NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The Unity Square Community Center on Remsen Avenue played host to a small candidate’s forum on April 12, held with one week left before Hub City voters decide which three candidates to serve on the Board of Education.
For the first time in the city’s short history of school board elections, it was the first time such a forum was presented in English and Spanish.
But only two out of the four candidates competing for the three seats showed up at the forum. According to moderator Charles Bergman, the other two “declined to participate.”
Jennifer Shukaitis, who was appointed to the board last year after an elected member resigned, and challenger Yesenia Medina-Hernandez were on hand, but veteran incumbents of the board Patricia Sadowski and Benito Ortiz were nowhere to be found.
Sadowski and Ortiz were appointed by Mayor James Cahill to the board, and both were among the first incumbents to win an election to keep their seat.
In 2012, facing a full slate challengers, they participated in a candidate’s forum organized by Unity Square.
The thirty people in attendance, mostly Hispanic residents with ties to Unity Square or Bergman’s Esperanza Neighborhood Project, asked questions, mostly in Spanish, which were then translated by Bergman.
Bergman began the program by asking a few basic questions of the audience, and bringing everyone up to speed on the history of school elections in New Brunswick, and the context of this election, where three incumbents and one new candidate running for the first time.
“In the past, the Mayor appointed the members to this board. In 2012, the voters decided to change that system and so now there is an elected board,” said Bergman.
“Obviously, not all of us in the community, not everyone is an eligbile voter,” said Bergman, acknowledging New Brunswick’s large population of undocumented immigrants.
“But just know that even those who don’t have the right to vote, do have rights in the schools, and you have a right to participate in the conversation here in our community.”
Then, Medina-Hernandez and Shukaitis both got to show off their bilingual skills, with both women answering questions in their preferred language first.
The questions came from audience members, and touched on a variety of hot-button issues including violence in the schools and lead contamination .
Both candidates spoke like incumbents, though they sometimes stressed their distance from the powers that be.
“I’m not part of the board, I am a parent,” said Medina-Hernandez, a former school district employee who now works at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
Shukaitis, who works for Rutgers University, stressed she has only served on the board for nine months.
One parent brought up a touchy subject that has recently become a high-profile issue for the district: violence and security.
The problem of violence in the schools hit a flashpoint in March when outraged parents, students, and community members protested at back-to-back Board of Education meetings after video showed a 15-year-old being brutally attacked inside New Brunswick High School.
A security guard was terminated by the district for failing to intervene during the attack, as the public pressure and mass media coverage mounted.
“As far as the security personnel, I think that what we’re going to have to do moving forward is ensure that the security personnel have the necessary training that they need,” said Shukaitis.
“Looking at the history of these types of incidents, I hope that this was a singular incident,” Shukaitis said. “As far as I know, violence of this type is really not a regular occurence in New Brunswick schools.”
“I think prevention is important,” she began in her answer to a related question. “What I don’t want to happen again is for an incident like this to happen again… because there are ways to prevent violence and bullying and such things.”
Shukaitis’ also said that the district is working towards implementing a new “anti-bullying program” for the 2016-2017 school year.
“We have adopted a new program, an anti-bullying program that hasn’t been implemented yet, but it’s going to be implemented as of the new school year” explained Shukaitis. “We looked at several possibilities for it… and we chose this program that we think, we hope, will be the most effective.”
Medina-Hernandez did not speak directly about the videotaped attack, and instead focused on getting parents to speak up about issues that matter to them.
“Parents you have a voice. So please don’t be afraid to speak up. That’s the one thing that I always encourage,” Media-Hernandez began her answer.
“Please speak to your principals, to your vice principals,” Medina-Hernandez continued.
For her part she said she would have to learn more about security protocols and what Superintendent Aubrey Johnson is doing to combat bullying and violence.
“I need to learn what are the guidelines and the roles, with the security guards, and how they are supposed to handle the different situations,” said Medina-Hernandez.
“Seeing what is being done is really important and following up on buillding with our Superintendent what he’s doing because, you know, I have to find out from him first.”
Both women avoided taking concrete positions or laying out clear policies, making it difficult to discern the differences between their vision.
Shukaitis and Medina-Hernandez each agreed that the district needs to do more to reach out to parents who don’t have the internet. Medina-Hernandez proposed a newsletter.
Both said they were open to the idea of holding BOE meetings at a more convenient location for community members, but said they would first have to check the “history” of why the meetings are held at New Brunswick High School, which is located on the edge of town.
The evening ended with a question about another hot topic in New Jersey’s public schools: lead contamination in drinking water.
Shukaitis confirmed the district was in the process of testing the water in all of the schools, and that it would make the results public. Medina-Hernandez declined to address the question.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.