THE CLIFTON REPUBLICAN CLUB BOE CANDIDATES’ FORUM

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TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read) VERSION:

Eight of the nine candidates were in attendance and almost always agreed with the positions of their fellow panelists. Two candidates have children in our district schools, four have grown children who were in our district schools, and one has no children. With the possible exception of one, everyone agreed that like it or not, we have to follow the mask mandate. Only two candidates specifically embraced the need for it. Critical Race Theory was a topic of discussion and most of the candidates agreed that teaching history with all the facts was important, though not everyone had the same understanding of what CRT is. Did the district do a good job during the pandemic? Yes; mostly satisfied. Armed guards? Sounds good. There was no unnecessary drama and very little speaking beyond the designated time limits.

WANT TO KNOW ALL THE DETAILS? HERE’S THE FULL MONTY…

The Clifton Republican Club hosted a Board of Education Candidates’ Forum on Tuesday, October 12th at the Elks’ Club. The forum was moderated by Clifton resident Gerard Scorziello, active member of the Republican Club. Eight of the nine candidates attended, all vying for just three open seats in next month’s election.

After Scorziello reviewed the guidelines, each candidate had two minutes to make an opening statement, starting with ballot position #1. Many of the candidates are lifelong Clifton residents who graduated from our school district themselves.

A representative for Dan Gaudet, who was preparing for a medical procedure and was not present, read his prepared statement. His main concerns focus on safer school drop-off and pick-up arrangements, providing better mental health support, and ensuring open lines of communication between teachers, families, and the district.

Robert (Bob) D’Arco spoke about his professional career and the skills he brings in employee negotiations and affirmative action hiring. He served two terms on the Clifton Board of Education in the past.

Alan Paris, who is part of a five generations-long history here, spoke about his connections to the Mustang Marching Band, where he met his wife decades ago. His young granddaughter is a big part of his reason for running.

Mark Brunciak has attended nearly every BOE meeting since last summer and is committed to ensuring that children are being put first.

Frank Kasper, incumbent, is a special education teacher in Saddle Brook who is completing his fourth year on the BOE. During his tenure on the board the district hired a new superintendent, the school taxes were not raised at all for two years in a row, the district passed the largest bond referendum in state history, and the district’s one-to-one initiative saw every student assigned a Chromebook.

Avraham (Abe) Eisenman started by calling for a round of applause for Clifton teachers, who went “above and beyond” during the pandemic. His motto is “Representing us all.”

Dr. Lucy Danny, incumbent, has served on the board for ten years. She holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in educational leadership and has been an educator for more than 20 years. “I am about education.”

Vita Marlena Cowan is married to a Clifton coach and is mother to four boys, three of whom are already in our school system. She is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration and is very involved in many district activities, including being HSA president (Home/School Association) for School 14. Cowan’s main focus is on ensuring that all children get the best possible education while also supporting the staff.

Judy Bassford, incumbent, has served on the BOE for ten years, was president of the Passaic County School Board Association, and was named New Jersey’s School Board Member of the Year in 2019-20. Bassford has also sat on various committees on both county and state levels. She has been an active leader and volunteer in Clifton for decades, serving as HSA president for five years, working with CASA (Clifton Against Substance Abuse), and volunteering for the Health Department.

QUESTION #1: RANK THESE IN ORDER OF PRIORITY – STUDENTS, TAXPAYERS, STAFF

Unsurprisingly, every candidate ranked students as their first priority, though there was some disagreement over which group took second place. Cowan and D’Arco both put staff members in that second position, acknowledging that taking care of our teachers was an important step in ensuring an excellent experience for the students. Paris reminded everyone that the value of our homes relies largely on the success of our school system. “It’s why families move here, why families stay here, and sometimes, why they leave here.”

QUESTION #2: WHAT’S YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT CRT (CRITICAL RACE THEORY) IS AND ARE YOU IN FAVOR OF INCORPORATING IT INTO OUR CURRICULUM?

Not every candidate had a complete understanding of what CRT is and several acknowledged that it has been widely misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused as a political hot button. Bassford shared a definition according to the New Jersey School Boards Association, linked below. Kasper and Paris were the two candidates who most directly responded that yes, they support the teaching of our history without whitewashing it to make the unsavory parts more palatable. Kasper focused on the importance of including the contributions of all people – from many backgrounds – into all parts of the curriculum. Paris talked about the necessity of teaching about the past, whether we’re proud of it or not. He also acknowledged that developing curriculum was not the duty of the Board and that curriculum developers should be tasked with this. The Board does have the authority to approve or reject curriculum changes, however.

For more information about CRT, which is not required under our state learning standards, click here.

QUESTION #3: DO YOU THINK SOCIAL MEDIA IS AN ACCEPTABLE WAY TO COMMUNICATE AND SOLICIT FEEDBACK?

All candidates agreed that social media, as a means of communication, was a positive in certain situations. Eisenman offered that it was most appropriate for use in emergencies when immediate communication was necessary but thought that more formal formats were needed for most other occasions. Danny mentioned that the district hired a social media specialist who covers all of the district’s events and posts to various social media platforms. “It’s great to see all of the positive things happening in the district,” she said.

QUESTION #4: ARE YOU IN FAVOR OF WEARING MASKS ALL DAY IN SCHOOL?

