LIVINGSTON, NJ — Thousands of viewers took advantage of an online forum that featured two out of four Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) candidates last week through a live Q&A-format discussion that was broadcast on the Livingston BOE Online Forums Facebook page as well as other outlets. After ironing out some details that initially discouraged the opposing candidates from participating in the first forum, all four candidates are currently scheduled to appear in a follow-up session on Oct. 21.
In addition to answering questions submitted prior to the forum, incumbents Pamela Chirls (current LBOE president) and Ronnie Konner also fielded questions from the live audience watching the forum at home.
Some of the topics of interest included how the community can work together to improve the current state Livingston Public Schools; the selection of a new superintendent; support for not only academics, but also social and emotional learning; encouraging an overall healthy lifestyle for students; issues surrounding special education; implementing more hands-on learning opportunities; and more.
“I am a strong advocate for what is best for the intellectual and emotional development of our students, and I actively work toward this goal,” Chirls said as part of her opening remarks. “As a current board of education member, I know it is my responsibility to represent you and all of your children. Essentially, every day is a re-elect day for me. I must always check in with myself and make decisions in the best interest of our children, and I would be honored to do it again.”
In her own opening remarks, Konner recognized the importance of having open communication with all residents, and “not just those who share [her] views.”
The Livingston LBOE Online Forums were organized, produced and moderated by active Livingston residents Mike Ramer (organizer), chair of the Livingston Vision 20/20 education sub-committee; Robert Allen (producer) of New Media Connection; and Andrew Miller (moderator of last week’s forum), a local marketing professional and in-town volunteer.
Originally proposed to them in September with a short deadline to confirm participation, the event posed some concern for candidates Todd Goren and Rachel Selvin.
“We were immediately concerned because the sponsor, Mike Ramer, hosted a campaign event for [Chirls and Konner], so it just seemed like an odd person to attempt to be sponsoring what’s supposed to be an impartial forum,” said Goren, who explained that he and Selvin were also concerned that the Livingston Education! Facebook group was listed as the original sponsor of the online forum, and that they did not consider Miller to be an impartial moderator.
“The superintendent actually made a statement at a September board meeting that board members shouldn’t contribute to [the Facebook group]. So, given the concern about impartiality and the concern about the sponsor of the event, we told them we would like to see some changes if we’re going to participate.”
The running mates further explained that the organizers were not initially willing to address these concerns directly, and so Goren and Selvin “had to respectfully decline” and allow the forum to continue without them.
Although the organizers approached them again as the event drew near and agreed to address some of their concerns, Goren explained that he had already committed to a work obligation on the day of the forum, and that it would take some time to work through the issues. Goren added that he and Selvin hoped they would agree to postpone the event, but their request was denied.
“That answer was somewhat problematic for us and confirmed some of our concerns, but we still saw the value in doing something, so we have continued to speak with them about changes,” said Goren. “We have finally agreed on an impartial co-moderator who will do it with Andrew Miller. With [the second moderator] and with their agreement that it’s not associated with Livingston Education!, we are mostly agreed on terms to go forward on the 21st.”
The co-moderator selected and approved for the Oct. 21 forum is Livingston parent Neeli Margolis.
"We appreciate that the candidates for Livingston Board of Education see the value of the online forums as a beneficial way to communicate their messages and answer questions for Livingston voters,” said Ramer. "It has always been our intention to conduct the forums in a professional, fair, and balanced manner."
Chirls acknowledged these issues during the forum, stating that “there has been some discussion about the authenticity of this platform to reach our constituents.”
“I embrace it as a new opportunity to use technology for productive discussion around issues of importance to you from the comfort of your own homes,” she said.
Many of the residents signed on during the public forum agreed, commenting live on the Facebook group throughout the discussion.
Resident Debbie Burack, a candidate for township council, said, “My children don’t attend Livingston Public schools, but I can see why we are ranked so high: a tremendous amount of dedication.”
“Intelligent discussions,” another resident said. “We are so lucky to have these BOE representatives.”
Due to the number of questions received both before and during the forum, organizers recorded all un-answered questions for all four candidates to answer during future forums and other avenues.
There are currently two board of education seats that are up for election on Nov. 6 to serve three-year terms. The next Livingston BOE Online Forum will be held on Oct. 21 from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Those without a Facebook can watch online through this external link.
In an effort to reaffirm that these events are considered “forums” rather than “debates,” Ramer read the Webster’s Dictionary of forum as “a medium, such as a newspaper or online service, of open discussion or expression of ideas.”
Click HERE to view the full video from the first online forum.