Tuesday night’s forums designed to introduce school board candidates to their communities in the Red Clay and Capital school districts featured no fireworks, arguments or debate.
The closest either forum got to controversy was when Red Clay candidate Jim Casper concluded his remarks by criticizing the questions asked.
“I want to say that the questions that were posed to us by this forum are completely different from the questions that I’m getting from actual voters and parents,” said Casper, who is running against Ashley Sabo and Vic Leonard Sr.
While Casper has said he is running as an independent, he also accepted campaign help from the Delaware State Republican Party.
“The questions that were asked to us were very complex and nuanced, and having only a minute to answer them and in some cases, formulate a solution to these problems is quite a monumental task,” Casper said.
The questions were formulated by the 10 groups sponsoring the forums, which run through May 3. The groups included Delaware NAACP, Network Delaware, ACLU Delaware, and Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence.
Kelly Coffrey, who is on the board of the Delaware Parent Teacher Association, served as the moderator for both forums Tuesday.
Candidates had two minutes to introduce themselves, one minute to answer each question, and one minute for concluding remarks.
Here’s what they were asked:
- What are our school board members’ roles and responsibilities? How does your background fit into this role? And how does that role different from the role of the superintendent or administration?
- Do you believe implicit bias exists in your district? If so, what do you plan to do as a school board member to make sure implicit bias isn’t negatively impacting students and staff?
- Data shows that Black, Brown and special education students are disproportionately represented in discipline referrals, suspensions and arrests. What other steps beyond existing policy should the school district take to ensure fair and equitable treatment for all students.
- Given that Ethan’s Law (which requires firearms in residential areas to be safely and properly stored so minors cannot access them) has just been adopted, please elaborate on your views on guns and safe storage and how this can affect the increasing gun violence in our communities, schools.
- What are your views around banning books and critical race theory, and how will you implement policy to reflect it?
- The school-to-prison pipeline seems to be increasing. What policies would you recommend to end this and what are your views on school resource officers and how they impact us?
- Give me the top three characteristics that you think make an effective school board member.
Also asked at the Capital forum:
- A local school district voted to support a moratorium on charter schools. What are your views on the school choice? please elaborate on how you view charter schools and less angles, first, I was, I was looking at the charter schools, in our state.
- The attendance at school board meetings has been higher over the past two years due to the virtual option. What is your position on continuing to offer a virtual option for school board meetings and provide an example in how you value Community and Family Engagement.
One forum attendee also weighed in on the questions.
“A bit biased on picking which questions to ask. Typical!” wrote Larry Fletcher in the Red Clay forum.
But another attendee was delighted with the results.
“Thank you for hosting,” wrote Nate Durant. “This forum helped me make an informed decision for my family.”
Delaware’s school board elections are May 10.
There are 42 candidates campaigning across 16 different counties for the May 10 election.
Eighty participants joined the Red Clay forum, and 40 joined Capital’s.
The forum was designed by its sponsors to prevent debates and arguments. The moderator would ask a question and then allow each candidate to answer it.
After the moderator finished her list of questions, First State Action Fund’s Sade’ Truiett asked the candidates questions that community members sent into the Zoom chat.
Candidates also responded to these questions from the public:
- Red Clay serves a diverse demographic of students. How will you work to ensure that each student in school receives the appropriate resources needed based on their individual and unique needs?
- How can you work with the district to still give high-quality education to our students with special needs, but decrease the workload on all of our teachers?
- How would you accommodate transgender students in school?
Background: Sabo has been on the Red Clay board since 2017. Her motivation for running was her daughter who has special needs. She has a degree in nursing and worked at St. Francis as well as Baylor Women’s Correctional Facility. As a board member, she’s worked to develop a Diversity Committee to address implicit bias within the district and education community.
Sabo said during the forum that there should be training for administrators on restorative practices and de-escalation techniques to prevent an incident from escalating into a situation where students get suspended or expelled.
Relating to critical race theory, Sabo said all students should be adequately represented in the curriculum being taught.
“We can teach difficult topics in a respectful and appropriate manner that allows students to learn from the past as well as from their peers who have had different life experiences, because through education, we can teach the next generation how to improve and make better choices,” she said.
Districts need to be all ears when it comes to transgender students and their families, she said.
It’s important “to show them that we are there for them, we support them and that they are heard and accepted in our district,” she said.
She said a successful school board member is a team player, passionate, and flexible.
During the forum, Casper said he finds it concerning that so many students in the state go to private or charter schools rather than taking advantage of the schools in their immediate community.
School board members need to have a strong backbone to speak up and stand for change, he said.
A self-identifying book junkie, Casper said he doesn’t support banning books, but districts need to ensure the books are grade-level appropriate.
