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Four compete in District 24 school board race

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Ten candidates are running in contested board of education trustee races this year among Valley Stream’s three elementary school districts.

In District 24 Cristina Arroyo, Anthony Cruz, Markus Wilson and Melissa Herrera are all vying for the seat of Paul DePace, who is not seeking reelection.

Due to shutdowns caused by the coronavirus, voting will be handled remotely. Ballots should have already been mailed to every home in their respective district. In addition to selecting their trustee candidate of choice, Valley Streamers will be asked to approve both the budgets for both their respective elementary school district and Central High School District. The final ballot count will take place on June 9.

Because of the volume of candidates running in Valley Stream, the Herald conducted inquiries by email, seeking their stances on issues pertinent to school district operations, and in the interest of providing voters with information to inform their decisions, only candidates in contested races were queried.

— Anthony Cruz

Educational experience: Currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in education studies with a specialization in politics, policies, and social entrepreneurship at New York University with an expected graduation in 2023; Regents Diploma with Advanced Designation with Honors at Valley Stream Central High School

Professional experience: Current advocacy committee chairman for the NYU Steinhardt undergraduate student government; vice president of publicity and communications for the Central/Memorial PTSA; student liaison for Valley Stream CHSD Board of Education from 2018 to 2019.

Herald: One of the chief responsibilities of a school board trustee is setting the annual budget. With the coronavirus creating uncertainty over how much state aid might be coming to districts, what kinds of hard decisions are you willing to make regarding programs and taxes?

Anthony Cruz: I am personally dedicated to ensuring that District 24’s programs stay in place for all students. We must take care of all students, and the staff that helps deliver our programs. Most especially, our students with special needs, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students who require additional academic assistance and students whose first language is not English should be looked out for. If we receive serious cuts in state and federal aid, I would be willing to consider all of our options — investment in our children should never be forsaken due to a lack of governmental cooperation in funding. That said, we must also be watchful of our district’s fiscal discipline, taking a hard look at all currently existing contracts and programs to determine how effective they are at serving our students. If the district is faced with a weakened economy, I would review non-essential, discretionary spending and cut that as much as possible first before even considering other budget items.

Herald: There has been much debate in recent years on how schools should best prepare students for the future. In your view, where does the balance lie between professional development and creating well-rounded adults?

Cruz: This question goes to the heart of asking ourselves, “What is the purpose of education? What should its purpose be?” The present purpose of education reflects a high level of standardization and accountability, heavily testing students for their efficiency rather than their growth while scrutinizing our hardworking teachers. I believe that, in the words of foundational education philosopher Horace Mann, “education is the great equalizer.” Our schools should not only serve to prepare students academically, but to empower them in becoming active citizens and innovators of creativity. Overall, we need less factorization of our children and more humanity, with programs propelling active engagement in and outside of the classroom. To accomplish this, there are commendable efforts to emphasize more on social-emotional learning, such as Yale’s RULER Program, which is currently implemented in District 24. More pedagogical practices are needed that give special focus to developing students’ nonacademic skills. When we do so, we can balance education to help our children become people possessing both the scholastic and social mindset to be the smart and compassionate generation of tomorrow.

Herald: What do you think makes you best suited to serve on your respective school board, and why did you decide to run?

Cruz: Having recently graduating from Central High School, I understand more personally the impact of board decisions on Valley Stream’s students because I was one such a short time ago. Having served in multiple roles at many levels of our schools, I have gained insight on how to effectively lead and communicate with our entire education community. My unique perspective alongside an unparalleled level of work ethic would help the board deliver the best educational opportunities to all of our children. The input of students, staff, parents, administrators and community members alike are valuable to me, and as a board member their inclusion in the decision-making process would be essential. With me, I would bring in my experience and an eagerness to learn more about how to better serve our children. While I have family members in the district, I see all of our kids as if they were my own. I am personally invested in seeing your children succeed as much as my own family. With passion and positivity, I am running for the Board of Education because I would make all voices heard in the effort to make Valley Stream the best place for our students to learn and grow.

