CAMDEN, NJ — Next month, Camden residents will have the opportunity to choose school board members, marking the start of the city's process in returning to a board fully elected by the public.

The historic Nov. 5 election sees nine candidates vying for three seats on the advisory board, which serves alongside the superintendent but does not have any voting or approval power in the state-run district.

Camden has been under full state control since 2013. As a result, each of the individuals elected to the three-year terms will continue to serve only in an advisory capacity during board meetings and other matters.

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But local advocates for a publicly-elected board believe that returning voting power to the residents will bring accountability to the district.

The transition from a Type I to Type II system — a board that is fully elected by residents — will take three years as the terms for the nine current board members expire in groups and go up for election.

Of the candidate field for 2019, two groups of three individuals have aligned into slates: Camden Votes and Education for Everyone. Three other candidates are unaffiliated.

Following the county filing deadline in July, TAPinto Camden sent out a questionnaire to those running to find out more about each candidate.

Here are the responses from the nine candidates, listed in order of their position on the ballot:

THEO SPENCER

Age: 43

Currently: Manager and technology consultant for Accenture.

Background: I am a former member of the Camden City School Board. I was appointed to the board by Mayor Gwen Faison in 2007 and served until 2010. Outside of the time that I spent earning degrees from Howard University (BS - Chemistry in 1999) and Tulane University (MBA - 2006), I have lived in Camden on the same street where I grew up: in the Parkside section of the city. Like most of my family, I am a product of Camden City public schools.

Experience: Professionally, I work as a technology consultant for one of the largest consulting firms in the world. Most of the projects I work on are high visibility projects for Fortune 500 companies. Before working with my current firm, I worked for Bank of America and prior to that, the Wall Street Journal. Also, I briefly taught at Rutgers University–Camden and Camden County College.

Why I Decided to Run: The reason I decided to run for the school board is because no one is talking about taking the district back from state control. The state has had some level of control over Camden schools since 2003 and in several areas, the district has gotten worse. With the district being the largest employer of city residents, control of Camden City schools is crucial to stabilizing the city. Additionally, taking control of the board from the state restores the community's rightful position of providing input on the academic and developmental progress of Camden's children.

Plans if Elected: Thirty years ago when I was a student in the public school system, students were prepared with the basics needed to be a productive citizen. Today, the district is not tuned to make the students productive or self-sufficient. We need a new cohort of school leaders that have the vision to chart a new course for the district, and the credibility and the track record to actually do it. I feel I am one of those leaders and that is why I am a vital candidate to be added to the board. 

 

NYEMAH GILLESPIE 

Ticket: Education for Everyone

Age: 31

Currently: Owner and Director of Dare 2 Dance, LLC in Camden, a dance school catered to those ages 3 to 18 interested in ballet, tap, jazz and hip hop

Background: Born and raised in Camden, I have been dancing since the age of 3. In my senior year, I had the privilege of traveling to Ghana in West Africa to perform for several churches, schools, and community centers. I also developed a relationship with singer-songwriter Jill Scott and performed numerous times for her Blues Babe Foundation. I was awarded the Coca Cola Scholarship for best performance in dance in 2006. I went on to attend Morgan State University in Baltimore, continuing my passion for dance.

Upon returning to Camden, I found there was no place in the city to share my talents. I began giving back through a commitment to Creative Arts High School by organizing and directing a successful alumni benefit concert for the class of 2012. This allowed students to attend the International Association Of Blacks In Dance Conference. I began teaching at summer and fall programs sponsored by the Police Athletic League, and hosting Zumba and fitness at Malandra Hall for the city’s senior citizens to keep them active. I was the coordinator of the award-winning dance line for the Camden High Schools Marching Panthers.

Experience: Dare 2 Dance is very much involved in the community: hosting back to school giveaways, coat drives, hygiene tours for local high schools, and community clean-ups. I also lend time to mentoring young women, feeding the homeless, motivational speaking, and so much more. In June 2019, Dare 2 Dance expanded to Dare 2 Flip, Camden’s first gymnastics academy in the city. 

Why I Decided to Run: I dared to run because I am committed to working with a team that puts students first. As a product of public schools, I know what happens when teachers have the resources they need to see that every student succeeds. As a parent and leader of companies that support the physical, mental, emotional growth, and advancement of our children, I am excited about working with a team that includes the board, superintendent, and community to make the Camden City School District the best in the state.

Plans if Elected: The “Education for Everyone” team has three priorities.

  • All schools rise — We will continue the improvement in education for all our students and support an agenda that brings more accountability and resources to all our schools.
  • Budget — Let’s review the budget and work with the superintendent to ensure all money goes to supporting student success
  • Community involvement — Parents, students, community leaders, grassroots organizations, unions, faith-based institutions, and funders must work together to address academic success, the mental and emotional wellbeing of students, and addressing the systemic issues that prevent students from excelling.

