The candidates for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education touched on the topic of special education — among several other issues — at the second of three candidates' debates last night.
In light of recent speculation that the school district would be moving away from two-teacher inclusion classrooms in the elementary schools — a rumor that the district says is not true — several candidates discussed their support for the inclusion model.
Madhu Pai said it would be wrong for the district to take away a model that had been introduced to students and with which parents were very happy and comfortable. She talked of her child being in one such two-teacher inclusion classroom as a non-classified student and of her child's positive experience of being in a two-teacher inclusion classroom.
Amy Higer also specifically stated her support for co-taught inclusion classrooms.
Jennifer Payne-Parrish, who is running as an incumbent, countered Pai by saying there were no such plans to take away inclusion — although Payne-Parrish did not specifically indicate two-teacher inclusion classrooms. Payne-Parrish voiced her support for the continuation of inclusion classrooms overall — as did Karen (Tia) Swanson said, "I think we can say that we all support inclusion."
The six candidates — Jeff Bennett, Wayne Eastman, Amy Higer, Madhu Pai, Jennifer Payne-Parrish and Tia (Karen) Swanson — vying for three seats up for grabs on the nine-person Board of Education also answered questions about curriculum, budget, their vision for the district, science and technology, contract negotiations, district communications, the perceived gender gap, and teacher tenure reform. Their responses to many of these questions can be seen in the attached videos (being loaded throughout the course of Tuesday).
The six candidates broke down along two lines:
Wayne Eastman, Madhu Pai and Jeff Bennett are running together on a platform of excellence, innovation and fairness. Eastman spoke of steering the district toward "cost-effective global education." Bennett spoke of improved curriculum, including providing more options for students with after-school enrichment. Pai spoke of the Board not deferring to the Superintendent but working to create policy with the Superintendent. She also spoke of "raising the bar on excellence" and "springboarding struggling students to at or above grade level and rewarding high achieving students." Bennett stressed that the split between the two de facto tickets was not about de-leveling but about "new ideas."
Jennifer Payne-Parrish said that she, Karen (Tia) Swanson and Amy Higer were concerned that the other candidates would be "stalling progress" in the district with a "vision that does not include all children." She said that she, Swanson and Higer were committed to maintaining the direction of the district while ensuring "strong institutions." Higer wanted to be clear that providing educational opportunities for all children also included creating a "school environmentalt that motivated kids." Swanson saw the schools as belonging to the community and as the community's "greatest challenge and asset." She said she did not want to see the schools become "a reflection of our fears and preconceived notions."
Monday's forum was sponsored by the South Orange Maplewood Presidents’ Council and the League of Women Voters of Maplewood and South Orange.
If you missed Monday's forum, you will have one more chance to see the candidates all together at the Community Coalition on Race's forum at Marshall School on Thursday, April 12 at 7:30 p.m.
The election takes place on Tuesday, April 17. Polls will be open from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.