CANDIDATES FOR THE BOARD OF EDUCATION SHARE THEIR THOUGHTS, Candidates M-W

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On November 8th, voters will be asked to choose up to three candidates to fill vacancies on the Board of Education. Joe Canova is the single incumbent seeking reelection. Dana Beltran is running for a seat on City Council as she nears the end of her term and Jim Daley is not seeking reelection.

Members of the Facebook group, Clifton News and Community, submitted questions for the candidates, revealing some of the topics that were of greatest interest to the community. Every candidate was invited to respond and most did. Responses are missing from Kurell Law and Abdallah Matari, who did not participate.

Following is the second set of three candidates, alphabetical by last name, and their responses as submitted. Names in color are links; you can click on them to visit the candidates’ website or Facebook page.

Richie Mejia, ballot position #2

Why are you running? Please limit your response to one or two sentences: I’m running because change needs to happen. Growing up I saw a lack of diversity in Clifton schools and the BOE. Great organizations are founded on great communication. If we are not willing to speak and listen to the community, teachers, parents and students, how will we know what to actually do? The board is meant to serve the community and make those tough choices.

How have you educated yourself on the workings of our Board of Education and kept up with current issues facing the district? If you are an incumbent, how long have you held a seat on the BOE?: My first year of grad school, I decided to work as a GA for my University’s School of Education and around that same time I started to research and learn the ins and outs of our board. I keep up with the current issues that are facing the district by simply asking our community, asking not just the parents what they think is an issue, but students, and teachers. Along with keeping up with our social media presence.

What do you think is the greatest current challenge the school district is facing and what is a solution you would offer to that problem?: The greatest current challenge the school district is facing in my eyes is in fact the teacher shortage we have. Why are there classrooms with over 35 to a classroom, why are teachers being overwhelmed with more than usual and why are not more qualified teachers being brought in to help with the overcrowded classrooms. Instead of just hiring subs for everyday of the week. How is the students' education being affected when their teacher is not there for almost 3-4 months with just subs at their disposal.

Nothing wrong with subs, but we need more educators in the classroom. We have to think and consider our teachers' mental health and how overwhelming it must be to handle over 120 students throughout the day, especially those in middle and highschool. I would recommend we find a feeder school to help produce more teacher candidates and create a pipeline to land the best of the best. While also taking into consideration other qualified teachers who are looking to teach at the best districts in NJ.

What are your thoughts on the diversity of the staff at some of our schools and what would you do to help recruit more diverse teachers and staff?: Growing up I saw a lack of diversity in Clifton schools and the BOE and that is still the truth. We need teachers that rebel who our community is. I would recommend we find a feeder school that is an HSI or an HBCU to help produce more teacher candidates and create a pipeline to land the best of the best. Market the fact that we are one of the most diverse school districts in NJ and that we need teachers to help set an example for those who might feel like they are underrepresented.

How will you handle state mandates (masking, vaccinations, Health Standards, funding issues) that might conflict with your personal beliefs?: My personal beliefs would be irrelevant to my decision on such matters. I’m being voted in by the community, for the community to help make the decisions that are best for us, I will listen to what our citizens want and take the considerations that the state has put in.

What are your thoughts on staff retention? How do we keep more of our wonderful teachers and other staff?: We hear this all the time and the truth of the matter is that we need to listen more to what the staff want. If they say they feel like they have too much going on, it is our duty to help provide said teachers with extra help. If the teachers believe there needs to be work done (heat/ac) to properly do their job, then we should be on that. If our staff believes that at the end of the day they are not being heard… then we as a whole have failed them. They are teaching and caring for the next generation of leaders. We NEED to treat them with the the best of our abilities

How do you feel about our district sharing funding with local charter schools? Are you in favor of using district funds to pay for transportation for private or charter school students?: At the end of the day, like any other district in the state and in fact the USA, we are obviously going to help fund local charter schools. If you are a taxpayer, you are in turn helping fund charter schools. Am I in favor, in a way no; there is no reason why our district would have to help fund a Charter School at the risk of the district being underpaid, understaffed, and cutting/reducing great school programs. At the end of the day though, The schools are in our district and it is our duty to make sure that each and every student in our district receives a quality education.

When it comes to transportation for private or charter school students, I believe it should be up to the schools to provide such transportation, unless it is desperately needed.

If you are elected, what are your top TWO priority projects - the things you most want to tackle in your first year? Please limit your response to no more than three sentences per issue: My First priority project would be creating better learning environments. I will work on developing the ideas that have been given in the past from students, parents, and teachers about what each school needs done in order to make the best possible learning environment. What's more important the flower, or the soil that grows it?

My second priority project would be trying to solve our understaffing and staff retention issues.If we want to see more students graduating and succeed in the classroom, then we need to solve the understaffing issue we have and to do that we have to retention our best teachers and actually listen and care about them.

Anthony Santiago, ballot position #4

Why are you running? Please limit your response to one or two sentences: It’s time for a change on the board. Make sure we are putting students first. Foster a welcoming and safe learning experience for all students.

How have you educated yourself on the workings of our Board of Education and kept up with current issues facing the district? If you are an incumbent, how long have you held a seat on the BOE?: Watching board meetings. Involved parent of two Clifton Public School students.

What do you think is the greatest current challenge the school district is facing and what is a solution you would offer to that problem?: When you join the board there will be multiple challenges that need addressing at the same time. Overcrowding, safety, student academic achievement and an inclusive learning environment to name a few. Taking a leadership position to focus on solutions is the first step. Making it a priority and checking that the administration is following through. I will build consensus and support to get things done because you have to work as a group to get results for the district.