 

FALIO LEBYA-MARTINEZ

Ticket: Education for Everyone

Age: 31

Currently: Business owner and investor

Background: I was raised in the Centerville neighborhood of Camden and have lived in the city all my life. I am a first-generation citizen, coming from a family of successful entrepreneurs. My wife, Anedia, and I have two young boys and a daughter. I graduated from Camden County College in 2010, speaking at commencement and leaving with degrees in law and government and criminal justice. I am also a baseball coach that helped bring back youth baseball to East Camden. 

Why I Decided to Run: As a parent and business owner, I want to participate in the democratic process and do my part to see that every student gets the same great education that I did as a child. Our team will work tirelessly to support all of our students’ academic success.

Plans if Elected: The “Education for Everyone” team has three priorities.

  • All schools rise — We will continue the improvement in education for all our students and support an agenda that brings more accountability and resources to all our schools.
  • Budget — Let’s review the budget and work with the superintendent to ensure all money goes to supporting student success
  • Community involvement — Parents, students, community leaders, grassroots organizations, unions, faith-based institutions, and funders must work together to address academic success, the mental and emotional wellbeing of students, and addressing the systemic issues that prevent students from excelling.

 

TROY STILL 

Ticket: Education for Everyone

Age: 32

Currently: Dean of School Culture for Mastery High School of Camden

Background: I was born and raised in the East Camden section of the city and attended Camden City public schools. I now reside in the Parkside neighborhood with my wife, Quiana Still, and our three children ages 12, 10, and 4. I have assisted in, organized, and directed the following local organizations: Cathedral Kitchen, BOSS Mentoring, DaeLIGHT Foundation, Camden City Youth Football, and the Rutgers Athletic Association. I have also worked in Camden City public schools as a coach for the Woodrow Wilson High School football team, and was a team lead/behavioral specialist for the Camelot Program.

Experience: I am an expert on the ins and outs of classroom management, developing meaningful relationships with students and working with parents. I am also very familiar with the protocols and systems of the athletic departments.  

Why I Decided to Run: All my adult life, I have cared about the happiness of Camden’s youth. No matter what school they go to, students must have strong support to ensure their success. I will use my knowledge as an educator to work with the superintendent and my fellow board members to ensure that we put students first. I feel that I can contribute a great deal to the Camden City School District advisory board in the field of providing direct services to students through building a positive and proactive school climate. 

Plans if Elected: The “Education for Everyone” team has three priorities.

  • All schools rise — We will continue the improvement in education for all our students and support an agenda that brings more accountability and resources to all our schools.
  • Budget — Let’s review the budget and work with the superintendent to ensure all money goes to supporting student success
  • Community involvement — Parents, students, community leaders, grassroots organizations, unions, faith-based institutions, and funders must work together to address academic success, the mental and emotional wellbeing of students, and addressing the systemic issues that prevent students from excelling.

 

ANGEL M. CORDERO

Ticket: Advocate for all

Age: 58

Currently: Parent and community advocate

Background: I’ve lived in Camden for more than 50 years, having attended Camden public schools. I have experienced the destruction of children first hand as a student and parent. I have been an advocate for parents and children in Camden public schools for more than 20 years, and I have seen it all.

Experience: As a community activist and a parent advocate, I've helped many people and changed their lives for the better.

Why I Decided to Run: With the knowledge and experience I possess, I will be a very effective board member. 

Plans if Elected: My goal is very simple: to properly prepare our children for their future. Our children need the proper tools to be well educated. They need more positive outcomes and positive role models in their lives for their future. Making our children the first priority will go a long way to understanding their needs. Children have a voice, and we need to start reminding them how important they are to us and the future. Ultimately, I will fight to restore full power to the Camden Board of Education.

 

TYANN LA'SHAE WALL

Ticket: Camden Votes

Age: 25

Currently: President and CEO of grassroots nonprofit organization Cultivating Camden. The organization conducts college readiness and career exploration seminars for Camden high school students

Background: Upon graduating from high school, I attended college in Baltimore. As my single-parent mother worked overtime to afford my out-of-state tuition, I worked hard in the classroom, which led to earning a spot on the Dean’s List. As proud as that moment felt, my bliss was diverted the moment I was made aware that the nursing program in which I was enrolled lacked accreditation. The unfortunate shortcoming was partially due to ineffective guidance from my high school advisers.

Experience: With Cultivating Camden, our seminars prepare students for life after high school, equipping them with a variety of vital tools varying from the admission process, goal-setting and time management, to internships, entrepreneurship and ownership. Our organization works to ensure that students are prepared to effectively and efficiently transition into their next phase of life. My job is to preclude students of the disappointment of having to return home from college, due to the lack of knowledge about general college practices and programs, as I did. Our education system must equip our students to perform, as well as compete throughout the world.