— Cristina Arroyo

Education experience: Bachelors in English literature and psychology, Boston University; masters in psycholinguistics, Boston University; masters in industrial and organizational psychology, CUNY Baruch College; Ph.D (ABD) in industrial and organizational psychology, CUNY Graduate Center

Professional experience: Senior editor, the Nielsen Company, 2007; psychology college lecturer, CUNY Baruch College, 2012; non-profit organizational consultant, various organizations, 2015; leadership college lecturer, CUNY John Jay, 2018

Herald: One of the chief responsibilities of a school board trustee is setting the annual budget. With the coronavirus creating uncertainty over how much state aid might be coming to districts, what kinds of hard decisions are you willing to make regarding programs and taxes?

Cristina Arroyo: Nobody wants to cut programs, and I’m sure most candidates will discuss creative ways to get the money. However, the truth is that money is a finite resource. It’s a real possibility that we won’t get the funds to be able to sustain all programs. Therefore, we need to be realistic and entertain best- and worst-case scenarios. The best-case scenario: We find aid through alternate channels and community outreach to not only sustain current programs, but also cover the additional costs related to this pandemic (e.g., face masks, hand sanitizers, cleaning, etc.). The worst-case scenario: we need to cut programs in order to not have to raise taxes for the community. Hence, we need to prioritize safety, health, and access to education. We need to ensure that:

1: Our students and faculty come back to a safe and clean environment.

2: We provide counseling services to all to ameliorate the mental health impact of the pandemic.

3: We keep our faculty, staff, and administration well-paid with no cuts to benefits. In other words, we need to put our people first, then, when the smoke clears, we can start talking again about extracurriculars.

Herald: There has been much debate in recent years on how schools should best prepare students for the future. In your view, where does the balance lie between professional development and creating well-rounded adults?

Arroyo: We all want our children to eventually find gainful employment, however, this shouldn’t be the top priority. Defining our contribution to society solely by our paid work is limiting, patriarchal and neo-capitalistic. We need to emphasize an education that is not about test scores but about student curiosity; not about what you know, but about how you learn; not about subject learning, but psychosocial development; and not about mass producing workers but about developing life-long learners. With Common Core, we have tilted too much towards the wrong end of the spectrum, and this has adversely affected our students and teachers. By teaching to the test, we are stunting student potential and stifled teacher autonomy and talent. This is not an opinion, this is a fact. I’m a college lecturer, and on the first day of class I tell all my students, “My hope for you in this course is that you leave the last day with more questions than when you came in on the first.”

Herald: What do you think makes you best suited to serve on your respective school board, and why did you decide to run?

Arroyo: First and foremost, I’m a mom of two, so I have a vested interest in our schools. Additionally, I’m a full-time-working single mom who’s intimately aware of the barriers that working parents face. Also, I’m a Latina, who regularly still has to hear other parents say, “This town is changing,” and “I don’t want my white kid to be a minority in his school.” Therefore, not only am I keenly cognizant of the strengths in our school district and community, but also of its weaknesses. Finally, let’s face it: this is a job. The Board of Education is a policy-making, money-allocating committee. As an organizational consultant with two masters and doctoral training in policy analysis and pay systems, I have the education and experience to excel at this position. Furthermore, I also taught leadership and managerial development at Baruch College and I currently teach a masters executive course on ethical leadership and conflict management for NYPD leadership at John Jay. Therefore, it is my role as a mom and a member of this diverse community that drives me to run, but it is my educational, professional and teaching background that will make me great at it.

—Markus Wilson

Education experience: Bachelor of arts in political science, Livingstone College, 1991; law degree, North Carolina Central University School of Law, 1994

Professional experience: Assistant district attorney, Bronx District Attorney’s office, 1996; agency attorney, NYC Transit Authority, 2004; associate, Gordon & Silber, P.C., 2006; hearing officer, NYC Department of Education, 2007; associate, Lester Schwab Katz & Dwyer LLP, 2008; owner, Law Offices of Markus A. Wilson, P.C., 2009; associate, Sim & Depaola LLP, 2012.

