For the first time, on Tuesday, Oct. 12, the Voorhees Public Schools (VPS) district held a ‘Meet the Candidates’ event where community members had the opportunity to meet and ask questions to the board of education candidates.
The hour-long event was split into two parts. For the first half hour, each candidate was introduced by a VPS staff member before introducing themselves. Each candidate was given the same amount of time to speak before the next candidate. Following the introductions, the panel broke off into a meet and greet setting.
Moderator, teacher and President of the Voorhees Education Association Anthony Klock had asked the candidates prior to starting whether they would like to take questions from the audience or stick to the original plan and do a meet-and-greet session instead. While Monica Watson (current president), Rachel Van Aken (current vice president) and Randi Stoopler were in favor of doing a panel, candidates Deborah Wellings and Tara Edel were against it, so the original plan continued as scheduled. Julie Ketover, a write-in candidate, was not on the panel to introduce herself, but was in the room to answer questions following introductions.
While some residents were disappointed by the format, they were still provided the time and opportunity to ask the candidates questions one on one.
The Sun asked each candidate the following question: “What are your top three objectives for running for the board of education?” and gave the candidates the opportunity to elaborate on their answers. Themes from across the board included transparency and openness, academic excellence, creating equity throughout the district, parental involvement (with the curriculum and in the search for a new superintendent) and recovering from the pandemic.
For running mates Wellings and Edel, their priorities revolved around parental choice, academic excellence as well as transparency and accountability. During their introduction, both noted that the board can reject guidance from the state if they choose to and agreed that it was important for parents to have a say in what goes into the curriculum.
Wellings emphasized the importance of returning back to normalcy and making masks optional during her introduction, and elaborated on the curriculum changes later.
“We think that [curriculum changes like social and emotional learning] is going to take away from the academics and kids need to be caught up from the learning loss from last year,” Wellings said. “We think more focus on that should be the plan.”
Edel expressed concern over kids who don’t have access to broadband internet as well as Gov. Phil Murphy’s Act 4454, that would include education in gender and sexual orientation and identity for grades kindergarten through twelfth in addition to the wanted expansion of diversity and inclusion.
“There’s going to be a lot of focus on, what I feel, are inappropriate discussions for young children, so that’s my concern–to make sure that that’s going to be taking parents rights into consideration,” Edel said. She added that it was important that teachers are careful in the way they implement the curriculum, especially for kids with a history of trauma.
During Watson and Van Aken’s introductions, the two reviewed their accomplishments from their term on the board starting in 2019. This included implementing a full-day kindergarten program, beginning construction for a new kindergarten facility at Kresson, the board’s handling of the pandemic and addressing the dismissal of the previous superintendent in May. Both believe in vaccines, masking and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID.
Watson’s top three objectives were being open and transparent, continuing to ask the tough questions and ensuring academic excellence. She emphasized the importance of the community understanding the decisions that are being made in addition to what they are and alluded to the transparency being given with the superintendent search.
“We are going to have a ton of community involvement,” Watson shared. “[There will be] some task force, some community groups that will be focus groups to help educate our decision. But it’s also important for them to understand why we’re making the decisions we’re making.”
Van Aken’s top three objectives were finding “an innovative, excited, fantastic leader for our district, ensuring that equity has a place across all facets of this district while making sure we’re supporting all students and making sure we get back to school and keep our students safe and hopefully getting back to normalcy as soon as possible.”
“I go around the country and hear great leaders and the amazing and innovative things that are occurring in their districts, and all I do is want to soak that up and bring it back to this district,” Van Aken said.
During Stoopler’s introduction, she talked about her experience as a parent with a special needs child. While she is a stay at home mom, she remains active in the community by being on the Special Needs Committee of The Jewish Family and Children’s Service and on the board of The Jewish Community Relations Council.
Stoopler’s top three objectives were to “recover from the pandemic academically, socially and emotionally for the kids, be really forthcoming with information and transparency and create parental involvement.” She also emphasized the importance of community involvement while finding a new superintendent, and suggested creating a parent advisory board to help with the interview process.
As formerly mentioned, Ketover did not receive an introduction, but shared that her objectives were to address and close the academic, social and emotional gaps from the pandemic with targeted programming, improve the IEP (individualized educational plans) and 504 processes for special education and make sure that there is technology equity across the district.
“When kids have special needs, they often get either 504s or IEPs, and having my own experience advocating for my children for 504s, I think there’s opportunity for improvement in the lifecycle of it,” Ketover said. “So from the start, identifying the need, partnering between the administration and parents to develop the 504 and then see it through with appropriate execution so the accommodations are regularly updated year over year to meet the kids’ needs.”
The election will be held on Nov. 2. Voters will be able to vote early, by mail or in person, beginning Saturday, Oct. 23 through Sunday, Oct. 31. from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Voting information can be found at https://thesunpapers.com/2021/09/14/mayors-column-early-voting/.
A full list of Early Voting Centers can be found at camdencounty.com/service/voting-and-elections/early-voting-center/.