WESTFIELD, NJ — The five Westfield Board of Education Candidates discussed key issues and topics during the “Meet the Candidates” forum held in the Westfield High School auditorium Wednesday evening. There are three Westfield Board of Education positions available this year.
The three-year term candidates include Lynne Benner, Simon Cirasa, Kent Diamond, Anthony Marotta and Margaret (Peggy) Oster, who currently serves as the school board vice president and is up for re-election this year.
The event was presented by the Parent Teacher Council of Westfield and moderated by Marlene Sincaglia, a member of The League of Women Voters.
Candidates had an opportunity for opening statements to introduce themselves to attendees before addressing a series of questions that were provided by the public ahead of the evening’s meeting. Sincaglia also welcomed questions from the floor during the forum. Each candidate had one and one half minutes to respond to questions and a final opportunity for closing statements.
The forum was taped by the Westfield High School Blue Devils TV and will be shown in its entirety. There will also be a link available online.
Key topics discussed during the forum included:
All candidates agreed that a full-day kindergarten program would be beneficial to the town, but considered budgeting and space constraints in their responses.
“The biggest hurdle that full-day kindergarten is going to present in Westfield is just the budget and where they would allocate funds to implement new facilities and the hiring of more teachers,” said Benner, who added that all three of her sons attended a full-day kindergarten program. Benner also suggested that a full-day program would help families with two working parents.
Cirasa responded, “We do have to take a balanced look at how we can actually do that effectively. ‘Effective’ being the key word there. It’s not just getting ‘something’ there, it’s getting something that’s actually going to facilitate the learning objectives that we have.”
Diamond, who currently has a son enrolled in private kindergarten, answered with similar remarks, “I think that everyone agrees that we need it, but where is that money going to come from.”
Candidates were asked to provide their thoughts on technology and its implementation in the school system. A question referenced the rumored 1:1 ratio of Chromebooks to students at Summit High School and asked how candidates planned to compete with this model.
“I think it’s great that every kid would have their own Chromebook. I think it would enhance the learning experience and help them in their studies,” said Diamond. “It goes down to finances. How would we afford that with a budget that is stretched and then capped.” According to Diamond’s biography, he currently manages a $75M annual budget for a Bronx-based print center.
In her response, current board member Oster explained that Westfield does not currently have a 1:1 ratio.
“Westfield doesn’t have a 1:1 in a sense that your student would take home a Chromebook and have it at home,” she said. Instead, what has been implemented, according to Oster, is classroom Chromebook carts that provide each student with a Chromebook while attending a specific classroom. “We feel that this has served us very well,” Oster said.
Marotta responded, “You can do a SWOT analysis — Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats — to determine how to budget for these allocations and make some sacrifices in other places. However, computers and computer-related work is the future and we have to face that and we have to make allowances for it.”
Cirasa, who worksfor a digital marketing technology and services firm, added, “When you talk about 1:1 I do have some concerns about that where students are taking them home that can leave them vulnerable to things like damage, hacking and, you might say, the misuse of the technology.”
Addressing the Needs of Average Students:
Candidates were asked for their solutions on how the district can help average-performing students reach their full potential.
“As a teacher, my hardest job each day for the last 22 years is motivating those average students or even the below average students and I think class size is one of the best ways to address that,” answered Benner, who is currently teaching in the Linden Public School district. “Keeping class sizes small allows for more teacher/student interaction.”
Diamond responded, “I think the teacher and maybe the guidance counselor can work to see what can be done.” He added, “Try to look at it as a case-by-case basis; what can be done to help the individual so the student can reach their full potential. I think it would be a collaborative effort.”
“I think that one of the best ways to motivate, whether it’s the average student, the under-achiever or the over-achiever, is by hiring the best teachers and guidance counselors that we can. And I do believe that we do that here in Westfield,” said Oster. “On the board of education, one of our responsibilities is to review curriculum and when we review curriculum we reach out to the teachers, the departments and so forth to truly understand whether or not our curriculum has the right amount of rigor.”
Kehler Fields and Turf Updates:
A question was asked regarding turf field renovations and lighting of the athletic fields, which has been a frequent topic of debate in the Westfield district with respect to the surrounding neighborhood.
“I guess I believe academics first, sports second,” responded Marotta. “Sports is a great way to encourage discipline, teamwork and a lot of other things. It has to come down to a budget issue — perhaps we can brainstorm fundraising activities, maybe beginning online.”
Oster answered, “We have limited space here in Westfield and we have a lot of children who want to go out and play sports.” She added, “I do believe that athletics, teamwork and so forth are all part of the whole educational system.”
Managing Social Media:
The topic of technology and social media was brought up throughout the forum, with one question asking how candidates plan to effectively educate students regarding their online identity, activity and presence.
Marotta responded, “Having the latest software applications, anti-viruses and so forth, Malware, they have Ransomware now, I don’t know what they’re coming up with next. However having the latest software and anti-viruses will help.” He added, “And having limitations put on what websites they can visit will help protect them as well and let their parents know where they are.”
“I think it begins at home,” responded Benner. “With social media, parents need to set parameters, parents need to set blocks.”
Cirasa answered, “I kind of take that question in a different way. I think this is more about teaching them essential life skills for the 21st Century as they grow older.” He continued, “If you think in the past we had Home Economics and Practical Life. I think some of these topics are now much more applicable to things like Practical Life.”
This year’s election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 7.