Newark school board candidates’ forum becomes opportunity for discussion on student dissent

Ronald Chaluisan Batlle, executive director of Newark Trust for Education and host of a Newark school board candidates night (at center) speaks with a group of protesters who disrupted the event.
Ronald Chaluisan Batlle, executive director of Newark Trust for Education and host of the candidate's forum.
A capacity crowd turned out to hear 13 Newark school board candidates at the Newark Trust for Education forum at Newark Express in the newly refurbished Hahne & Co. building.

A Newark school board candidates forum hosted by the Newark Trust for Education turned chaotic Wednesday when a group of protesters disrupted the discussion midway through to register their displeasure with charter schools and the district’s universal enrollment system.

Blowing whistles and carrying signs, the group of about two dozen activists marched into Express Newark in the Hahne & Co. building, where the forum was held, and halted the discussion among 13 of the 14 candidates for about 10 minutes.

With Rutgers University police officers standing behind them, the protesters chanted slogans like “this is what democracy looks like,” in an effort to rile up the standing-room only crowd.

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But the tension was quickly deescalated by Ronald Chaluisan Batlle, executive director of Newark Trust for Education and host of the event, who allowed the students to protest before restarting the forum and parlaying the students’ concerns into a discussion among the candidates over how best to give students a voice in the system. 

The group of young people “made a decision to engage in civil protest, a real option available to them,” Chaluisan Batlle told TAPintoNewark. “I ask that they consider that the choice they made historically has been used when groups have exhausted other options and their voices continue to be ignored.”

“In the future, the Trust invites the young people to reach out to us prior to an action to determine if there are options that exist that allow the young people to be part of the formal conversation and not force them to be perceived of as on the outside,” said Chaluisan Batlle, who recently joined the Trust, a non-profit organization that seeks to bring the disparate voices in Newark’s educational landscape together.

Each of the 13 candidates present were asked to engage on five issues facing Newark’s sixty-seven public schools and present each of their viewpoints.

The issues included: participation of community and parents, fiduciary responsibilities, effective educational policy, effective curriculum programs and the balance between autonomy and accountability. 

Candidates were allowed ninety seconds to provide a response to each question, the order of speakers decided at random. 

The fourteen candidates are competing for just three open seats on the school advisory board.

Deborah Terrell touted her longterm experience as both an educator and a student in the Newark public school system as a qualifying trait. 

“I’ve sat in every seat there is to have,” Terrell said in response to a question about long-term vision. 

“We need to reengineer our school system, because it’s really not a school system. Right now it’s a cluster of schools. We have charter schools, we have community schools, we have magnet schools, but is there a system that all of our children in this city can be educated in to the best of their ability? Right now it’s not there,” added Terrell.

Charles Love spoke to the necessity of preparing students for post high school and keeping them out of trouble.

“There are too many students graduating Newark public schools going to college, taking remedial classes in math or reading,” Love stated. “There are too many students trapped into a permanent prison pipeline. And there are also too many of our babies being killed everyday.”

“I’m running because I understand the seriousness of this matter,” Love added.

Denise Cole of the Community Team, which also includes Ryan Talmadge and Philip Seelinger Jr., advocated for district schools in contrast to charters, herself a proud alumni of Newark’s public education system. 

In that capacity, Cole vowed to dismantle the universal enrollment center, restore to public schools social workers and counselors for the benefit of students with special needs, as well as re-implement English-language learning services to all schools.

“My longterm vision is for every student to graduate with a post-graduation plan. From early childhood to high school. From acceptance into college to vocational training,” Cole told the audience.

Ryan Talmadge referred to himself as “the son, the nephew and the cousin of public school educators,” in a plea of support for public schools. 

“I believe in well rounded education. That means taking kids places inside and outside their community, teaching them disciplines inside and outside of their classroom and giving them diverse athletic opportunities,” Talmadge said. 

He added that it is vital to “teach kids how to conduct themselves in a job interview and get them set for a 21st century career.” 

Rounding out the Community Team, Philip Seelinger, Jr. voiced his strong opposition to the Newark One program, which facilitates charter schools in the city, and vowed to dismantle it.

