MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Hilton Neighborhood Association hosted a forum for the five candidates running for three seats on the Board of Education. The forum was moderated by Suzanne Ryan, an executive board member of the Hilton Assn.

The first question of the debate moderator Ryan asked the candidates about whether they support the district’s plan to resume in-person learning November 12. The candidates had no prior knowledge of this plan, or its full details because the announcement had only been emailed to district staff by that point.

Susan Bergin explained she would support reopening schools if the district is fully equipped with the proper PPE and cleaning supplies, and if the ventilation problems are solved. She acknowledged the problems that virtual learning has caused for some students and families.

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“If I were making a plan, I would want to prioritize getting back kids with special needs and English language learners and kids who are really, really struggling back into the usual classrooms sooner,” said Bergin. She also highlighted that even as students return to school, fully virtual learning needs to remain an option for families who have medical concerns.

When asked about how the district can diversify the teaching staff, candidate Deborah Engel spoke about how recruitment would play a major role in hiring more diverse candidates. She also highlighted how evaluations can help retain good teachers.

“I think evaluations are not only important to how teachers are performing in the classroom, but they're important, too, for professional growth. We want our teachers to grow. We want them to have goals,” said Engel. “I do want to ensure that we are meeting with our teachers, supporting our teachers, communicating with our teachers, creating a better culture for teachers so that they're not all on edge.”

Elissa Malespina suggested a program that would recruit students while they are still at Columbia High School and then when the time comes they are guaranteed a job interview with the district.

“They know our schools. They've been through them. They understand the community. So doing something like that can really help to improve and retain our teachers,” said Malespina. “And we have to do more to build a culture of respect in our classrooms so that our teachers feel like they want to stay.”

About infrastructure issues that plague many of the district’s school buildings, Melanie Finnern was optimistic about the progress being made. However, she was insistent that going forward SOMSD needed to address these types of issues in full as they appeared.

“I think what we can do moving forward is just not cover things up with construction paper. It seems like we have a problem going 70 percent of the way with every plan and every endeavor we take, and we need to be committing 100 percent,” said Finnern. She added that this approach would save money in the budget that could be put to other use.

Courtney Winkfield brought attention to how the status of the school buildings will affect the intentional integration plan.

“We don't often talk about how reliant that plan is on our long range facility plans and ensuring that we have the kind of physical infrastructure across all of our elementary schools to receive our students and to support their learning regardless of whatever elementary school they attend,” said Winkfield. She pointed out that this will also affect the district’s ability to make improvements like reducing class sizes and introducing new programs for students.

This was the last forum for board of education candidates to make their case before the election. The sixth candidate, who is running unopposed, Kamal Zubieta was not in attendance at the debate however her pre-written statement was read at the beginning of the forum. It was the same statement read at the forum hosted by the Community Coalition on Race.



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