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Four vie in District 24 2021 school board race

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Editor’s note: This is the first of three parts of the Herald’s 2021 school board race coverage.

This year, two seats on Valley Stream’s School District 24 Board of Education are being contested. District 24 comprises the William L. Buck, Brooklyn Avenue and Robert W. Carbonaro elementary schools. With a student body of nearly 1,100, according to New York State Education Department records, it is the smallest of Valley Stream’s three elementary school districts.

Osbourne Traill is challenging incumbent Trustee Donna LaRocco, who was first elected in 2009, and is seeking her fifth three-year term on the board. In the other contested race, Meaghan Fleming is challenging Markus Wilson, who was appointed to the board in December, following the resignation of Trustee Joseph Shipley, who moved out of the district. Wilson is running for the remaining year of Shipley’s term.

The past year has seen a major increase in conversations focusing on racial equity in a district, in which students of color are a majority, but its teaching staff remains largely white. In November, school officials announced the formation of a diversity, equity and inclusion committee in the hope of remedying that disparity. Coverage of the race is intended to reflect these conversations, among other issues.

The Herald conducted its interviews by email.

 

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Fleming Vs. Wilson 

Herald: The state recently announced additional funding for universal Pre-K. What are your thoughts about the importance of such a program as well as working to get it implemented or expanded in your district?

 

Meaghan Fleming: I think universal pre-K would be beneficial to all families in the community, particularly those with working parents. Moreover, it is important for children to learn how to socialize and engage with others, and to have fun opportunities. I think logistically that it could be implemented at one of the larger of the three elementary schools. It would take some planning, like any other new initiative, but with the federal relief funding factored in, I do not see any downside.

 

Markus Wilson: It is wonderful that the state has provided additional funding for pre-kindergarten programs. Universal pre-kindergarten would be a tremendous benefit to the children and families in our district. Pre-K programs build solid foundations for future literacy and success in school and offer a financial benefit for families in the district. Under the present rules, we are required to house the pre-K program in our school buildings. Unfortunately, we do not have enough room in our district schools to implement this program right away. We would need further guidance from the State Education Department as to whether we could partner with outside groups to provide this educational service to our district. We should continue to work with our elected leaders at the state and federal level to secure increased funding and the flexibility to implement universal pre-K in our district.

 

Herald: Over the past year, issues of racial equity have come to the forefront in national and local conversations. In Valley Stream, an increasing disparity has emerged in recent years between the community’s diverse student body and its teaching staff, which has remained largely white. What are your thoughts about this disparity, and what systems, if any, do you imagine could be implemented to address it?

 

Fleming: I think the new [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] committee started by the Board of Education is a step in the right direction.  As long as they remain transparent, set goals and are held accountable for results or lack thereof, we can start to alleviate that disparity. I also think we need to have guidance counselors at the high school level to encourage students of color to pursue opportunities in the field of education.

 

Wilson: The continued lack of diversity in the hiring in the district has been a source of frustration and disappointment to many people in the district, including myself. Diversity hiring in our district is long overdue. This year, the district has embraced new initiatives to diversify our hiring practices, such as partnering directly with colleges and universities, and expanding online employment recruitment to attract [Black, Indigenous and people of color] teachers who had historically been excluded. I am excited about the direction our district is moving, and these initiatives are a positive first step towards correcting this problem. As a trustee and member of the diversity, equity and inclusion committee, I look forward to measuring the progress of these initiatives and rooting out inequities as we confront them.

 

Herald: As an individual school board member, what, if anything, would you like to see changed in regards to school district policy and procedures? 

 

Fleming: As previously stated, I would like to see the district’s continued efforts to create a teaching staff that is more culturally reflective of our community, as well as a proposal to see an increase in programs for students with disabilities, as well as an increase in mental health and wellness initiatives. I would like to implement policies where we can utilize leftover food from school breakfast and lunches to help better serve the less fortunate and create less waste overall. Responsible waste management as well as recycling are also programs I’d like to see in the near future.

 

Wilson: I believe the district has done an excellent job in providing our children with a quality education, access to technology and enhancements to school security. As a board member, I would like to find a way to implement universal pre-K. I would also want the district to find a way to revive the foreign language programs that were lost years ago.

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LaRocco Vs. Traill

 

Herald: The state recently announced additional funding for universal Pre-K. What are your thoughts about the importance of such a program as well as working to get it implemented or expanded in your district? 

 

Osbourne Traill: As a father of five, I understand the importance of universal access to pre-K programs. Financially it would be a relief to the working-class citizens that live in our community. At one point my wife, Michelle and I were paying approximately $40,000 a year for pre-school for our sons Osbourne and Allan    . . . Access to universal pre-K would help level the playing field. It would reduce inequality because the largest positive impact would be on the most disadvantaged families. Studies show that access to universal pre-k would also reduce the cost of outreach programs, lessen retention in grade and reduce the need for special education at a later age. It will also help children develop important social and self-regulation skills that would raise the overall quality of District 24. I believe that universal pre-K is an excellent policy that would help our community attract and retain the families that will lead Valley Stream into the future. Implementation of this policy will be one of my primary focuses as a member of the board of District 24.  

