PLAINFIELD, NJ - Those running for a seat on Plainfield's Board of Education answered questions in the third and final Candidates Forum prior to the election that was held by the League of Women Voters at Emerson Community School on Wednesday evening.
This was the only forum with all of the candidates in attendance: William "Tony" Contreras, Cameron Cox, Terence Johnson, Tera Phipps, Timothy A. Priano, Dr. Avania Richardson-Miller, and Harry M. Watson, Jr.The candidates were given the opportunity to introduce themselves; their biographies are available on the League's website. Moderator Marlene Sincaglia then moved on to questions from the audience.
What is the most important job of a Board of Education member?
Contreras said there must be good management oversight by a Board member, and it must be someone who can give both good and bad news.
Cox responded, saying it's necessary to become properly educated with respect to the rules and regulations on policy in the state of New Jersey. "The job of the board is to create, evaluate and update the policies."
Johnson added that it's the job of a Board of Ed member to set policy to give students in Plainfield the opportunity to compete for jobs upon graduation.
Both Phipps and Richardson-Miller said it is to hold the Superintendent accountable, while Priano said it is the job of the Board to search for the best person for the Superintendent position who can relate to the residents, understand the good and the bad in the school district, oversee all financials, and involve the community.
Watson added that there should be policy evaluation to make sure the district is in compliance with the state's regulations, and to be fiscally responsible.
How do you plan to improve graduation rates while at the same time reduce the budget?
Watson answered first, saying he plans to provide students with the opportunity to broaden horizons in and out of classrooms.
Richardson-Miller said she would aim to hold the Superintendent accountable to make sure the budget is aligned with district goals for student achievement, and to make sure the Superintendent seeks out ways to find shared services and strategic partnerships.
Priano noted last year's budget was $193 million, and said there could be a $5-10 million deficit this year. He would look at the budget line by line to find savings and reduce redundancies.
Phipps said that improving graduation rates for the roughly 1,600 students in the high school should start with relationships, and providing alternatives to those who can't or don't want to go to college.
Johnson noted he would try to take the holistic approach because, he explained, sometimes a student might have problems in the home; sometimes a child just needs someone to tell them they care.
Contreras said there needs to be a tactical plan short-term, and a strategic plan long-term with respect to the budget.
What one recommendation would you make to close the $8MM deficit?
Priano said the public has yet to know where the cuts were made, saying that as citizens, we have to be more involved as to where tax dollars are going. He added that he learned this week at a budget meeting they are projecting a $5 to $10 million deficit for this year, and said there needs to be a plan implemented. He continued, saying contract dollars are being spent on buildings that have no use. "We are in the blind for all finances right now."
Contreras said there is a lack of fiscal oversight. Laying off teachers to meet the budget, and then bringing them back is a game of musical chairs that should stop, he remarked.
Richardson-Miller said she would go through the budget line by line, and look for opportunities to generate alternative revenues, like partnerships with corporations and shared services. She said a review of the money being spent to send kids out of district for special services should be done to see how we can pull that money back into Plainfield.
Phipps said one option is to completely start over, while Watson said, "we are wasting too much money on six figure salaries when you're taking it out of the students."
Will the community have input into who you hire as Superintendent? Will there be a panel convened to get community feedback? And what qualities are you looking for in a Superintendent?
All of the candidates said they would want input from the community.
Phipps noted the district has a current Acting Superintendent who came from an elementary school but she would want one with more years of experience who has worked with a similar district, someone who could think out of the box, is willing to work with the community, and who has a a clear vision.
Priano said, "we need to have a Superintendent that understands the makeup of the city, and the different values they have."
Cox added he would convene a panel of multiple stakeholders, from non-profits, the community agency sector, and the PEA. At the least, he continued, minimal experience with English as a Second Language experience in selecting a Superintendent would be a priority.
Richardson-Miller said it could make sense to have a community forum, and to allow people to observe interviews. She added the district needs a Superintendent with a proven track record, someone culturally competent who understands the diverse backgrounds that make up the Plainfield district to be sensitive to students' needs.
How would you deal with students enrolling in school who do not speak English as a primary language?
Johnson said he would get students a translator, and would hope that parents would sign up for the ESL classes that the district offers.
Richardson-Miller said she would make sure the student is enrolled with proper ESL support, and would consider opportunities for the district to leverage technology like Rosetta Stone. She said goals would be established, making reference to the large transient population in Plainfield.
Contreras said the biggest problem is that when kids get home, they don't have anyone to help them with their homework. There needs to be a program where the student can call in to get help. He added that as far as the parents getting help with ESL, "Good luck. An adult learning English is almost impossible, so don't hold your breath."
At the end of your three-year term, what do you want to have accomplished?
All of the candidates said they would want to see the same Superintendent in place, and higher student graduation rates.
Contreras said he would want to see people moving to Plainfield to take advantage of the school district, instead of just having empty nesters who want a beautiful home.
Priano said he would want to see all charter schools shut down in the district.
In closing remarks, the candidates thanked the public for attending and the LWV for sponsoring the event, and reminded everyone to vote on Nov. 7th.
Cox referenced a derogatory flier that had been left on cars after the PEA forum in his remarks. Those same fliers that were paid for by "Concerned Citizens of Plainfield" were also left on cars last night.
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