Seven candidates vying for three seats on the Newark Board of Education in the upcoming April 19 election talked about their views on learning loss, mental health, and school budget priorities at a candidate forum Tuesday night.
The two-hour forum, organized by Newark Trust for Education, Project Ready, and Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration, gave candidates an opportunity to answer questions related to the pandemic’s effect on students’ learning, policy that governs social and emotional learning, and the $1.2 billion school budget.
Incumbents Daniel Gonzalez and A’Dorian Murray-Thomas are running for reelection, along with newcomer Crystal Williams, on a slate backed by Mayor Ras Baraka and other local and state politicians. Gonzalez is running for his first three-year term after being elected last year to fill a one-year term.
The other candidates are Maggie Freeman, Allison K. James-Frison, Thomas Luna, and Phillip Wilson.
Voter turnout has historically been low for the annual Newark school board election. Over the last few years, turnout has hovered around 3% to 4% of registered voters.
The three organizations and institutions collaborated to host the forum in hopes of increasing voter turnout in this year’s election, said Shennell McCloud, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Project Ready, during her opening remarks at the event held in the Newark Museum of Art. The forum was live streamed online.
“School board members have the opportunity to do three very important things: They set the vision and goals for the district, they approve the Newark Public Schools budget, and they choose the superintendent and hold the superintendent accountable,” McCloud said.
Organizers reached out to community members for input on the questions, said Ronald Chaluisán, executive director of Newark Trust for Education.
One of the first questions posed asked candidates if they believe the district has an adequate plan to address the alarming learning loss evident in recent state assessment data.
The question focused specifically on mid-year assessments that showed no more than 6% of students in grades 3-7 are expected to reach proficiency levels in state math testing slated to begin later this month. Prior to the pandemic, 27% of students in grades 3-8 met the state’s benchmarks on the annual math standardized tests.
“I do believe the district has a strong plan in place to address not necessarily just learning loss, but some of the achievement gaps that exist because of the historic disinvestment from this district,” said Murray-Thomas, referring to the district being underfunded by about $140 million based on the state funding formula.
Williams, Murray-Thomas’ running mate, said she found the latest learning loss data to be “horrific,” “terrible,” and “unacceptable.” Her plan, she said, is to evaluate the areas in the district that are doing well and “mimic” those plans “in the pockets of the city that are doing bad.”
Other candidates talked more specifically about various policies and plans they would want to help implement, including more professional development and tutoring.
“We can’t concentrate on learning loss until we provide educators with the tools they need,” said James-Frison, the founder of Girls; Live, Laugh, Love, Inc., a mentoring program for girls in the city. James-Frison said she would push for more professional development for teachers.
Luna, a teacher at a KIPP charter school in the city, said he believes the district’s current plans for dealing with learning loss need to be updated and include more emphasis on tutoring.
Candidates were also asked about policy to ensure social and emotional learning for staff, teachers, students, and families.
Wilson, who helps lead a Head Start Policy Council in the district, said more community organizations should help with social and emotional learning.
Freeman, a longtime volunteer who helps lead the Weequahic Park Sports Authority Conservancy, said she believes schools need more social workers and counselors, and more emphasis on life skills. She said that when schools shut down, many students didn’t know how to do chores at home, such as laundry, or handle the food they received from food distribution sites.
“When you build up the students in that way, you see a turnaround that is beyond measure,” she said.
When asked about budget priorities, Gonzalez said he would push for a capital improvement evaluation and plan. “The majority of our facilities are very old,” he said. “We’ve not been taking a comprehensive approach in renovating. Because of the lack of dollars, we’ve just been doing enough repairs to teach, but putting bandages on the facilities.”
Candidates were also asked how they would hold the superintendent accountable for executing budget priorities. Wilson said she would ask teachers and administrators for their feedback.
Registered voters have until April 12 to apply by mail for a vote-by-mail ballot in the April 19 election.