PLAINFIELD, NJ — The non-partisan League of Women Voters moderated a forum at duCret School of Art Wednesday, peppering five of six candidates who are running for three positions on Plainfield's Board of Education with questions. The event was held outside on the front porch, and residents were spaced six feet apart on the expansive lawn.
The Children's First slate includes incumbents Cameron Cox, Terence Johnson (not in attendance), and Jeffrey Truitt. The Aiming Higher Together slate includes Eric Andrews, Jacqui Workman, and Josely Castro.
League President Tony Contreras announced what those in attendance could expect, followed by questioning led by LWV moderator Sandy Matson. In this time of COVID-19 precautionary measures, questions from the community were submitted in advance to the League.
What is your sense of how school board meetings run, and are there any recent board decisions where you would have supported a different decision?
Cox said the board, like many in New Jersey, is "in a bit of a transitional period." He said the pandemic has forced the board to operate in a different space to which they are accustomed. "I think operating in that space than we are used to operating in, collaboratively as a board, has forced us to have to kind of adjust as decisions come before us, whether it be budgetary cuts, whether it be personnel matters due to budgetary cuts, and whether it be the fact that we can't get together and have those true spirited, wholesome conversations," relying heavily on technology.
He added, "As far as supporting decisions, the will of the board is the will of the board. So when five members of the board say that this is the will of the board, that is the decision we go ahead and support."
Andrews said there is a discord among board members, and said part of the challenge is working together to come up with diverse views, and to find the right tone to speak with one another to get agenda items passed.
Andrews said he would have voted differently on the decision to remove Dion Roach as Plainfield High School Principal.
Truitt followed by saying the removal of Roach was "a sound, educational decision," and then added board meetings should follow Roberts Rules of Order. He also commented on textbooks, noting an assertion by Superintendent Dr. Diana Mitchell that there are enough textbooks in the district. As a former teacher, he said that is not the case.
Castro said since she has returned to town three years ago, she has become an advocate for education through non-partisan groups. She said board members get hung up on certain issues that lead to three hour meetings, and noted a lack of a strategic plan.
Castro agreed with Andrews, saying Roach should not have been removed from his position, and called attention to an online petition that has garnered over 2,000 signatures in support of him. "If you look at the history of Plainfield High School principals, in the past ten years, we've had seven. How is that effective leadership?"
Regarding board meetings Workman said, "I feel like there's a lack of respect. There's no communication. And the two sides are very dug in as far as their beliefs and what they're trying to accomplish. There's no negotiation, there's no trying to bring someone over to your side," and there's no talking issues through.
She cited a recent vote that was cast by a board member who was not in attendance as something she would have done differently.
Do you have any personal conflicts of interest, i.e. relatives or vendors that work for the Plainfield Public Schools district that would stop you from participating in decisions being made by the board?
Castro and Andrews said they have none. Workman said she, too, has no conflicts, and added, "I feel that if you do have conflicts of interest that they should be addressed prior to the vote... or the election... that information is very important because it impacts what you can participate in."
Cox said he is a conflicted board member. According to the State of New Jersey Department of Education, his wife is a vice principal, and his brother is a teacher in the district.
Truitt said he has a cousin who is a Supervisor of Special Education. He also agreed if there is a conflict of interest, "we need to be honest about that."
Talk about developing relationships with community stakeholders in the district. Is there more that can be done, is there something you hope to see happen in the future?
Cox said, "In my role this year as board president, I had the fortunate opportunity to serve as the chair of a board during a very unfortunate time. The budgetary crisis, the health pandemic that we've had to endure for our kids, has been like none other anyone has ever seen." As such, he noted, he and other board members have had to cultivate relationships with officials at city, county, state and federal levels, and cited IDEA money that was not only reinstituted but increased.
Castro noted she created a Facebook group for non-English speaking parents who had difficulty getting information and answers from the district. She added she has a technology background, and said the district's website is difficult to navigate, and should be revamped.
Truitt said he, too, created a Facebook group page called Plainfield Educational School Community, that currently has over 2,000 members. He considers that a vehicle for the community to address education issues. He added parental involvement is key.
"The essential part of our platform," Andrews said, "is the idea that it takes a community to raise a village." Outreach to retired educators, learning pods, and alternative methods to teach students should be explored.
Workman said there is a lot of talent in Plainfield. "We can set up mentorships, we can set up apprenticeships, we can set up internships for our kids. These are all things that we have locally that I don't know that we're taking advantage of."
(Watch the League's forum here. Article continues below.)
Talk about the importance of equity in the schools.
Castro said equity closes the gap, and tells every child they are capable and able. "The progressive movement is taking over and a lot of people are finally realizing what systematic racism is, and we are the product of that."
"I find it unacceptable," Truitt said, of putting bilingual students in one building. "I find that something that must not be." He said Plainfield students should have the opportunity to have the same courses students have in towns like Edison, South Plainfield, Westfield, and Scotch Plains. He suggested attending other towns' board meetings to find out what they offer.
Andrews said there is a grave difference between equity and equality, saying, "oftentimes we conflate the two." He added the idea of equity is that people get the resources for equal opportunity.
"Equity comes in many forms," Cox said, adding equity means opportunity. "The problem has long been that we've let rhetoric and noise get in the way of our board of education ensuring equitable opportunities through comprehensive and concise policy making. That's how we get equity for our children."
Workman said to her, equity means fairness, making sure each child has the resources they specifically need.
Teachers have been asking for a seat at the table when it comes to decisions, ideas and problem-solving. Is that appropriate?
The candidates agreed this is important, but varied some in their answers. Cox said teachers have representation through their union, while Andrews said a representative could be included in executive sessions, where appropriate.
The candidates provided bios and responded to questions in advance of the forum. See them here.
- How will you engage with all stakeholders (parents, residents, superintendent, and other board members) in improving public education?
- How will you demand accountability by administrators and the board as a whole?
- Why do you think you'll succeed in making a positive difference in the lives of students where others have failed?
Those running for a position on Plainfield's Board of Education can submit a Candidate Statement, and Candidate supporters can add a Letter to the Editor directly on the TAPinto Plainfield site, up until the Saturday before the election. Click 'submit content' in the upper right corner, and directions should be self-explanatory.
All registered voters in Union County will automatically receive a Vote-by-Mail ballot for the November General Election. Ballots are being sent out in waves; according to www.unioncountyvotes.com, Plainfield ballots have begun mailing as of September 23.
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