“I define critical race theory as any curriculum that focuses on identity and by consequence, pits one group against another by labeling groups as either oppressed or oppressors,” he said. “No objective thinking person can believe that this type of curriculum can have a positive effect on the school or the community at large.”
As a gun owner and parent of one, Casper believes it’s crucial to enforce gun safety.
“Creating a culture of gun safety within the community is paramount, for children as well as adults, so we understand at the deepest level that guns are not to be played with, abused or neglected,” he said.
Although Casper does not think transgender athletes should be able to compete in sports, he does think they should be supported and respected.
“I mean, they are students, they’re children, first and foremost, and they need to be treated as such,” he said.
Vic Leonard Sr.
Leonard said during the forum that he wants districts to make sure parents are fully supported with regard to their child’s educational journey, whether that be providing childcare services, wraparound services, language programs or transportation services.
He would like to address the disciplinary discrepancies in the district. Students of color are punished disproportionately when compared to punishments for white students, he said..
History should be taught exactly as is – not censored to appease the beliefs of certain groups or individuals, he said.
“Banning certain books has become a political ploy to divert attention from some more urgent issues in our schools,” he said.
Leonard believes it’s the district’s responsibility to make transgender students feel as safe and unharmed as possible.
A lot of the people he spoke to when going door-to-door were misinformed about what transgender means, and schools should focus on educating people on the topic to help them better understand, he said.
Candidates responded to these questions from the public:
- What issues do you believe your district needs to address in its academic program and offerings? What changes would you recommend to improve student achievement?
- What is your vision for education for this school district?
- How will both candidates ensure that true representation matters in selecting teachers of color that are well-deserving of Teacher of the Year?
- With COVID more children are behind academically. How can you get more support in classrooms and less in a district office?
Felicia R. Duggins
“I’m the person who always fights for those who don’t have advocates – that is who I am and that’s what I do,” she said. “I’ve challenged the status quo as a first-year teacher, as a first-year coach, and many times as a veteran teacher and school administrator to support our students, staff and parents.”
A school board member’s role is to provide equitable and valuable education to all members of the community, she said.
Those in the education community must first acknowledge they have implicit bias and be trained on it and multiculturalism to eliminate that bias, she said.
Duggins supports continuing to livestream meetings to get more families involved and engaged with their child’s education.
She defined critical race theory as an academic topic that discusses how hurtful decisions harm the entire community.
“The school board should have a clear policy stating how books are selected and weigh the viewpoints of the various stakeholders of these policies to be reflective of diversity and be mindful of academic freedom,” she said.
She supports charter schools and thinks the competition can bring the best out of public schools.
Duggins said districts need to focus on preparing students for life after graduation.
“I think this could start by giving students opportunities to see different people from the community and what types of jobs they work,” she said.
A successful school board member will have a clear vision for the district’s future, be able to implement policies to improve student achievement, and be an effective communicator with the community he/she serves, she said.
Joan L. Engel
Background: Engel is a retired Capital teacher of more than 35 years. She also served on the organizing board of Early College High School at Delaware State University, which gave her a taste of the school board business.
“I just always want the underdog to get ahead,” she said during Tuesday’s forum, adding that she wants to fight for students with disabilities and those in marginalized communities.
She believes the school-to-prison pipeline is a result of zero tolerance, school suspensions and expulsions.
Students should not face routine out-of-school suspensions, but rather an area within the school where they can attend class virtually to not miss learning opportunities, she said.
“Disciplinary referrals should be a last resort if everything else is lost,” she said. “I think a lot can be handled by the classroom teacher.”
Engel supports the livestreaming of board meetings, saying that family is the most important part of a child’s education and should have full access to district meetings so they can be as engaged as possible.
Engel is not a fan of banning books or censorship, but does think that a child’s home is a more appropriate place to read certain books.
“For books that create too much controversy or angst in students, I wouldn’t ban them, but I would prefer they be read at home and not as a requirement from the district,” she said.
She believes a successful school board member must participate in active discussions to implement changes, they must advocate for all students regardless of background or identity, and they need to do the same for teachers in order to make them feel supported.
The forums continue Thursday through May 3. Here are the dates and times:
- Milford – Thursday, April 28, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
- Appoquinimink – Monday, May 2, 6 p.m. to 6:45 p.m.
- Caesar Rodney – Monday, May 2, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
- Colonial – Tuesday, May 3, 6p.m. to 7:15 p.m.
Attendees must register. To register, click on any of the districts above.
Raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Jarek earned a B.A. in journalism and a B.A. in political science from Temple University in 2021. After running CNN’s Michael Smerconish’s YouTube channel, Jarek became a reporter for the Bucks County Herald before joining Delaware LIVE News.
Jarek can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at (215) 450-9982. Follow him on Twitter @jarekrutz
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