 

Donna LaRocco: Universal Pre-K is based on the premise of creating equity in access to early educational experiences for all children. This effort creates an opportunity for children to attend pre-K whose families might not otherwise be able to afford to send them, thus providing them the learning readiness children who attend pre-K programs access.

At first glance, it is seen as a district-based program in district buildings. Unfortunately, Valley Stream 24 does not have any unused space in its buildings. The regulations also allow for a district to seek out a partnership with a community-based pre-school program through a request for proposal process. The partnership assigns development of the program and curriculum, oversight of the program and assessment of the program as the responsibility of the district. Implementation of the program will be the responsibility of the community-based program. It is important to be aware of all the regulatory requirements as well as the allowable utilization of the funds. Sustainability is another concern because this program is dependent on government grant funds. 

Even though it is a complicated process, the effort required will be well worth it if it yields opportunities that benefit our children. The main reason for me running to remain on the Board of Education is my commitment to our children and their education. 

 

Herald: Over the past year, issues of racial equity have come to the forefront in national and local conversations. In Valley Stream, an increasing disparity has emerged in recent years between the community’s diverse student body and its teaching staff, which has remained largely white. What are your thoughts about this disparity, and what systems, if any, do you imagine could be implemented to address it?

 

Traill: There is an alarming disconnect in District 24 that we can no longer ignore, especially in today’s racial climate. This disconnect is deeply rooted in our educational system. While the majority of teachers in District 24 are white, they lead classrooms that contain an ever-increasing number of students of color and at the same time a declining number of white students. This racial divide is damaging to students on several fronts. Having too few teachers of color places the students and teachers at a disadvantage that is sometimes not recognized until the damage is already done. Studies show that racially diverse role models in the classroom benefit everyone, regardless of race. Having few teachers of color or one in a school building can create feelings of isolation and, in the end, contribute to people of color leaving the profession at a mind-numbingly higher rate than white teachers. The solution seems just as obvious as the issue itself. Hire and retain more teachers of color. As a district trustee, I would implement a more robust recruiting process that would include the following:

- Encourage and support initiatives led by current teachers of color.

- Build a pipeline of educators of color.

- Create and share public examples of your district’s support for diversity and equity.

- Partner with external organizations that promote diversity and equity.

- Demonstrate equitable practices in the treatment of students.

 

LaRocco: The issues associated with racial equity have been a driving force behind my work on the Board of Education during the past year. I advocated for both the creation of a diversity, equity and inclusion committee and the creation and adoption of the district’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policy. The lack of diversity amongst teaching staff has become a focus for all school districts nationally and locally this past year. There will be change. Broader representation is needed, and achieving that benefits all.

Valley Stream 24 has already begun implementing systems to increase diversity amongst teaching staff.  Tremendous strides have been made in recruitment through expanded outreach and collaboration to engage a more diverse pool of candidates. The district also reviewed its hiring process and all its component parts, such as job postings, interview questions and the composition of interview committees, to make it as inclusive as possible. This is an ongoing process, one that will be reflected upon and adjusted as the district moves forward to constantly improve and continue to yield results which benefit our children and our schools.

 

Herald: As an individual school board member, what, if anything, would you like to see changed regarding school district policy and procedures?

 

Traill: As an individual board member, one of my goals is to promote tolerance, multiculturalism and equality. From the outside looking in, it is my opinion that the district as a whole can do a better job in these areas. Considering our district’s demographics and diversity, one of the policies I would like to see change as an individual school board member is the celebration and observances of religious holidays. Holiday celebrations are an excellent opportunity to provide a window into a culture or understand more about a group of people, as well as to reinforce the diversity of all people’s experiences. Students can engage in rich educational experiences by reading about, researching and experiencing holidays. I believe students would appreciate the opportunity to evaluate other points of view critically and constructively. I understand this is not a simple task, as there are several logistics to consider; however, we cannot and should not ignore the fact that the current policy is exclusive. It is time for us to fulfill the words of what this great nation promises us to our community, for we can’t be, “One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all“ when “all” does not include everyone in the community we represent. 

 

LaRocco: I have been a member of the Valley Stream 24 Board of Education District Policy Committee for the past six years. All policies get reviewed and updated regularly through monthly committee meetings and then by the Board of Education. Moving forward, our policies will have to keep equity as a primary focus. I want to assure you that there is equitable access for all Valley Stream 24 children and their families. The full and lasting impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on schools is not yet known, and those factors will certainly serve to inform policy related decisions in the future.  

In my mind, policy drives what the district does, and everything the district does prioritizes what is best for our children.

I am seeking re-election to the District 24 school board to continue to be a voice for all of our stakeholders. I can bring my experience and knowledge of the district’s history along with current facts and data into my decision-making.