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Friday, October 23, 2015

On the Board of Ed candidate forum

2015 Board of Ed candidates (l. to r.): Jackie Coley,
Richard Wyatt Jr., John Campbell Sr., and Emily Morgan

The first half of this past Tuesday's Plainfield League of Women Voters candidate forum was dedicated to the Board of Education candidates: Emily Morgan, who is running solo; and John Campbell Sr., Jackie Coley and Richard Wyatt Jr., who are running as a slate.

The large (and demonstrative) crowd for this portion of the forum seems to be due to turnout for Mr. Wyatt, who is a popular figure in youth sports. It was striking to note that at the end of the BOE portion, the crowd thinned out by about a third -- presumably those who left are not concerned about who governs the city and in what way.

Though there is partial information about the candidates and their answers to the League questionnaire (see LWV website here), several candidates were late in getting their material to the League, resulting in the handout at the forum containing much more information than the website does. You can read Bernice's blog post on the forum here, and watch David's video of the event here.

Among the questions raised by the audience: ESL and bilingual education; Policy development; Hiring from outside Plainfield; Aftercare and after-school programs; Parent involvement; the PARCC tests; College readiness and financing; and State funding.

Emily Morgan, who is running solo, consistently took more detailed and assertive positions than the slate of sitting board members.

On the question of ESL and bilingual instruction, she was the only candidate who stated that all students would benefit from knowing a language other than their mother tongue. (Shades of FLES, the once-popular program of teaching foreign languages in the grade schools!) When it came to the question of fairness in state funding (it ain't), Morgan proposed taking busloads of students to Trenton to protest. Morgan was the only one who insisted that solving the question of parental involvement was the key to improving outcomes. With regard to the PARCC tests, Morgan came down on the side of giving kids problem-solving skills and tools rather than "teaching to the test".

By contrast, the incumbents (Campbell, Coley and Wyatt) seemed trite and hackneyed, repeating stale shibboleths and using insider talk. Campbell admitted he isn't much on policy, that he's a "buildings and grounds" guy. But aren't Board members supposed to have as their primary responsibility understanding and developing wise policies?

The incumbents did a poor job of explaining the funding situation: that a steady rate of aid from the state actually amounts to decreasing support when a larger student body and more charter schools are taken into account -- points the incumbents utterly failed to make. (Board  member David Rutherford recently took an in-depth look at the issue on his blog -- see here.) Campbell did suggest the District might look for unnamed consultants to help, but made no mention of the Education Law Center, which was so successful in getting Plainfield included in the Abbott districts in the first place. So, what is that about?

Incumbent Jackie Coley did not seem to be bothered about the irony when, while discussing policy matters she noted the Board had adopted a nepotism policy (recall that the policy topic was one on which Campbell demurred).

Nepotism policies are designed to ensure that unfair advantage is not given to the spouses or close relatives of a person in a position to influence hiring or promotion.

Let me ask you a question. Which do you suppose might more readily lead to unfairness and a conflict of interest -- the hiring of a relative to work as a teacher's aide or in maintenance by a spouse or relative, or the engineering of the selection of one's spouse to be on the Board of Education?

The latter is technically not "nepotism" because the spouse in question is supposed to be "elected" and not hired.

But what kind of a system is it when a vacancy on the Board of Ed arises and the public is not notified they have the right to nominate candidates for the vacancy? Or when the vacancy is filled secretly and only comes to light as a fait accompli?

I am deeply troubled at the likelihood that control of the direction of the Plainfield Public Schools, one of our most important community institutions and the one with the largest budget (and potential for fiscal abuse of all sorts) is becoming a fiefdom of one family.

In a democracy, voters should remind themselves that not voting for candidates sends as much of a message as voting for them.

In other words, remember that just because there are three vacancies does not mean you have to vote for three candidates.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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