“Every child deserves an education that is the same for everyone. I am proud of being in Newark,” Seelinger said, highlighting the importance of retaining local control of the school district.

In this one aspect, the public school and charter school advocates all seemed to agree, as Josephine Garcia of the Newark Unity Slate, in her vision for Newark schools stated that “local control is not just about getting local control, but about maintaining local control.”

Garcia, the mother of three charter school students vowed that if elected, she “will work with the people who put me in office,” and “make sure the superintendent is accountable.”

Garcia’s running mate, Flohisha Johnson, herself the mother of two charter school students, called for community engagement and parent involvement. 

“Without parent involvement and parent engagement, the school advisory board is nothing. We need that,” Johnson said. “We need the voice of the community.” 

Reginald Bledsoe, also of the Newark Unity Slate, noted the importance of vocational training as well as traditional education stating that “we have to make sure all of our students are college and/or career ready.”

Bledsoe noted that the careers of firefighter or police officer are readily available in Newark, adding that with “$1 billion of construction happening in Newark, we should be training our students to be engineers, plumbers and carpenters.” 

Jameel Ibrahim, running alongside his wife Ezdehar Abuhatab, pointed to his “well rounded experience” in the military, as a teacher, as a juvenile detention officer and as a Newark Affirmative Action officer. 

Ibrahim further noted his experience as a property owner, landlord and budget manager at the HOPE institute as a show of his financial expertise. 

“There are ten floors of employees, wall to wall,” Ibrahim stated, speaking to the bureaucracy of public education “and probably most of them have never been in the school system.” 

“I want to eliminate the unnecessary contracts that put salaries in peoples’ pockets,” but don’t necessarily help the students, added Ibrahim.

Ezdehar Abuhatab outlined a grand vision for the school district, saying “I hope that Newark district schools become the national model for improvement and excellence.” 

In reaching that goal, Abuhatab said, she would “diffuse the negative branding that the district schools have and that the city of Newark has.”

“Families and relatives will be competing to live in Newark because our schools are stellar schools,” Abuhatab added. 

Swapan Basu, a veteran of the Paterson public school district as well as founder of the non-profit Rhyming Poets International, explained his deep understanding of the problems public schools face. 

“I have seen the pitfalls of our education. Why the students are not thriving, why the students are not achieving, and I have a solution for that,” Basu said. “We have to improve student performance. To do that, we need to hire and retain qualified teachers.”

Community advocate Sheila Montague called for a public school system that enables “students to receive a multi-faceted education that each child deserves.”

“As a career educator and lifelong learner I am committed to ensuring that all Newark students receive an excellent education regardless of any socioeconomic, mental, emotional or language barriers, physical challenges,” Montague stated. “There are no barriers.” 

Patricia Bradford, herself a graduate of Newark public schools and someone who has held several different positions within the city of Newark declared that she “unequivocally supports the public school system.” 

Further, she noted, charter and magnet schools via the Newark One program have decreased the attendance rates of students, as they have been forced into schools far from their own neighborhoods. 

“I’d like to see our children go to school around the corner from where they live,” Bradford stated to applause from much of the audience. 

Absent from the forum was Jimmie White, a Newark public school graduate who describes himself as “a philanthropist, website designer, community and event organizer.” 

The students who disrupted the panel belong to an organization called NJ Communities United. They entered the room with a petition calling for a moratorium on charter schools and to dissolve Newark One. 

Bradley, a sophomore at Science Park High School, noted that himself and his fellow protestors took the action because they were upset that charter school advocates were running for a public school advisory board.

“We shouldn’t be diverting our money into [charter schools], we should be diverting our money into actually helping these children that want and need their education,” he told TAPintoNewark.

NJ Communities United received signatures from seven of the forum participants, starkly pitting half of those running for the school board against the other half. 

According the Paul Karr, Deputy Director of NJ Communities United, the signatories included Patricia Bradford, Denise Cole, Josephine Garcia, Jameel Ibrahim, Sheila Montague, Philip Seelinger Jr. and Charles Love.

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