Forum: Six school trustee candidates discuss board transparency, strategic plan, student mental health post Covid-19
Running for three, three-year terms are Eileen Miller, Jackie De Angelis, Natalie Marrero, Paula Wood, Theresa Mohan and Will Treves.
May 14, 2022
The six candidates running for three open Pelham school board seats discussed board transparency, the district’s strategic plan, student mental-health issues due to Covid-19 and how to support student needs at Monday’s board of education candidate forum.
The forum was run by the Pelham Council of PTAs and questions were submitted in advance by both community members and the PTAs, with moderation by John Hessel from the League of Women Voters. The school election will be held on May 17 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m in the Pelham Middle School gymnasium. Residents will also vote on the $83.7 million district budget and a proposed capital reserve fund that would pay for construction and repair projects using operating budget surpluses.
Candidates for the three-year terms as trustees are Eileen Miller, Jackie De Angelis, Natalie Marrero, Paula Wood, Theresa Mohan and Will Treves. Miller had previously served on the board but lost in last year’s election, while the other five candidates are new. There are no incumbents in the field this year.
The candidates were questioned on whether or not they believe the current board upholds its standards of transparency. This issue was brought up in the context of the public-comment period during trustee meetings, where the board has a policy of not answering questions publicly and instead emails a community member privately later.
“There is a disconnect between what the board does and what the community expects,” said Miller. She said she wants to avoid rumors and would move to possibly answer some questions in public.
Marrero talked about her discontent with the current approach, describing a meeting where she waited three hours to share her public comment, only to receive a nod from the board members.
“The district can make an effort to make meetings more engaged and more welcoming,” Marrero said.
Mohan said there was a feeling of not being welcome at current board meetings and that she would encourage more participation from the public in order to avoid rumors that come from a disconnect between the trustees and the community. To increase the approachability of the meetings, Mohan also said she would like to move away from the strict, formal nature of board sessions.
“Informalities would increase the welcomeness,” Mohan said.
The candidates discussed the current strengths and weaknesses of the strategic planning process, as well as how they hope to improve it when the new plan is drafted in the next year.
Miller said she wanted to see the strategic plan “evolve.” With prior experience on the board, she said she understood the work it took to write a plan and that her goal would be to have the process take a new form, as it is a “reason people come to this district.”
“When we move to the next strategic plan, that we have a strategic plan that is really heavily based in robust community engagement,” De Angelis said. “So, having more data points from the community in forming that plan.”
Wood said, “[W]hen I looked at the strategic plan a few days ago, I was so excited to see things like the Pelham inquiry cycle and the performance-based assessment consortium, which is a way of assessing students not with tests, but with the actual work that they are doing in the classroom. And there was also discussion about a senior year internship program and extension of the (International Baccalaureate) personal project.”
Impacts of Covid-19 Pandemic on Student Well-being
One of the major concerns for all six candidates was the impact Covid-19 has had on both academics and the mental health of students in the district.
Marrero said mental health and learning loss due to the pandemic were “some of the deepest challenges” the district faces. She cited an article about those who were most impacted by the pandemic: low income and students of color.
“I would like to ensure that our strategic plan addresses those needs,” she said. “I would like to make sure that any budget that we may have that is in excess is used to work towards addressing those needs of our children who are most affected by the pandemic.”
Treves also said helping students recover from the impacts of Covid-19 were one of his top concerns.
“The outcomes from Covid were wildly different for different individuals from different families,” Treves said. “Different families had wildly varying resources and experiences throughout the last two years. And so, addressing those outcomes for those who have suffered both academically and emotionally from Covid in the form of investing in that loss is obviously extremely important.”
Announcement on Email Issue
At the beginning of the forum, Annemarie Garcia, president of the PTA Council, made a statement regarding an email that was sent before the forum. The email was sent from a third party and used SEPTA’s text about the forum and included the signatures of the group’s officers.
“I’d like to make a statement on behalf of the PTA Counsel, SEPTA and all the PTAs,” Garcia said. “You may be aware that an email was sent out to a personal list with content copied from a SEPTA email earlier in the day. The email includes the SEPTA board’s signatures and footer and can be misconstrued as SEPTA endorsing candidates. I would like to take this opportunity to say that the PTAs, including SEPTA, have not and never will endorse, support or oppose candidates for any public office, including school boards.”
The PTAs are non-for-profit corporations and endorsements of candidates would go against the rules for such organizations.