Herald: One of the chief responsibilities of a school board trustee is setting the annual budget. With the coronavirus creating uncertainty over how much state aid might be coming to districts, what kinds of hard decisions are you willing to make regarding programs and taxes?

Markus Wilson: I believe we must adjust our unanticipated, immediate response to the pandemic and transition to development of a long-term plan to accomplish and continue our district’s educational goals. Notwithstanding present and future budget constraints, our district must not lose sight of its primary objective to continue providing children with a quality education, including exposure to the latest technology, the arts and languages, while maintaining small class sizes. I would recommend a budget that looks to save money by reducing or finding alternative means to providing programs rather than eliminating programs. I believe a budget that goes beyond the tax cap should be a last resort.

Herald: There has been much debate in recent years on how schools should best prepare students for the future. In your view, where does the balance lie between professional development and creating well-rounded adults?

Wilson: Programs that prepare students in science, technology, engineering and math are important to prepare our students for today’s global economy. However, I am a firm believer that a well-rounded curriculum is essential for students to become well-rounded adults. That is, subjects such as music, art, history and foreign languages in conjunction with STEM courses are critical to producing students who can express themselves and think critically. While these programs are referred to as “extras” or “specials,” I believe they must be regarded as part of a core curriculum that stimulates creativity, imagination and innovation that we need to benefit our community, our nation and our world.

Herald: What do you think makes you best suited to serve on your respective school board, and why did you decide to run?

Wilson: I am running for a seat on the school board because I am uniquely qualified to represent our children, parents and community as the district continues the progress we have made providing our children with an exceptional educational experience. As a former prosecutor with the Bronx County District Attorney and former hearing officer for the NYC Department of Education, I know firsthand how important education is to our youth. While at the district attorney’s office, I helped start a Habitat for Humanity chapter and served on its board of directors. This wonderful organization brings affordable home ownership to qualified Bronx residents. As part of our board duties for Habitat, we voted on the location of the next project, how to best allocate our funds to that project, what contractors to use for that project and interviewed and examined the prospective homeowners who would receive the homes. From this experience I learned that serving on a board requires the ability and willingness to listen to the community, learn from past successes and failures and to collaborate with fellow board members in order to continue providing quality education to the students in our district.

— Melissa Herrera

Education experience: Associates degree

Professional experience: General manager retail operation (past profession). Currently a stay at home mom.

Herald: One of the chief responsibilities of a school board trustee is setting the annual budget. With the coronavirus creating uncertainty over how much state aid might be coming to districts, what kinds of hard decisions are you willing to make regarding programs and taxes?

Melissa Herrera: This is a very difficult question to answer considering there are many moving parts and so much uncertainty regarding numbers at this time. Going forward I think we have to take a maintenance approach to our programs, which would work hand-in-hand with protecting the tax cap. Having been in the district for eight years now, I’ve bore witness to partnerships, that in moments of need have been able to secure grants and funding for our schools. These partnerships with out local legislators would be my top priority.

Herald: There has been much debate in recent years on how schools should best prepare students for the future. In your view, where does the balance lie between professional development and creating well-rounded adults?

Herrera: When we look at development we need to take a well-rounded approach — an inclusive approach that doesn’t favor one or the other but rather embraces that children require both a well balanced set of both soft skills and hard skills. As adults we measure our interactions based on a set of criteria. We must support our youth and promote the development of all skill sets from an early age.

Herald: What do you think makes you best suited to serve on your respective school board, and why did you decide to run?

Herrera: I respect our education system and our community. I have had the pleasure of working with various organizations such as the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts as well as being a serving member of the PTA. I believe this has allowed me to have a holistic perspective at what makes our community thrive along with areas of opportunity. I’m passionate about being a part of the process and the relationships that I have built along the way would only allow me to be of further assistance.