What are your thoughts on the diversity of the staff at some of our schools and what would you do to help recruit more diverse teachers and staff?: I am a Human Resources and recruiting professional. We should partner with diverse college, professional and non-profit groups to recruit diverse candidates. We must also foster, reinforce and promote an inclusive work culture which will help us attract new diverse candidates.

How will you handle state mandates (masking, vaccinations, Health Standards, funding issues) that might conflict with your personal beliefs?: You MUST remain objective as a board commissioner. You are not there only for students or school community members that are only like you. Public schools are for ALL students and also funded by ALL all people. Not just those with your same beliefs.

What are your thoughts on staff retention? How do we keep more of our wonderful teachers and other staff?: Listen, feedback, recognition, support, growth opportunities. Equal opportunities and treatment. If we are short staffed then possibly sign on bonuses or retention bonuses.

How do you feel about our district sharing funding with local charter schools? Are you in favor of using district funds to pay for transportation for private or charter school students?: I am not in favor of district funds going to private or charter schools. However, we must follow the law.

If you are elected, what are your top TWO priority projects - the things you most want to tackle in your first year? Please limit your response to no more than three sentences per issue: In my first year I would like to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in our learning and work environment. I would also like to improve academic achievement.

Miriam Weg, ballot position #3

Why are you running? Please limit your response to one or two sentences: We have a very strong and successful public school system in Clifton and I am very proud to be part of this community and want to give back. Even with all the positives, there are areas that we can improve and I would like to help enhance things like security, communication, and technology and I believe I have the skills to do this.

How have you educated yourself on the workings of our Board of Education and kept up with current issues facing the district? If you are an incumbent, how long have you held a seat on the BOE?: I have watched board of Ed meetings and read through the material on the websites. I also have learned a lot from the Facebook groups as to what is on the mind of parents to be able to understand where they’re coming from. As a parent myself of school age children, I very much relate to the questions and struggles that have been raised.

What do you think is the greatest current challenge the school district is facing and what is a solution you would offer to that problem?: The greatest challenge I see is communication and open dialog with parents. We need a way to not only get information to parents but also really listen and address their concerns. On the last few board of Ed meetings the primary topic has been the health Ed curriculum which I’ve read through multiple times, listened to parents concerns, and spoken to those more knowledgable than myself in this area. I believe it boils down to us needing better two way communication tools - parents feel like they’re not being included in the decisions and getting ignored and that sets the tone for the whole conversation.

What are your thoughts on the diversity of the staff at some of our schools and what would you do to help recruit more diverse teachers and staff?: Clifton is an incredibly diverse city so we don’t have to go far to find diverse talent, we just need to make sure diversity is integrated into our schools.

The most important part of integrating diversity is making sure school is a safe place for everyone (students, teachers, administrators, support staff etc) from all diverse backgrounds. There can be no double standards and if someone promotes violence against any group of people or someone harasses a student or teacher, we need united, immediate, and decisive action to show this will not be tolerated. I hope we can all agree that safety and security need to be our top priority and everyone in the school system needs to feel they are protected no matter what race, orientation or religion. I believe if we can show this in a unified way, hiring and retaining diverse staff will happen organically.

How will you handle state mandates (masking, vaccinations, Health Standards, funding issues) that might conflict with your personal beliefs?: I believe we need to follow mandates first because that’s the law and also because it’s important to show through our example that we follow the law as citizens. Where it’s within the mandate, personal beliefs need to be accepted and respected (for example someone choosing to wear a mask even once not required should never be ridiculed) but i don’t see room for blatantly defying for personal beliefs.

What are your thoughts on staff retention? How do we keep more of our wonderful teachers and other staff?: Staff retention and lack of teachers is a huge problem now across the entire country. I’d want to hear from teachers what would make them more likely to stay and hear from those who left what their reasoning was to better address this but one thing that I believe is the forefront is safety. We need to do whatever it takes to get guards at every school and ensure all safety protocols are followed so that students and teachers know they are always safe while on school premises.

How do you feel about our district sharing funding with local charter schools? Are you in favor of using district funds to pay for transportation for private or charter school students?: First off, we need to consider why these children are choosing to go to private schools, and make sure that our public schools are on par with their offering. Second, all Clifton students are district students and it is the responsibility of the district to ensure their safety. Third, this is not an issue for Clifton BOE to decide. We are required to follow NJ state law, which says that whenever districts provide bussing, they must also provide the bussing to private schools.

If you are elected, what are your top TWO priority projects - the things you most want to tackle in your first year? Please limit your response to no more than three sentences per issue: Communication - how do we get parents to be part of the conversation? This also means parents who are not native English speakers or those without easy access to computers. We need to understand the parent body and evolve our communication tools based on how they shift to get parents to truly feel as though they are a partner with the school.

Safety - we all need to feel that schools are safe, as children and staff within the school as well as parents sending their children to school. That does include guards but guards are preventative and only part of the solution. If there’s ever a situation, we need to know there’s a plan for backup and we also need to know that everyone is educated on the safety precautions in the school so that for example, no one leaves a door propped open.

I do want to say though that while both of these are incredibly important, I am very proud of the education itself and inclusive environment within the schools. We have a great school system here so the things we need to work on are how make sure the teachers and staff are best able to focus their energy on education and not worry about other things like their personal safety.

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The next Board of Education meeting is on October 20. Meetings start at 7 pm and are held in the BOE building at 745 Clifton Avenue. Meetings are open to the public. You can also watch the meetings live on the district’s YouTube channel.

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