Less than two weeks before the Nov. 8 election, board of education candidates Mark Cartella and Mike Nuckols participated in a candidate forum organized by the Haddonfield Civic Association and moderated by the League of Women Voters.
For an hour, Winslow Township resident and moderator Ed Gracely posed questions from the community that touched on a number of issues the district is facing, such as starting the school year earlier and creating a better bond referendum.
There were also questions on issues that have come before the school board, including whether teaching sex and gender issues is appropriate and the candidates’ opinions on the equity council. Both men are vying for one unexpired term.
During opening remarks, Cartella said he’s a parent with kids in the schools ranging from pre-K to third grade, has a background in mechanical engineering and is the head of development and construction for a real estate company in Philadelphia. In his free time, Cartella coaches Haddonfield youth wrestling.
“We are for families, we are for teachers, we are for Haddonfield,” he noted.
Nuckols, also a parent with older kids in the district, described how his mother inspired his candidacy. She was heavily involved with the board of education in her community, and when she died, residents described the impact she had on the community.
“I have wanted to serve in this capacity since I got here,” Nuckols said of the board. “This has been an amazing experience (running for office), … I’ve had incredible conversations and connected with so many amazing people.”
There were several points both candidates agreed on, including that teachers can be trusted to do right in the classroom and that while the equity council is a good concept, it needs revamping. They agreed the most important issue facing the district is a divided community, and stressed community engagement.
Nuckols and Cartella differ in opinion and approaches, including on transgender students. Current policy allows the district to accept a student’s asserted gender identity without parental consent.
Nuckols considered the child’s perspective on the issue, noting that school should be a safe place for kids struggling with gender identity or feeling uncomfortable in their own bodies.
“What worries me is when I hear certain rhetoric and strident arguments with children struggling with gender identity, when we call gender identity ‘unconscionable,’” he explained. “I think that makes kids less safe. I think issues like this are exquisitely complicated and difficult and it’s new to all of us. It’s very nuanced.”
Cartella had a different viewpoint.
“Until the student is an adult, it is my belief and opinion is that the parent should be the sole authority in their lives, notwithstanding cases of abuse,” he maintained. “Should the parents support the child’s desire to transition, I think the school should follow their lead, but it shouldn’t be the other way around.
“Parents should not have to follow the school district’s lead. … Parents should not compete with the school district on how to raise children, period.”
The two men also differ in their positions on curriculum challenges. Cartella said he thought the challenges began with the new mandates from Trenton and noted that a way to fix it may be to improve the equity council and use it to involve the community more.
“(It) comes down to fostering a collaborative approach with our community, working with administrators and empowering teachers to teach a curriculum that’s reflective and representative of our community and consistent with our values,” Cartella pointed out.
Nuckols agreed parents are underrepresented in the curriculum process, but added that the mechanisms for challenging it are there. He described curriculum committees at the state, local and classroom level that involve teachers, administrators and parents.
“I think those mechanisms are in place and fairly effective, although I wish they were used a bit more,” Nuckols said. “Where I do have an issue in terms of challenging curriculum is where you’re calling out certain groups of kids as inappropriate or unconscionable. I think that does a lot more harm than good.”
The full forum is available for viewing at https://haddonfieldcivic.com/2022-boe-candidate-forum/.
This article was updated on Oct. 30 to correct a misquote by Cartella about parents following the school district’s lead.