MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The five candidates vying for three seats on the Board of Education participated in a candidate forum last night hosted by the South Orange Maplewood Community Coalition on Race.

The forum was moderated by the Coalition’s Program Director, Audrey Rowe. Each candidate was given the opportunity to make opening remarks, afterwards they answered questions from the Coalition. Members of the community were then invited to ask their own questions before the candidates gave closing remarks.

Melanie Finnern answered a question about the district's successes and failures when it came to closing the digital divide and the achievement gap. “How are we going to keep the kids learning consistently and keep the gap small when there’s just no communication about what is being taught in each school,” Finnern asked.

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Finnern applauded the district for making chromebooks and hotspots available to all students who needed them. The virtual learning and curriculum however was one place the district fell short according to Finnern. The lack of asynchronous learning options and an unfulfilled plan to standardize the curriculum across schools were Finnern’s largest concerns.

Susan Bergin spoke about her history working on access within the district and her proposal, chosen by Maplewood residents, to implement the free neighborhood Wi-Fi program at Seth Boyden.

“With this program and what we’ve learned from it, and the initiatives already in the district for loaning hotspots and chromebooks, we have the potential to work towards closing the digital divide,” said Bergin.

In response to the question about ways of recruiting teachers of color aside from HBCUs, Bergin pointed to the need for teacher retention in addition to hiring. She also cited the BOE’s current goal to have every school reflect the entire district's diversity; contending that this did not go far enough because the teaching staff also needs to reflect the student body. 

Deborah Engel noted the lack of diversity in the teaching staff at Tuscan where her three children attend school. Engel asserted that students need to see themselves reflected in their teachers and role models.

“I think that one idea is to bring our paraprofessionals back in house and look to see how we can grow some of our paraprofessionals into teachers on our staff,” said Engel. “I see how our paras work with the children, and we have some really amazing, really dedicated teachers.” 

Moderator Rowe asked the candidates about their views on safety in school and more specifically about police in the schools. Courtney Winkfield responded that the district should continue to keep police and armed security out of schools. She also addressed the wider meaning of school safety:

“I think it’s really important that when we’re talking about safety we’re also talking about social-emotional safety,” said Winkfield. “I would like to see SOMA institute a comprehensive restorative justice program that is well funded and well-supported starting in our elementary school grades.”

Elissa Malespina addressed the question by noting that there are sometimes when legally the police department has to come to the school to observe a fire safety or emergency drill.

“We must look for ways to continue the community policing efforts,” said Malespina. “Studies have shown that they lead to positive results that does not mean that they need to be in the schools but that means that we have to look for ways that we can bridge that gap and try to lead into instances where the community and the police work together as much as possible.”

Malespina pointed to the open gym that the Maplewood Police Department used to run at CHS as one example of positive relationship building between officers and students.

The 6th BOE candidate Kamal Zubieta was unable to attend this forum. Zubieta is running unopposed for a 1-year seat that she was appointed to when Javier Farfan resigned. Moderator Rowe read a statement Zubieta prepared after the candidates opening remarks.

Zubieta leaned into her commitment to diversity citing her vote in favor of the intentional integration plan. She spoke about being the daughter and wife of immigrants and how her experiences shaped her beliefs on equity and inclusion. 



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