The First Candidate Forum Gave Clifton a Good Look at Our Choices
Correction: The article incorrectly lists Bob Calcagno as the Chairman of the Clifton Republican Party and the host of this forum. It was actually hosted by the Clifton Republican Organization, whose municipal leader is Bob Calcagno. These are two entirely separate entities.
Clifton got its first real look at the slate of candidates for the Board of Education Wednesday night, as the League of Women Voters and the Clifton Republican Club co-hosted a non-partisan candidate forum.
Bob Calcagno, Municipal Chairman of the Clifton Republican Party, opened the event with a short welcome. “The voters and taxpayers expect school board members to be dedicated public servants who are decent people doing a difficult job,” he said as he broke from his prepared remarks to commend and offer appreciation to the seven candidates.
Donna Ward, representing the League of Women Voters and serving as moderator, invited each candidate, arranged alphabetically rather than by ballot position, to make a short opening statement. The candidates all highlighted their education, relevant work experience, and Board of Education experience, where relevant. Their statements overlapped significantly with the information they provided in a previous article.
The first two questions were posed to everyone on the dais. To “If elected, will you fulfill your full term?” everyone answered in the affirmative. Jim Smith, an incumbent, said that it’s important to stick by your commitments.
“Do you have school-aged children and if so, do they attend Clifton Public Schools?”
Three of the candidates do not have children and three have children who are in Clifton’s public schools. Fahim Abedrabbo has children in a private religious school but said that he hoped to bring them into the district once they are older and have had a solid religious foundation.
For the remainder of the forum, questions were posed to two or three candidates at a time so that all seven were not responding to the same prompt. Several questions dug into the question of how prepared the candidates are to serve as competent members of the BOE, asking what they have done to educate themselves on the responsibilities of the BOE, what experience or expertise they bring, and if they are familiar with some hot-button topics.
Incumbents Abedrabbo and Smith, along with past commissioner Joe Canova, all had an easy time here as they have real-world experience on the BOE and received various trainings as part of their positions. Newcomers Tanya Suarez, Joseph Siano, and Cameron Hebron have all been visible as attendees at many BOE meetings, observing and contributing during public privilege. Suarez added that she has been reading through various documents that explain the roles and responsibilities of a BOE commissioner. Pabon said that as a father, a homeowner, and a worker in the city, he has learned to work well with others and would bring that to the Board if elected.
When asked specifically about the updated Health standards, which were the focus of significant controversy for over a year, Canova was the only one of the three to be given this question to address the controversy head-on. He acknowledged that there were some parents who were concerned that their children would be taught about same-sex relationships but reminded the audience that, “There are students in this district who have same-sex parents. Do you want them not to know about their parents?”
A seemingly related question asked, “How would you propose to balance a student’s right to be protected from harm with a parent’s right to know what is happening to their child in school?”
Smith acknowledged that this is a controversial topic and said that while students’ rights must be respected, their parents and guardians also must have access to the information they need. “There has to be a good balance there,” he said. Suarez said that, as a parent of a young child, she’s thought a lot about this. She wants to know everything about her seven-year-old’s day, she said but understands the need for children to feel safe in their spaces and acknowledged that for some, school may be the only place where that is true. “I’m going to have to side with that,” she said.
On the district’s challenges, Hebron focused on funding for teacher education, supporting the arts, trades, and after-school programming. He said that needs assessments were important so that the district could better advocate for the families in the community, especially English language learners. Siano addressed the nationwide teacher shortage and questioned how the district could better entice qualified professionals to commit to Clifton. He also wants to see more options for early childhood education for our youngest learners.
Two different but related questions tackled the issue of collaboration and handling conflict between board commissioners. Hebron said it’s important to start off by not having a bad rapport with anyone. “These are some amazing choices you all have,” he said, acknowledging his fellow candidates.
Abedrabbo acknowledged that in any group, there are going to be differences of opinion but “Our city deserves better than in-fighting in front of the public.” Smith also commented on the difficulty of managing a group with different opinions and said that conflicts can sometimes impede the ability of the district to move forward. Bringing everyone together via smaller committees has helped, he said.
“To me, this is simple,” said Pabon. “We have to focus on the children.” Communication is key, he added.
Siano, on the topic of mental health, said that it’s important not only to bring parents into the conversation but to ensure that the schools have the needed resources and professionals. “Mental health is probably one of the most important things,” he said, noting that there are many factors that can affect a child’s emotional well-being.
On the topic of school safety Canova had the clear advantage, as the only candidate with board experience to be given this question. He was careful with his words, as part of security includes not divulging too much information that bad actors might take advantage of. He assured the audience that the BOE works closely with security personnel and other contractors to ensure that any potential gaps in security are addressed quickly and completely.
Pabon and Suarez had opposing views when it came to the question of standardized testing, an issue that has raised significant controversy in the last many years. Pabon voiced support for them, saying that they are “very important” for letting parents know where their children stand. Suarez pointed to the unfortunate “teaching to the test” that many teachers and parents have noticed, due to standardized testing “taking over public schools.” She laid the blame for this squarely on federal and state mandates and said that she wished these tests would take a backseat.
Other questions addressed issues of the achievement gap, increasing transparency, improving school attendance and reducing drop-out rates, and challenges posed by ever-changing technology. Hearing from the candidates themselves is an excellent way to get a sense of who they are as people, where their strengths lie, and what they might bring to the table. You can watch the hour-and-a-half-long forum HERE.
Other opportunities to hear from the candidates include Clifton’s Ballot Box, where you will hear from six of the seven candidates (Juan Pabon did not participate), as well as candidates for county and state offices. On Wednesday, October 18th at 7 pm, the Palestinian American Community Center is hosting a second forum for the BOE candidates at 388 Lakeview Avenue in Clifton. Finally, you can read about the candidates in this story.