A board of education is a local governance body. Verona’s BOE would no more weigh in on matters in Cedar Grove’s public schools than its BOE would become involved with ours. And when BOE’s face controversial matters, they are local controversies.
Or at least they used to be. In the past two years, boards of education across the country have faced sharp questioning on national topics not always pertinent to education that, in some districts, have escalated into threats against board members and violence at board meetings.
The two Verona BOE candidates elected from among the five running this November (Diana Ferrera, Denise Verzella, Michael Boone, Sara Drappi, and Aaron Spiegeland) will step into this different world. So we wanted to know what they thought about it and what they would do about it. Their responses to the fourth of MyVeronaNJ’s BOE candidate questions are below, in alphabetical order by last name:
Over the last several years, there’s been an effort to politicize school board elections with state and national issues that are not related to local education and school governance. How would you handle this politicization?
Boone: I want to have a campaign that focuses on extreme positivity and a can-do attitude. One of the biggest frustrations for me is that there is a movement afoot to really get to the school board level and bring the national political issues, national cultural issues more front into our school boards, and frankly, I don’t think the school boards are a place for the culture battles. It leads to misinformation and a misunderstanding of what some of these programs are. So for example, just this week, there’s been a lot of hubbub about sex education in schools. And somehow this has become politicized. Verona schools’ curriculum on sex education, or family life, whatever we want to call it, has been relatively unchanged for the better part of two and a half decades. Somehow in the state of New Jersey, this has become a polarizing issue and it really shouldn’t be because if you look at the stats, an overwhelming majority of New Jersey parents support the notion of some form of age-appropriate sex education in the schools. So the question is, how is that gotten into? I’m not saying it’s necessarily the case in Verona but at least in New Jersey schools, how has that seeped into the conversation when people of all political persuasions agree that it’s an important issue. This Verona community has done a great job of coming together. People of all persuasions on the political spectrum have come together, whether it was through 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and so on, you walk around town and you see the “No one fights alone” signs in Verona, and it’s again people of all political persuasions. I would just remind people that, amid these divisive issues, we are stronger together. I think there are political forces at the national level that seek to divide, and the beauty of Verona is seen when we come together as one.
Drappi: I have handled it already. I’ve experienced it already. Parents have a right to speak at board meetings, as long as they are within the code of conduct in our policies. They have the right to speak about anything during public comment at the end of our meetings. You really can’t limit that, other than the timing of it. Parents have a right to advocate on the behalf of their children and board members have an obligation to listen to it. The way the code of conduct and the board meetings are structured is a source of frustration for some members of the public. Our board meetings are designed for a board meeting in front of the public. By law we have to discuss most of our matters and our decision-making in front of the public. And we are required to listen to public comment to help inform our decision. What we are not allowed to do, based on our district policy, is to engage in conversation and debate with members of the public at those meetings. I know that this frustrates members of the public. They’ve expressed that to me, but that’s the nature of our meetings. Public comment is common. It’s not question and answer. That’s just the nature of the Board of Education meeting. And as frustrating as it is, I think we listen, we make decisions based on the information we gain from the public and the information we gain from the administration. I, as a board member, do not make decisions based on politics. I make decisions based on what the most positive impact will be on our students.
Ferrera: Simple, I am here to serve the students of Verona and the residents and parents of Verona period. In the end, keeping student needs in mind I think helps to just keep us on a clear path. This goes back to service. I’m here and I want to have the opportunity to serve the students of Verona, period.
Spiegeland: I’m an advocate of putting children first, and what that means is I really do want to try to keep politics and personal views out of school. Being on the school board, to me, is focusing on delivering the curriculum and extracurricular activities that will make sure students when they graduate, when they leave our school system, are best prepared for their days ahead. Of course, I recognize there are federal and state standards that have to be addressed. But again, that’s a conversation for the community to have. And together we’ll figure out the best path forward.
Verzella: The board has done a good job already in allowing people to express their opinions. I wish that we would be able to have virtual comments, but I understand the reasons why right now. I think that school boards are here to make sure children get educated. The education of children is important for the entire community, not just for the people who have children in the school. Learning to be good citizens is important. I honestly don’t understand why school boards are political, to be quite honest, because all everyone wants to do is teach their kids and teach students reading and writing and how to get along in the world. Because that’s really what we’re teaching our kids how to be good citizens of our country and our world. So how would I handle it? I would listen politely. I would thank people for their comments and I would take them under advisement like I take everything under advisement. And ultimately, when it comes down to making decisions as a board member and voting on policy initiatives, or policy agendas, I would vote how I feel would be in the best interest of the students. That is the person that I’m there to assist the most.
You can read the answers to question one, about the role of a school board, here; question two, about the aftermath of COVID, here; and question three, about parental involvement in education, here. All of the candidates’ answers to all of the questions asked, including questions about their individual platform, are here.