UNION, NJ — Without a local cable TV channel access to cover their debate, school board candidates took to the internet to get their messages out, even if this method came without any back-and-forth exchanges.
Six candidates — running in two groups of three — held separate Facebook Live forums Monday, Oct. 22, the original date of the League of Women Voters’ debate that was canceled following a change in TV34 channel policy and a subsequent lack of participation.
The groups, “Knowledge, Experience and Integrity,” comprised of former school board President Ronnie McDowell, Kalisha Morgan and Kim Ruiz, and “Save Our Schools,” made up of Steven Le, Michelle Schulz and the Rev. Samuel Wright, made their pitches for the three seats in the Nov. 6 election.
Each of the two Facebook Live forums had a moderator to ask the questions posed by viewers.
Questions ranged from what the candidates will do for special needs students with individual education plans to what they feel is the primary work of a board member.
“I’ve dealt with representing students that weren’t receiving the proper services that were laid out in their IEP,” Ruiz, who’s been an attorney for 14 years, said during her group’s forum. “I have both law and special education experience.”
McDowell holds a master’s degree in special education and Morgan has a special education certificate from Kean University.
“There’s always been a long-standing stigma against special needs children and I think it’s very important to start building bridges to ensure that if you have an IEP, you are treated with the same dignity and respect as other students,” Le said during the “Save Our Schools” forum.
Both groups had similar answers with regard to the primary work of board members.
“The BOE doesn’t run the school district. We work with the superintendent to make sure that the district runs efficiently and effectively,” Morgan said.
“You should be able to ensure the public that the central office is doing what they’re supposed too,” Schulz said.
McDowell, Morgan, Ruiz and Schulz all have children currently attending Union public schools; Wright has two grandchildren in the district, and Le is a lifelong Union resident and product of the township’s public schools.
All the candidates agreed that it is the board’s job to work as a group, but each side had different priorities regarding what they would try to implement or change first.
“In the immediate, we want to restore fiscal responsibility and public trust in the management of our schools, so that we can reinvest in our children and our classrooms,” Le stated in an email.
Morgan suggested a newsletter that should be distributed to every parent in the district.
“I think we would like to start a monthly newsletter to the parents to, not only address the issue of transparency, but to celebrate the good things going on in our district,” Morgan said in a phone interview with LocalSource on Sunday, Oct. 28.
The two groups traded barbs before the forums, including a video that was posted Monday, Oct. 15, to the Save Our Schools candidates’ Facebook page regarding McDowell’s time as BOE president.
The group, among other accusations, claimed McDowell “failed our children and failed our schools,” pointing to the district’s scores in math on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers standardized test.
McDowell replied in a statement at the BOE meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 16.
“The board can only act as a whole,” he said. “One individual cannot accomplish anything. So, when I see me being blamed for everything, it’s disheartening.”
The Facebook Live forums came about when the Union Township Council voted to bar debates from the TV34 local access channel at its meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 28. The change came about due to the League of Women Voters’ policy against allowing unopposed candidates to participate in the televised debate.
Without TV34 access, the “Save Our Schools” candidates decided against participating in the debate. They did, however, agree to three-minute candidate statements to be televised by TV34.
According to Le, UnionTV34 confirmed that last year’s BOE Candidates’ Forum had 368 views, with only nine viewers watching the entire debate.
“Our campaign then made a strategic decision to move forward with a Facebook Live forum to answer the public’s questions on important issues. As a result, our Facebook Live generated over 1,500 views,” Le said in an email on Sunday, Oct. 28.
The other candidates who wanted to participate in the LWV debate even after TV34’s policy change, but decided not to do three-minute candidate statements, agreed that their Facebook Live forum was a success.
“Our forum went on longer than expected because we got so many questions,” Morgan said in a phone interview on Sunday, Oct. 28. “People didn’t know that we were such a strong team and I believe that we reached more viewers than past debates.”
Le said he believes voters need to be informed about who is running for the board in his email.
“Former BOE President McDowell said when he was first elected to the board, ‘hold us accountable!’ And we are going to hold Mr. McDowell to account on his record of mismanagement: the budget crisis, layoffs, cuts, high school performance, and more,” he said.
According to Lee, “Voters need to be informed of what they will be getting, if Mr. McDowell is returned to the board.”
McDowell responded to the criticism, claiming he’s being blamed for things that occurred not under his watch.
“The worst part about it for me is that a lot of it is a bunch of b.s. that they’re putting together,” he said in an Oct. 28 email. “It’s not true and it’s not fair. I was one of nine members on the board and a lot of what they were saying happened in this past year when I’ve not even been on the board.”