PATERSON, NJ- Five of the nine candidates running for seats on the Paterson Board of Education appeared before voters in a debate on Thursday. The event, hosted by the Paterson NAACP, was held at St. Luke’s Baptist Church.
Given just three minutes to make an opening statement, participating candidates shared their experience and their thoughts on the future of Paterson’s schools. The candidates then took questions from panelists, followed by questions directly from the audience.
While questions ranged from parental involvement to classroom size, much of the evening’s conversation focused on the issue of the Paterson Board of Education gaining back local control. Under legislation enacted in 1987, the State of New Jersey took over operations of Paterson’s schools in 1991.
Marcella Simadiris, posed a question to the candidates Thursday night, and afterward wrote a status on her Facebook page with her thoughts about the answers she received. Sharing her hope that the successful candidates will prove their dedication to the board and gain the trust of Paterson’s parents she wrote, “I want them to demonstrate that they are willing to do whatever work they need to do in acquiring the skills needed to achieve resolve for our students.”
Simadiris, a Paterson teacher, expressed that she has high expectations for the candidates.
Admitting that he’s “no expert,” first-time candidate Sebastian Mejia said that by allowing decisions to be made in the district, the Board of Education would better reflect the community at large. The education system, he added, can help overcome “political turmoil in the city and district.” Although costly, Mejia advocated for the importance of offering students the opportunity to visit both Ivy League and trade schools giving them chances to “pursue more connections to a pathway of success.”
Kenneth Simmons, seeking election to the position he held previously, suggested that if they can fix the school system they can fix the city. Saying that while he was in office the “school board was at its best,” Simmons stressed that gaining back local control meant that the ability to blame Trenton would be gone and that “the community has to be engaged if we plan to move forward.”
Simmons also hopes to continue improving the graduation rate which has already increased from fifty percent in 2010 to 78 percent in 2017.
Asked what he would do to get parents more involved in their children’s academics Simmons referred to his own children saying that his “sons and daughters are watching everything I do.” Because parents are directly affected by various board decisions that relate to issues such as taxes “the community must be involved,” he said.
“We need to take the leadership in order to progress,” stated Chrystal Cleaves, the board’s current vice president. Parents have to “stay engaged” and continue the “positive thinking” in order to make sure that every Paterson student gets the education they deserve, she added.
Agreeing that teachers should be teaching children how to achieve personal success, not how to take a test, Cleaves offered her view that “we need to teach our students reality so they can become learners of real life.”
Lamenting that important decisions about the course of Paterson’s schools are being made by people that have no connection to the community, Dr. Jonathan Hodges, the longest current serving member on the board proclaimed, “we really need to have local control to develop our school system.”
Speaking after the debate, Hodges expressed his wish that they had more time to discuss important issues as “during the two hours, we barely touched the subject of funding, which will dictate what happens in the future."
First-time candidate Andres Scott spoke about the school’s Gifted and Talented Program saying that while “this is the finest program, not all of the bright students are a part of it.” Scott hopes that by gaining local control, the school board can do more outreach and fundraising to get students to realize their potential. “Let them sing, dance, and express themselves. They are truly gifted and talented, and not just regarding their test scores” exclaimed Scott.
“We need to look and move forward in order to attain better results and encourage one another,” Scott concluded.
A second debate will be held at John F. Kennedy High School on Monday. That debate will begin at 6:00 p.m.
Voters will go to the polls on November 7 and have the ability to vote for up to three candidates for a three-year term on the Board of Education.
Editor's Note: In a previous version of this story Marcella Simadiris was mischaracterized as a Paterson resident and voter.