Despite this guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which strongly advocates for keeping children in school for in-person learning – “All eligible individuals should receive the COVID-19 vaccine” and “All students older than 2 years and all school staff should wear face masks at school (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use),” five of the eight candidates in attendance declared their wish for “choice” regarding masks though nearly all acknowledged that we need to follow the current mandate. This seems to be at odds with a desire to keep schools open, given that masks are meant to protect others
from our germs and that we know that people can carry and transmit COVID-19 even if they don’t feel sick themselves. This is particularly significant in the elementary schools, where none of the students are yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Brunciak, like most of the candidates, spoke in favor of choice. He used his time to hold up a photo of Governor Murphy at a recent event, where all attendees were likely vaccinated, and to point out what he saw as hypocrisy. He also talked about his dissatisfaction with the district’s response to his request for a remote option for those families who don’t feel that schools are safe right now. In his response to another question, Kasper mentioned that our district does not have the authority to approve a remote option unless the governor declares a state of emergency.

QUESTION #5: LOOKING BACK ON HOW THE DISTRICT HAS HANDLED COVID, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY OR WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY GOING FORWARD?

The candidates were nearly unanimous in their praise for how the district handled the crisis of the pandemic and many mentioned the importance of learning from the experience in order to do better moving forward. Eisenman, who works in emergency medicine, drew a comparison between the “rolling with what happens” in an ER to how the district responded to the pandemic. “It would be wrong to critique what the district did. They did what they had to do,” he said.

Bassford, who praised the staff and commented that “the teachers worked harder than they have ever worked their whole life; I don’t know how they did it,” did have some criticisms regarding the roll-out of Chromebooks and the delay in accessing remote lessons for families who didn’t have WiFi.

QUESTION #6: SPEAKING OF COVID, SOME STUDENTS HAVE FALLEN BEHIND. WHAT CAN THE DISTRICT DO TO HELP STUDENTS CATCH UP?

All candidates agreed that regression is a real issue for many students but almost all of them spoke optimistically about the district’s efforts to address it. Kasper and Danny both talked about the summer and after-school programs that the district has already put in place. Cowan reminded everyone that students everywhere
are experiencing the same problem; it isn’t unique to our children. Several candidates mentioned the possibility of state or federal relief money being used to provide additional resources and programs for this purpose.

QUESTION #7: WHAT CAN THE SCHOOL SYSTEM DO TO LESSEN THE NUMBER OF STUDENTS WHO CHOOSE PCTI OVER CHS?

Once again, the candidates mostly echoed each other as they responded to the issue of keeping more of our children in district. Several talked about the need for Clifton to do a better job of sharing all of the exciting things we offer so that families would not feel compelled to look for alternatives. Danny suggested that an important step was to find out why our students are choosing other options. “We need to understand why students aren’t going to CHS so that we can tackle the right problem.”

Cowan proposed the creation of a Retention Committee to focus on surveying students and families in order to better understand why some are choosing PCTI over CHS. She also advocated for the district to do a better job of showing the community how great our high school is. Bassford followed up by suggesting having students at the high school create short infomercials in order to promote different aspects of CHS life. “It’s about branding,” she said.

Scorziello then invited the audience to ask questions. George Silva asked if they were only concerned about PCTI or if they were aware that charters and religious schools also attract hundreds of our children. Danny, D’Arco, and Eisenman all spoke about religious education being an entirely different issue and said that, since those schools don’t draw from taxpayer money, we should respect a family’s choice to go that route. Bassford specifically addressed the funding issue; PCTI and charter schools draw money from our city by the millions…money that would otherwise be used in our district schools. Our taxes fund them but our Board of Education has no say over what they are doing or what kinds of people they are hiring to teach there.

Of the four candidates who currently have school-aged children, only Brunciak and Cowan said that they are sending their kids to district schools, which are overseen by our Board of Education.

A second audience member, who did not identify herself by name, asked if the recently approved referendum included armed guards at every school. A teacher in Garfield, she said that all those schools are patrolled by retired, armed guards. Nearly every candidate said that they were in favor of armed guards in our schools, though financing them was a concern for some. All three incumbents referenced the security upgrades that will be covered as part of the bond referendum but could not discuss all the details. Only Bassford expressed an objection to the idea of armed guards. Speaking of schools she has visited in NYC, outfitted with metal detectors and armed guards, she said, “I don’t like the atmosphere it brings to the school system. I think we can do a better job with other measures. Clifton schools are safe.”

CLOSING STATEMENTS

Scorziello thanked everyone for their thoughtful, respectful responses and invited each candidate to share a short closing statement, starting from the bottom of the ballot this time.

Judy Bassford, #9 – “I am educated with school boards, I am dedicated, and I am qualified to be on this board.”

Vita Marlena Cowan, #8 – “We need to support our students, our staff, and our families.”

Dr. Lucy Danny, #7 – “Education is my passion. It’s my life.”

Avraham (Abe) Eisenman, #6 – “Representing us all.” He reminded everyone about his concerns for fiscal responsibility, transparency, and the need to address the learning needs of every student, particularly those who learn differently.

Frank Kasper, #5 – “I bring 13 years of experience as a special ed[ucation] teacher to our board.”

Mark Brunciak, #4 – “We need to tell and show them [children] through words and actions that we put them first.”

Alan Paris, #3 – “I come with a fresh and open mind, a new set of eyes, a new set of ears…and a willingness to listen to all stakeholders.”

Robert D’Arco, #2 – “I’ve spent 45 years dedicating my life to the children of this community... I’m number two on the ballot but first for our kids.”

Dan Gaudet, #1 was not in attendance due to a pending medical procedure.

If you would like to hear the candidates in their own words, you can watch the entire event here.

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