MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — SOMA Justice and PARES (Parents in Partnership with Respect and Equity in SOMA Schools) have released their 2020 BOE scorecard ahead of November’s election for four members of the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education.
The scores are based on each candidate’s answers to a set of questions about equity and inequality in the SOMSD. This election three out of the six candidates running, Susan Lewis Bergin, Deborah Engel and Courtney Winkfield, decided to participate in the scoring process.
Bergin earned an A, Engel earned a B, and Winkfield earned an A with a note that her answers showed a superior understanding of how race and inequality affect education.
“If elected to the Board... I will use my expertise and policy lens to ensure that Dr. Taylor and his team develop approaches to the work that are truly and explicitly anti-racist, centering the outcomes of our most vulnerable students in any design,” said Winkfield about implementing strategies for equity.
“A family’s economic status should not be something that impacts their child’s education," said Engel on a potential lunch fund to cover the meals of students with lunch debt. "The fact that a family can’t afford lunch should not stop them from receiving a diploma.”
“My extensive volunteer work and advocacy in the District has chipped away at this inequity, and as a Board member I will work to address it on a broader scale, to make the District a place where all students belong and thrive,” Bergin said would be a top priority if she were to be elected.
Each of the three candidates' full responses to all 11 questions will be available for download. The scorecard also features a short video from all the candidates explaining their qualifications and policy. The two groups employed Bleasdale Educational Research and Consulting to carry out the survey.
Candidates Melanie Finnern and Elissa Malespina both declined to participate in the process and candidate Kamal Zubieta, according to the report, "did not respond to the invitation prior to the date of submission." While they did not come to this decision together, Finnern and Malespina released statements together explaining why they did not participate in the scorecard process.
For Finnern, the scorecard does more harm than good. "Although the scorecard was created with the right intentions in mind, sadly, it has become a lightning rod for dissent and online bullying," she said. "I made a promise to myself that in running for BOE, I would maintain my own integrity and beliefs to treat everybody with kindness and respect — the same beliefs I instill in my own children. The scorecard and the online discussion that happens in the aftermath of its release runs counter to that mission. Therefore, I declined to participate." She did note that she respects SOMA Justice as an organization. "Where I disagree with their positioning is “grading” BOE candidates via the SOMA Justice and PARES scorecard, a task no other community group assumes the right to do."
She stressed that she is fully behind the integration plan and wants to see it succeed. "Where the scorecard misses the point is that this work doesn’t end with integration," she said. "Right now our curriculum, our school buildings, and our communications are all subpar. We have one shot to make sure the integration plan uses the equitable allocation of resources to lift all students versus what we fear may happen — that due to bureaucratic mismanagement the integration plan will simply look good on paper versus truly creating a better system of capable and motivated learners.
"There is a lot of work to be done, not only for school integration but in creating schools that will maximize every student’s potential for learning."
Malespina did not define her reasons for declining to participate. She did say she has "proven track record of fighting for our special needs and BIOPIC, LGBTQ +, and LATINX students. The Black Parents Workshop lawsuit in which I was a plaintiff and was recently settled will bring substantial and historic changes to our district. I stand firm on my record and beliefs I have set forth in my platform."
Both Malespina and Finnern said they have weekly online discussions where the public may ask them questions.
TAPinto SOMA is a free online newspaper serving the Townships of Maplewood and South Orange Village with no paywall. TAPinto SOMA is accredited by the New Jersey Press Association, and is a locally owned news organization serving the community.