By JENNIFER GLACKIN
Specially Written for The Leader/Times
WESTFIELD — Nine of the 10 candidates running for the Westfield Board of Education took part in Thursday’s virtual “Meet the Candidates,” presented by the Westfield Parent Teacher Council and moderated by Lisa Winkler from the League of Women Voters.
There are three open positions on the board this year. Current member Kent Diamond is running for re-election. The other candidates are Sahar Aziz, Priti Dave, Deborah Feldman-Kahn, Paul Monusky, Leila Morelli, Sonal Patel, Eldanidya “Eldy” Pavon, Wendy Rogers and David Sexton.
Ms. Patel, who is a teacher in another district, was unable to participate in the virtual event because she was attending an educational conference.
Due to the number of participants, candidates were allowed 90 seconds to respond to each question and no rebuttals were permitted. The questions dealt with communicating with residents, resources that would benefit the district, school reopening and the state of athletic fields.
“My role is to listen, be open, be available and have a conversation,” said Mr. Diamond, whether it is during his children’s activities or at a board meeting. Other candidates, such as Ms. Dave, Dr. Feldman-Kahn, Mr. Monusky, Ms. Rogers, Ms. Pavon and Ms. Morelli, spoke about using social media as a way to engage the community, suggesting surveys as a possible method. Ms. Aziz said live-streaming the meetings, similar to this year’s virtual meetings, would allow parents who cannot leave their homes or who get home from work late to participate and ask questions in real time.
Four of the candidates, including Dr. Feldman-Kahn, Ms. Morelli, Ms. Pavon and Ms. Aziz, said the district needs more mental health counselors. District facilities and infrastructure also were at the top of many candidates’ lists, among them those of Mr. Diamond, Mr. Monusky, Ms. Morelli, Ms. Pavon and Ms. Aziz.
Funding additionally was a top priority. Ms. Pavon suggested hiring a grant writer to look into more programs and funding. Mr. Monusky questioned why some schools had PTOs paying for grounds or air conditioning and suggested looking into redistributing some of the budget. Mr. Diamond said he would use his experience in the finance world to help the board look for more resources.
Ms. Rogers, who has a child with special needs, said she would like teachers from different departments to “have more time together” because she believes that different classrooms can benefit from some resources that are already in the district. For example, a quiet space in the classroom for children with autism could be helpful in a regular-education room as well. Mr. Sexton agreed with Ms. Rogers that some of the suggestions for the district should come from the “folks in the building.”
Ms. Dave, who answered the question last, said she agreed with many of the other candidates but added that the students could benefit from cultural experiences outside of the classroom and that the board needed student voices.
Among other suggestions, Mr. Diamond cited technology, while Ms. Aziz mentioned more robust STEM programs.
As for school reopening, many candidates thanked the district for putting health and safety first and for reassessing the model on a continuing basis. Ms. Pavon shared a personal struggle involving her special-needs son, who regressed after last year’s switch to remote learning, and said she would like to see more support for those students who are struggling, a sentiment echoed by Ms. Rogers and Ms. Aziz. Dr. Feldman-Kahn agreed, saying that more support was needed for students, but added that the staff also needs more support to help with the increased workload and mental stress.
The candidates also agreed that the district fields are in disrepair and that the burden of maintaining them should be shared by the district, the town and possibly private sports programs that use the fields. Mr. Diamond reported that the town is paying for a review of the fields behind Edison Intermediate School, so this type of work has already begun.
The evening ended with all of the candidates complimenting one another in their closing statements. Mr. Sexton said he was happy to be a part of a night that celebrated “great optimism for our schools.”
For more information on each candidate, visit the board tab on the district’s website, westfieldnjk12.org.