Candidates for spots on Cherry Hill’s board of education were given the chance to express themselves on a variety of issues through a virtual forum on Sept. 14, a 90-minute program that was overseen by representatives from the League of Women Voters of Atlantic County.
Seven people are vying for three open seats with three-year terms in an election scheduled for Nov. 2: Jen Fleisher, Nick Gaudio, John Papeika, Carolina Bevad, Ilana Yares, Ben Rood and incumbent board member Sally Tong.
Tong was unable to attend the forum in person due to medical reasons, but she issued a statement that read, in part: “I want to help build the best educational opportunities for the children in the district. I give a voice to the community, especially the groups that have not been well represented historically.
“I would like to continue working on school curricula, improving facilities and bringing technology up to date,” she added. “We have a lot to do, and need all the help from the community.”
During the session, moderator Rosemary Goldberg admonished all participants “to stick to the issues relative to the office … and not bring personal matters or other matters unrelated to that office.” From a pool of dozens, Goldberg selected eight or nine subjects that piqued district parents’ concerns.
Two hot-button issues were addressed right off the bat: what diversity, equity and inclusion mean to prospective board members, and their opinion on the now-mandatory African American history course at the high-school level.
“I believe that multiple perspectives make for a well-rounded curriculum. I also think it means having diverse representatives throughout our community,” Bevad noted. “I kind of notice a lot of the same names pop up on different school-design committees. I also support focusing on as many cultures as possible, while still focusing on providing a comprehensive understanding of history.”
Fleisher, whose husband is president of township council, stretched her answer beyond racial lines, revealing that “it means a lot, particularly with special needs and special education. It also means (making time for) gender studies and LGBTQ-plus issues.”
She added that the African American Studies class was a “wonderful step in making sure we become a beacon of light” for a diverse community.
Regarding the class itself, Gaudio cited his time at Cherry Hill High School West in the late 1990s, which included a survey of world religions within the health and physical-education programs:
“Our curriculum should include all cultures equally,” he said. “I think we should be teaching the history of all cultures at the same time. We shouldn’t be isolating one course in one demographic, as if they have a reason to feel insulted.”
As a counterpoint, Yares affirmed her support for the class, as she had at previous meetings, and added this: “Students did not see themselves represented in how African American studies in general was being taught, and by listening to the student voices … they were able to come to a better curriculum.
“As someone of the Jewish faith, I was happy that Holocaust curriculum was included, and so I’m glad to see other representation.”
When the question arose about how to better prepare the community for another effort after the 2018 failure of the three-question, $210 million bond referendum, Rood related how COVID brought into sharp focus the idea that the district should address better air flow among its structural and mechanical upgrades.
“We have to make sure our schools are as modern as possible, but I think the thing that we most need in order to reach out to the community is to let them know what the money goes to, why it’s important and how it’s going to improve and enrich the lives of students,” he continued.
“It’s about communication and transparency.”
Papeika told viewers that the school board and administration need to address immediately what can be done to get the district through the next quarter century, asking, “Is $210 million not enough to get us through? Listen to teachers and parents. What do they want; what do they need?”
Citing the district’s consistent lack of state funding, he opined that additional sources of funding need to be considered, like corporate sponsorships or fundraising beyond taxes. And the question of building replacement versus building refurbishment should be part of the discussion as well.
To read the full biographies of all BOE candidates, visit: https://tinyurl.com/554c4krn.
For more information about the League of Women Voters, visit: https://www.lwv.org/.
To view the full candidates forum, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsl_jbNJtLs.