Five candidates are vying for three seats on the District 24 Board of Education on May 16. Newcomer Rachel Figurasmith is challenging incumbent Trustee Cynthia Nuñez, who is seeking her first full term. Trustee Armando Hernandez is defending his seat against challenger Cristina Arroyo in his bid for a fourth term. Trustee Melissa Herrera is running for re-election uncontested.
Service has defined Figurasmith’s life. With deep ties to her local Jewish community, the 36-year-old mother of three is a special-education teacher and a nonprofit executive, and has been a local education consultant for 15 years. Figurasmith says the end of federal coronavirus relief funding prompts a time of reflection as the community considers its core values and how those values will be financially prioritized in future budgets.
“I would identify safety and inclusive education as top priorities for our district,” she said. “Centering these values would mean continuing to fund mental health initiatives, recruiting and retaining excellent and diverse educators, and ensuring access to free school lunch, universal pre-K, and other support services for those most in need. While federal funding may be ending, alternative sources of funding will be available.”
Figurasmith argues that standardized testing does not provide an objective measure of improvement as proponents suggest, because they are unfairly biased against lower-income students, students of color and those for whom English is not the primary language, and they are a source of pervasive anxiety for many students. Despite her grievances, however, Figurasmith acknowledges that test-taking performance on standardized tests should factor into how much federal and state funding the district receives, and the community should be made more aware of this.
Nuñez joined the school board in 2022. Family is the main pillar of her life, and she raised two children in Valley Stream District 24. Her daughter is a graduate of Valley Stream South High School, and her son is a seventh-grader at South. Nuñez says that federal pandemic relief funding was never meant to be “a permanent source of funds” to keep important programs functioning. She says she has striven with her fellow trustees to use financially responsible budgeting practices to make those programs sustainable without pandemic aid.
Nuñez argues that evaluating a student’s progress in the classroom has never relied on a single metric like standardized testing. “Our district takes several factors into consideration when evaluating a child’s learning style, performance and academic plan,” she said.
She also noted the need for continuing to expand programs and resources that bridge a child’s experience from one academic level to another.
Arroyo, a data manager, a nonprofit educational consultant and a former editor at the Herald Community Newspapers, says she wants to rectify what she sees as inequities in the school district and promote policies that will work for all students. The single mother of two says that while Covid federal aid is coming to an end, the pandemic’s effects are still not over.
“We should explore alternative sources of funding, including seeking state and local funding, private grants and community partnerships,” Arroyo said. “Additionally, we must prioritize transparency and equity in our budgeting processes.”
Standardized testing, she argued, should, in theory, compare student success across the board, but they fail to do so in practice, and instead the strongest predictor of student test scores is family income. “Not only are these tests empirically invalid and inconsistent in evaluating effort and ability, especially for multilingual learners and students with learning disabilities,” Arroyo said, “but they also undercut funding for ‘underperforming’ schools, which need it the most.”
Hernandez joined the board in 2014. All three of his boys have been educated in Valley Stream schools. Hernandez says that district administrators, and his fellow trustees, knew the pandemic-era funding — a stopgap designed to shield the district from acute pandemic-fueled financial trouble — wasn’t meant to last. “We have been financially frugal with those funds during our budget process,” he said, “and ensured that we have not used it to finance any recurring district expenses like mental health support and teacher development. Therefore, the end of the temporary funding will not negatively affect these high-priority funding items.”
Despite the pandemic, the district, Hernandez said, has “maintained an upward trajectory, providing our students with new immersive learning experiences, Spanish program, robotics, and an expanded technology initiative.”
On the issue of standardized testing, he said that “over the past year, we have seen that most of our parents in District 24 strongly support the progress-monitoring approach we have implemented to ensure thorough student performance evaluations.” The board does not wait for the results of standardized assessments to offer feedback on student performance and progress, Hernandez noted, and parents have welcomed that policy.
Herrera, who joined the board in 2020, is raising three children in the district. Echoing her fellow trustees, she said that while the federal pandemic aid was crucial, it was always understood to be temporary, and that will not derail the board’s commitment to “emphasizing student and teaching mental health, expanding teacher recruiting efforts, and promoting the overall wellness of the staff.”
Herrera said that “waiting for a standardizes test to tell us the needs of our students would be a disservice to our community, and progress is dynamic and happens at the moment.” She is proud, she added, of the district’s “multi-tier” approach to learning, which “intertwines its curriculum around foreign language programs, music and the arts.”
Herrera said she believes that looking at each student’s holistic development is key to their long-term success.
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