School board candidates discuss their qualifications, debate equity audit, board’s Q&A policy

At an online forum on Wednesday, the five candidates vying for two seats on the Pelham school board discussed their qualifications and debated the district’s racial equity audit and the board’s current policy of not answering residents’ questions during meetings.

Ian Rowe and his family. (Jaye McLaughlin)

For the forum, questions were submitted by PTA and community members. The event was moderated by Eileen Nadelson and sponsored by the Pelham Council of PTAs. The school election, including the vote on the proposed  $80.3 million district budget, will be held May 18 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the Pelham Middle School gymnasium.

The five candidates, incumbents Eileen Miller and Jess Young, as well as Dr. Michael Owen-Michaane, Janice Powers and Ian Rowe, are running for two three-year terms as trustees on the board. The forum opened with candidates asked to discuss what specific elements they would bring to the board of education as a trustee.

“If elected, I would be the only school board member with over a decade of experience actually running a network of public schools,” Rowe said. “If you look at most boards in any type of organization, they’re typically people on it who have expertise in the relevant sector.” 

Jess Young
Jess Young with her family.

Young said she would like to continue her work on the bond-funded construction projects, which includes the new Hutchinson School, and noted she would be the single board representative from the Hutchinson community. “I’m the one board member with the most history on this work and the most intimate knowledge on this work,” she said. 

Powers cited her experience on the Pelham Education Foundation board of directors and her work with Pelham students through Bridges of Pelham, which she co-founded. She expressed an interest in the cultural competence committee (formerly called the diversity committee).

Miller said she has spent a great deal of time on advocacy work with Westchester County officials and has a gained much experience during her first three years on the school board.

Owen-Michaane said he decided to run for the board when Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ asked for help from medical doctors during the pandemic. He wants to work to create safe and effective reopening plans for the district in the coming years.

Some candidates disagreed over the board’s decision to hire the New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools to do a racial equity audit of the district.

Janice Powers. (Deborah Lowery)

The board handed over “tons of information” to the NYU Metro Center, said Miller, who said she supported the validity of the report. “It was data that we collected in the school district from which they also did focus groups,” Miller said. “I know that people are concerned about the numbers of people in those groups, but those are voices. Those are real people in our schools talking about their lived experiences.”

The report only offers recommendations, and it is the board that will decide what steps to take regarding cultural competency, said Miller. 

Although he agreed an equity audit was a valuable step, Rowe said the Metro Center’s “work is grounded in critical-race theory. I think they are determined to divide people up by race and prove race theory. The Pelham equity audit, in my view, they actually perpetuated negative racial stereotypes around black boys.”

Reopening Schools in Fall

The candidates covered a safe return to school in the autumn as the pandemic continues, including the mental health of students.

“When I think about the fall, one thing that I am most focused on is how we can help the students with these rapid changes,” Power said. “I would also like to see some way to either hire more clinicians per building, if not full time, but maybe under some sort of independent contractor-type of approach.”

Owen-Michaane said that he is “totally committed to finding safe, creative solutions to getting all of our students back in school full-time, full day, five days a week.” On mental health, he said, “I believe that our children are resilient and the majority of kids are going to be okay.” He recommended parents reach out to their pediatricians with concerns. 


“As parents and taxpayers, our board owes us transparency and the ability to be heard in public and the ability to be responded to in public,” Rowe said. “Over three years, eighty meetings, four hundred votes, and not a single recorded dissenting vote. You start to get this impression that there is such a commitment to be this ‘united front’ that it actually suppresses our opportunity as a community to understand what the real issues are.” 

The board currently has a policy of opening its meetings for a period of public comment, but the board does not provide answers to residents in public. Instead, questioners are contacted privately.

Miller said the period is for comment, not for question and answer, and cited other vehicles where community members can get their questions answered. In response to the mention of the consistent history of 7-0 votes, she said, “while the vote is certainly the last thing that happens in any issue, it is one hundred percent not the most important thing. The important work happens before that… by the time it gets to the vote, it is one hundred percent vetted and discussed and has been done so publicly.”

International Baccalaureate

Eileen Miller with her family.

There was a question from a resident about the implementation of the International Baccalaureate program and its expansion to more grade levels. Currently, the program is only in place in the middle school.

“The IB program is great in the middle years where we have it because kids are coming together from all over the town,” Young said. In terms of expanding the program, she said, “I would almost argue that maybe the next way we would want to expand this program is in the K through five years where they already do some of this group work.” 

The candidates all expressed a possible interest in looking into the expansion of the IB program to other grade levels, but noted the problem at the high school level of the current crowded schedule of advanced placement, honors, Regents and dual enrollment classes.

The candidates were asked to describe the issues they felt needed utmost attention by the district:

  • Owen-Michaane stressed the importance of a focus on academic achievement, which he said was not mentioned in the strategic plan.
  • Powers said the district needs to grow to support an ever-changing community within the schools. “Our student body represents the diversity of our nation. In terms of socioeconomic status, in terms of family structures, language proficiency, learning abilities, ethnicity and race.”  
  • Young pointed to the importance of building supports for all students and the increased focus on the aging buildings in the district.
  • Rowe said the biggest issue facing Pelham was that of the board failing to reply to questions during the public comment session of meetings, noting the importance of working on board transparency and responsiveness.
  • Miller stated the challenges she sees in the district are interrupted learning and learning loss caused by the pandemic and the mental-health support of students. 

One resident wanted to know about the importance of collaborating with other board members.

“We all speak from our own experiences and perspectives, and we don’t always agree,” Miller said. “But we respect each other, and we trust each other to bring equal levels of thoughtfulness and commitment to all questions.”

Powers said that when serving a community, the community must be at the center of the work being done. “The board works as a body,” she said. “It’s not about one particular individual.”

Dr. Michael Owen-Michaane

Owen-Michaane cited the importance of “active oversight” over student education to ensure pupils are moving in the right direction, and said he will speak up for necessary changes.

It’s important to take in all information and ideas before formulating a final solution, Young said.

Rowe said he would stress the importance for collaboration even when there was  disagreement about facing challenges.


Teachers were the last topic of the evening.

“What we have all learned is, our teacher’s are extraordinary professionals and they know what they need,” Miller said. “I think our first step is to ask them what kinds of supports do they need and how are they are going to be ready to love being in the classroom again.”

Powers said, “I think teachers should be able to focus on what they do best, which is teach. Obviously listen to our teachers, they should have a voice at every committee level and direct lines of communication so we know what they need and what they are going through.”

All of the candidates spoke of the importance of listening to the district’s teachers and staff to discover what they need in order to succeed as educators. 

 The full forum can be watched on the district’s YouTube page here.