and suggested timeline for reopening schools, given the pandemic and different parents’ opinions. However, the HNA had received word of a new communication that was sent to “the SOMSD family from the superintendent” earlier that day. The notice said that staff and students will be returning to classrooms on Nov. 12, and teachers are encouraged to voluntarily return to their classrooms on Oct. 19 to prepare their rooms and perhaps instruct remotely from there. The addendum also added that a “teacher outbreak” had occurred in Washington School of West Orange, forcing the school to close. Additionally, “nothing specific was noted in this memo regarding what has been done” to ensure safe reopening. “There’s a live link to the Board agenda, but when you click on it there is no agenda.”

Revised question: Given all of this information, do you agree with the plan for teachers to return to buildings on Oct. 19? If yes, tell us why; if no, please tell us why not, and what you’d suggest in its place.

Finnern answered first, joking that “I’m gonna need like 90 minutes for this one.” She stated that hearing about the plan was news to her. “Issue number one is that nobody got this communication.” According to Finnern, “the current board that we’ve elected has no idea about this plan…because they opted out in the summer. It was not a state mandate that board of educations had to approve the back-to-school plan.” The SOMSD Board of Ed disagreed on whether to participate in reopening plans. “They actually do not know any of the plans going on with the virtual handbook [or] the back-to-school plans…I think [voters] should know that” the BOE “decided to opt out of such a crucial decision because they didn’t want it on their hands.” She felt “bad for everybody else.”

Winkfield hoped that this communication had gone out to staff, because “educators deserve having this first.” She felt that pre-k to 2nd grade students and those with IEPs or 504s should be prioritized for re-entry, and also mentioned “the unreal stress and strain” that hybrid learning in New York City has put on educators. Who suffers the most are our children…consistency may be what’s most important,” as opposed to trying to get some in-person time as soon as possible.

Engel and Bergin both felt that it was difficult to comment on a plan when they weren’t able to reference it or see any details, such as who would be prioritized, and whether the district had sufficient PPE and classroom space available.

Malespina said: “We need to realize that this is going to be a struggle for educators…they were just starting to feel comfortable [with remote learning], and this was thrown at them.” She proposed bringing elementary schools back first, while keeping middle and high schoolers virtual, since “we’ve seen in this community” that high schoolers are spreading COVID-19. “They’re the problem.”

Several attendees shared in the virtual meeting chat that they were confused on the reopening memo’s origin, or whether it was appropriate that the public had access to it. 

As an attendee of this debate, I am very confused about where this letter originated, to who it was sent and whether this was for public consumption or whether it was for teachers only
,” said Rhea Beck. Jocelyn Ryan responded that the memo was to staff only. “
It is very concerning that we are privy to a letter meant for staff only
,” Beck replied, to which Daniel Gosselink asked, “Who received this memo?  How does anyone at this debate have access to this memo if it was for teachers?

Jocelyn Ryan agreed with Gosselink. “Wildly inappropriate. Hoping /assuming it was shared in error.”

Question 2: How do you plan as a board member to hire, train, and retain teachers and administrators in our district?

Malespina: Mentioned minority recruitment fairs, as well as a program from her time in Parsippany’s school district which recruits high school students to return as teachers. “Doing something like that can really help to recruit and retain our teachers…we have to do more to build a culture of respect in our classrooms so our teachers feel like they want to stay.”

Winkfield: Saw as a principal that “teachers were looking to find a home,” and wanted formative, ongoing feedback beyond evaluations to “grow their craft.” Stated that “we need to do a better job at investing in capacity building for our teachers.” When we talk about retaining teachers of color, we have to invest in anti-bias and racial consciousness training to create “affirming…supportive and nurturing communities” where teachers want to stay. “The Danielson Framework [for Teaching],” which focuses teaching on equity and engagement, “is the bare minimum.”

Finnern: The district’s job is to create an “ecosystem of success” for teachers. “We have to give our teachers the opportunities to succeed and thrive,” and agreed with Winkfield that “a basic checklist is not enough.” There should also be heightened “accountability across all levels,” including repercussions for reports of racist comments or behavior by teachers.

Question 3: Our once-grand buildings are old and crumbling, yet lovely and beautiful. How would you address the issue of the physical infrastructure of the district’s buildings?

Bergin: Her kids thought the school buildings looked like “castles” when their family first moved to SOMA, and the current state of disrepair is “sad.” The capital bond issued last month will take care of basic maintenance issues, and “in the long run, this will save the district money on expenditures.” The district’s plans for work have been submitted to the state, but are still waiting on approval because of the pandemic.

Engel: There needs to be a “maintenance budget line” in our school budget. SOMSD should have a safeguard, with money ready to spend on smaller repairs when they are needed so that costs don’t rack up.

