EMMAUS, Pa. – Three candidates vying for reelection to the East Penn Board of School Directors pitched their cases at a virtual forum Wednesday night.
Incumbent board members Naomi Winch, Alisa Bowman, and Adam Smith participated in the event. Newcomer Bill Whitney was invited but did not attend for reasons that were not specified. Six total candidates are running.
Up for grabs in the May 18 primary election are four, four-year term board seats. Smith and Bowman have each served one full four-year term, while Winch has been on the board for one-and-a-half years. The fourth seat available seat is being vacated by Ziad Munson.
"I ran for board the first time because East Penn is a good school district and I saw that there was a need for improvement," said Bowman, "and I'm not done."
The forum was sponsored by POWER (Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild) Lehigh Valley; Black Progress PAC; and Promise Neighborhoods of Lehigh Valley. Questions on race, the pandemic, serving special needs students, and fair funding were asked of the candidates.
"It's a problem that we can't all agree to exist," said Smith. "A problem that's going to need a team effort to develop some solutions. I'm not going to sit here and say that I have answers. I'm going to listen."
Winch said she has done a lot of self-reflection and has engaged in conversation with others in order to better understand racial inequities.
"I've really tried hard to set the example of where I went wrong at times and shared my experiences or my learning," she said.
Bowman said she is trying to listen and learn as much as possible.
"The leadership right now is not reflective of the community that we serve so we need to hear those voices," Bowman said. "I'm not helpless. I can actually be a part of the solution. I am in a position to do something especially in East Penn. So I'm constantly looking for ways to bring in more equity. So that what the students (Students Organizing Against Racism) came in and asked for — maybe before they graduate, they’ll be able to see some changes."
COVID-19 learning recovery
Moderators also asked candidates about how they would prioritize the estimated $3.8 million in federal funds the district will receive via the CARES Act.
All three candidates said they are in support of the board's proposed plan that has been presented. Some of the strategies include providing additional math and English courses both in summer school and in the fall.
"We can catch up academically in the long run but some of the social and emotional stuff could get started a little bit earlier," said Winch. "But I think we're off to a good start in our specific plan that we have rolling. But I will be pushing for more social and emotional support for our students."
Smith said the social and emotional problems highlighted by the pandemic are equally important issues that need to be addressed by the district.
"We have some new remedial programs coming in that will address the needs of students who need it," he said. "Also, we have a large amount of teachers that are going to be hired."
Smith said the question is where best to place the new teachers.
"My take on that is that I would want our most veteran, our most experienced teachers working with the kids with the most needs," said Smith. "That's where our need is the greatest. Not that our students that are right in the middle do not have needs. They do have learning loss. That's something that we need to address as well."
"Schools were already pretty strapped pre-pandemic and the pandemic stretched us even more," said Bowman.
Bowman noted while there are counselors in place at the middle and high school levels, there is still concern about the long-term effects of the pandemic on students and how the district will be able to manage them.
"I think we don't even quite have our heads wrapped around how big this problem is and it's going to present itself to us over the next year and we're all just going to have to pivot," Bowman said. "It is something that deeply concerns me."
EPSD is also hoping to receive some of the proposed $1.3 billion investment in funding that Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing for equitable education. