PLAINFIELD, NJ — Plainfield residents came out to meet the candidates vying for the three Board of Education seats at The League of Women Voters Forum as they prepare to head to the polls on Tuesday, November 5.

Five of the seven candidates participated in the forum: Independent and current BOE Member Eric J. Andrews, Carmencita Pile, Lynn Anderson-Person and Mack Rice running under the slogan “For Our Children” and Willie Pat Hembree for “Children First”. Candidates Sherrill Cassett-Denny and Paulina Deleon both for “Children First” did not respond to the League’s invitation.

Moderated by Nancy D. Griffeth, candidates were asked three pre-prepared questions from the League followed by written questions submitted by the audience.

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How will you engage with all stakeholders (parents, residents, superintendent, and other board members) in improving public education?

Pile, a 25-year Plainfield resident with three girls in the school system, and a board member for the past three years, said she sought to bring transparency to the residents. Pile described the current process of holding the board meetings in front of the public but not with public involvement. She is hoping the new superintendent will use town halls or listening sessions to engage the public.

Hembree, a retired History teacher with over thirty years in the Plainfield Public Schools district, explained that during her tenure she created a safe environment for her students and is very passionate about her students. She stressed the need for a curriculum revision, stating that one had not been performed in 18 years.

Andrews, a 1999 graduate of the Plainfield Public Schools district and a former educator, is looking forward to working with the new Superintendent, Dr. Diana Mitchell, to develop a vision that is relevant to Plainfield, and speaks to the challenges as well as the resources available. He would hope to take that vision to the community to get input, collaborate and bring resources. “It’s absolutely a collective responsibility,” Andrews stated.

Anderson-Person, a 23-year Plainfield resident, said that creating and implementing a strategic plan with the new superintendent was needed by going out into the community and hearing what they want, allowing the board to chart a course of action.

Rice, an insurance and finance professional, wants to accelerate the rate of success for all students and to be successful, he added, learning should start before age 6 and continue after 16. He stated that it is really about providing smart and strong leadership.  He noted, "If I get this position, I work for you."

Hembree stated that during her canvassing, she's learned that the average person doesn’t understand the role and function of the board. She said the board has to do a better job of communicating with the members of the community.

According to Hembree, "We need to go into their neighborhoods and educate the community to understand the dynamics of education."  She referenced past School Leadership Councils made up mostly of parents.

How will you demand accountability by administrators and the board as a whole?

Andrews believes that having clear policies and procedures enables accountability but gray areas allow people to get away with things. He said there is a need to make expectations clear.

Anderson-Person, Pile and Rice all emphasized that there is one employee, the Superintendent. We need to establish goals and check in regularly and ensure she has the tools to continue the task. Rice added that the Board’s role is one of oversight, and needs to establish guidelines and objectives for the Superintendent to accomplish and ensure compliance. Anderson-Person mentioned that a complete review of the policies is currently being undertaken.

Hembree stated that updated policies were needed and it starts at the top with the board and the superintendent has to evaluate school principals.

Why do you think you’ll succeed in making a positive difference in the lives of students where others have failed?

Anderson said that what motivates her is her daughter. "Every single child is smart, highly intelligent and capable," she added.

Rice stated that education is the key to the success in this country, saying, "I am the great-grandson of share croppers. The first one in my family to graduate college and education was my ticket. I have faith in this system."

Hembree said, "I have taught over 3,500 students over a span of 30 years. I am very passionate about students and their academic success. Passionate, creating an environment for them and doing whatever it takes."

Pile told a story about making a positive impact on a group of children while taking their picture.

Andrews felt his teaching experience had given him a wealth of information, as well as insight that he has been able to share with fellow board members.

The following questions were provided by the audience:

Why do you want to become a board member?

Rice began, stating that New Jersey is rated #1 in education in the country but Plainfield is at the bottom. “We have the opportunity to give our children unlimited opportunities. I am taking a leap to offer my talents and experiences to the district.”

Hembree echoed the slogan, “so Children can be First” and went on to say that reading and math specialists are needed to work with the children, as well as an improved curriculum and vocation education. She said education is a process and the outcome is that the students and all stakeholders have to be involved. “I did not have the resources needed, so it’s not simple,” she stated, and added that teachers are an important part of the process.

Pile said that during her three years on the board she saw the “crap” that goes on, so it was important to continue to serve on the board. She mentioned that there are two agendas, what you see and what happens behind closed doors, contributing to the children continuing to fail.

According to Andrews it was very challenging and a “thankless” job but there is work to be done. He said it’s inspiring when you see a kid succeed, and his passion for education inspires him to continue. Pile later challenged Andrews by saying that it is a “thankful” position to be on the board as people often thank her and appreciate her service.

Anderson-Person agreed that there are dedicated teachers without tools and there is a disconnect between community and what is being generated. “This can be fixed. We have to start with the premise that every child can learn. It’s how we start to envision what can be done.”

Plainfield is ranked #341 in New Jersey, how would you change that? How would you assess the current state of the school district? What role does the board play in increasing the quality of the education?

Hembree asked why Plainfield High School was back in priority status.  She suggested giving the teachers tools, including that smaller class sizes are needed, starting at the pre-school level rather than waiting until high school to achieve academic success.

Pile and Anderson-Person recalled Interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi and the work that he did during his tenure, including an action plan to shore up the foundation for the future permanent superintendent.

Andrews stated that he was uncomfortable with how “success” was being defined, using unfair labels and measurements.  Plainfield has a changing demographic, Andrews acknowledged, saying success may not show up in GPA or SAT scores; he said he is more in favor of “personal enrichment” and if students can earn an income, support their families and have skills to access services available to them.

Rice expressed the need to for the community to stop accepting failure and set higher standards. Identify the problems, he said, looking at what is working and what is not, and evaluating staff.  He said this is necessary and language should not be used as an excuse.

As a school board member, what would you commit to doing to address the 70% failure rate and would you commit to developing a policy to ensure that all 3rd Graders are at reading level?

Pile stated that it all goes back to the superintendent and that person needs to be held accountable. Anderson-Person added that an action plan was set up under the interim superintendent, citing the RTI Program and data showed that there was improvement in the scores.

Andrews mentioned that as a school board member he would keep himself abreast of ideas and opportunities, understand where the deficiencies are with students, and would commit to a comprehensive plan to address the many issues.

Nothing happens without a plan was Rice’s response.  "Goals and resources need to be given to the superintendent that are achievable, and early childhood development has to be a part of the plan."

Hembree stated that the RTI Program is just for elementary students, and there is a need for basic skills at all levels.

What is your vision? Your top 3 priorities for improvement?

Andrews reiterated the need for vocational training, improvement in professional development, and the development of a parent institute to provide support at home.

Anderson-Person mentioned implementing a strategic plan with the new superintendent as that is the roadmap, and engaging the community as many have indicated that they want to become involved.

Rice’s vision included gaining an understanding of how we got here and having a plan to fix it. He also stressed parent participation in children’s education as it is not just the school’s responsibility, and expanding the curriculum to include computer and financial literacy.

Hembree’s vision included an improved curriculum, the hiring of specialists, better hiring practices, better personnel and vocation education.

Pile emphasized that as school board members their role is policy, governance and budget, and setting a strategic plan for the superintendent to implement.

What is your plan to reach out to Latino parents who might have language barriers, and how would you encourage participation?

Anderson-Person suggested thinking outside the box and seeking them out where they are comfortable, while Rice suggested more bilingual tools such as the Lets Talk tool that has language capabilities, and letting the Latino community know that the board cares in order to build trust.

Hembree stated that based on her experience teaching four bilingual classes, she felt the Latino parents all made education a priority but did acknowledge that they might be uncomfortable and not feel respected. Pile agreed with Hembree in terms of school event participation but noted that they were not in attendance at the meeting tonight.

Andrews also noted that lack of representation was a problem and that they should be a part of the board. “We need to go and meet them where they are, and help them to get access to the system.”

All candidates made closing remarks and thanked the League of Women Voters for hosting the forum. Voting takes place next Tuesday, November 5 in the General Election.

Missed the forum?  Watch the League of Women Voters of Plainfield's Facebook Live videos.

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