Why I Decided to Run: As a community leader and former student of Camden City public schools, I feel that it is my duty to ensure that our district is responsive to the values, beliefs, and priorities of our community. I have the experience and the capacity to tackle our school district’s challenges. My skills of leadership, consensus building, strategic planning, budget balancing, articulation, and more validate my ability to succeed in assuring that every Camden City school student receives a quality education. Thus, as a school board member, I will be the qualified representation that our community demands and deserves.

Plans if Elected: Becoming a board member will allow me to further serve and contribute to the educational experience of our youth, which will ultimately impact Camden City in a positive way. With integrity, I will work collectively with my fellow board members and our superintendent to set levels of proficiency, strengthen parent and community commitment to education, create and curate curriculum tailored toward student needs, secure school funding and resources, deconstruct the school-to-prison-pipeline, remain in compliance, and return our district to local control.

 

ELTON CUSTIS

Ticket: Camden Votes

Age: 37

Currently: Mental Health Specialist and Drug and Alcohol Counselor with Jefferson Health System

Background: I grew up in Camden City and attended public schools throughout my childhood. In 2001, I graduated at the top of my class from Camden High School. I have been employed with Jefferson for nine years and have worked in the field of behavioral health for 14 years.

Experience: One lesson I have learned upon many others while working at Jefferson is that change happens after you take the first leap of faith. I’m a self-motivated person who doesn’t need people to light my fire to get things done for my community. Leadership is a quality that many don’t possess but it’s one of my top strengths.

I am involved in many community organizations locally and nationally. I am a proud member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. Zeta Rho Sigma Camden Chapter, where I serve as the first vice president, and of Daelight Foundation, where I serve as the second vice president for suicide and prevention awareness, as well as an advisor to our Sigma Beta male mentoring organization for young men all over Camden County.

Why I Decided to Run: Education is very important to me. There was a period in time where our ancestors were unable to obtain an education, so to be here fighting for what type of education our children receive is an honor. 

Plans if Elected: I envision all of our Camden City students succeeding no matter if they choose a district or charter school. Education should be equal in quality and equally distributed throughout our schools. Those who are making the decisions for our youth should be held accountable for the mistreatment of our students’ education.

 

JE´NELL MCRAE

Ticket: Camden Votes

Age: 38

Currently: Teacher at Camden County Technical Schools - Gloucester campus

Background: I am a lifelong resident of Camden and attended the city public schools. After getting degrees from North Carolina A&T State University and Kean University, I returned to the city to teach at my alma mater, Camden High School. For more than a decade, I had the opportunity to teach graphic communications. During this time, I was fortunate to provide financial support with the partnerships of many community entities for many students in their post-secondary endeavors.

Experience: Being the child of a retired educator and active in the community all of my life, I have been involved in many programs that help build unity, including Camden Harvest Fest, Power of the Princess Project, the Miss Hatch and Miss McGraw Pageants, and many others.

Why I Decided to Run: Attending board meetings since a young age, I’ve watched the transition and the demise of community engagement with the decisions made in education. I found it is time to make a change for the sake of the city’s youth.

Plans if Elected: As a board member, I will focus on bilingual support for the overall success of our students, fairness in all schools, and financial accountability with all of our partners.

 

AARON COOPER

Age: 42

Currently: Firefighter in Camden

Background: Attended city schools from H.B. Wilson Elementary to Morgan Village Middle to Camden High School. Both of my parents were educators in the Camden school system growing up; my mother retired from Cooper's Poynt Family School and my father retired from Bonsall Family School. 

Experience: Started out as a volunteer and mentor in the Paterson school system, then worked as a substitute teacher in Camden City schools after graduating from William Paterson with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. I have worked as a mentor, juvenile detention officer, life skills counselor, case manager for foster care, and life skills coordinator. I have worked with families and young people since I was 20 years old.

Why I Decided to Run: As a product of Camden district schools, a child of educators, and a lifelong resident, I have witnessed the gradual decline in the public school system in our city and truly believe that we deserve better than what has taken place. Transitioning from what was to what is within the school system has been a long road that has typically excluded the voice of residents in the early stages of any discussions. It also has not been a process where transparency has been at the forefront.

Plans if Elected: I will work with students, parents, educators, and community groups alike to ensure that the voice of the community is represented in every discussion and that transparency is provided early and often. I will work to represent the whole of the community as opposed to a select few interest groups or individual collectives, which has been a major issue within our city. I will work to bring back accountability within the school board, as there should be someone whom residents know representing them, and who they can turn to that will be fair and acknowledge and address missteps and hard truths on all sides.

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