Question 4: Historically, redistricting plans created disruptions and disproportionately impacted the Seth Boyden community. How will you, as a BOE member, protect the Seth Boyden community from bearing an unnecessary burden for attaining integration goals?

Malespina: Middle and high schools also have to be integrated. “It cannot be on the back of the Seth Boyden neighborhood” to integrate schools. Ultimately, the success of the plan “comes down to implementation,” which district has failed on repeatedly in the past. 

Engel: Protection comes down to the execution of the integration plan and communication. “No news is not good news.” Wants to learn more about the algorithm and data behind the plan “to ensure schools are being integrated in a good way.” Proposed establishing inter-school virtual learning cohorts “while we are not tied to physical school buildings.”

Bergin: “Lots of families are mourning the loss of SB as a majority Black school.” The integration plan is intended to benefit all elementary schools. “While [the algorithm] might work out to achieve demographic parity across our schools, a lot more work is gonna need to be done…things like updating the curriculum to make it culturally responsive, increasing the diversity of the staff.”

Question 5: In your opinion, what specifically is necessary to lessen the achievement gap? How will you monitor/measure success, and finally, how will you communicate progress to the community?

Bergin: “The access and equity policy that was passed in 2015…removed the literal gatekeeper for advanced classes, but it didn’t provide any infrastructure or support to make sure a more diverse group of students took advantage.” Recommended removing all financial barriers to participation, in everything from summer math classes to extracurricular activities. “[We should] also provide an IEP teacher in at least one section of all advanced classes.” Many students can’t get the IEP support that they’re legally entitled to in AP classes, which discourages them from enrolling.

Finnern: “An achievement gap in a 12th grade AP class is an issue that originated in elementary school.” Students are not learning the same thing across all the elementary schools, which contributes to the issue. “There’s no scaffolding, so the gap is widening.” Recommended a “consistent curriculum that…exceeds safe standards.”

Winkfield: “Respectfully challeng[ed]” the wording of the question. “Calling it an achievement gap communicates that there is a deficit in the children…[when] our Black and brown students are deprived of the same opportunities as their white counterparts.” Bias affects everyday work in education. “If we don’t take that into account, that gap will persist…and our black and brown students will continue to be deprived of the opportunities they’re entitled to.”

Question 6: There has long been a lack of communication between the Board of Education, district administration, parents and staff. What specifically will you do to correct this lack of communication?

Engel: “I can advise the superintendent in best practices in communicating to parents,” and communicating differently to all stakeholders. Administrative turnover in recent years has eroded community trust, “and you can’t build that trust by not communicating, by not asking for feedback, by not letting that feedback inform your plans.” She hopes Dr. Taylor stays, and that the BOE can inform and listen to his ideas.

Finnern: “It’s a fine line to toe” as a Board of Ed member. “I would be looking for what the community cares about…I think there is a way to communicate all the time without spilling all of the beans.” Also felt that “as stakeholders, [listeners] deserve…an acknowledgement, and I will acknowledge you.” 

Winkfield: Reflected on the communication that was “unfortunate[ly]” shared earlier regarding reopening. “That really undermines the kind of trust that we’re talking about tonight.” The BOE needs to figure out how to have communication go both ways, including collecting stakeholder feedback from the community. “We have to have a systematic way to gather that kind of info from every student in this district.”


Malespina: Will continue to push hard to make the district do better, reflective of her past efforts lobbying the district, building supports at Columbi High School, and joining the Black Parents Workshop lawsuit. “Our district has so much to offer, but it often falls short for too many of our students, and we can do better…to support diverse opinions and points of view.”

Winkfield: Thanked the Hilton Neighborhood Association and the other candidates. “We may not all see the issues the same way, but I have no doubt that we are all bounded by our shared passion and dedication for making this district better,” which makes her “optimistic about what we can achieve together.”

Finnern: “I really am happy that we are all in this for the same reason…[and] that we’re all women who have young children in this district…we have skin in the game.” Emphasized the importance of having board members who are not tied to community advocacy groups.

Bergin: Referenced her past advocacy and policy experiences, and commitment to continue bringing “that level of care and attention” to all children in the South Orange-Maplewood School District if elected. “I’ve been both a partner of and an advocate before the district. An effective board member needs to be both.”

Engel: Shared that “it has been a blessing to live here,” and that she wants “to use my voice to advocate for all of you.” Stressed the importance of her experience in communications, and how it could be applicable on the Board: “I’m used to sifting through lots of information and explaining it to others.”

“We have to have hope,” said moderator Suzanne Ryan in her own closing remarks. Mary Boehner thanked the candidates for participating stating that she “admire[d] your community spirit and willingness to step up to the plate.”


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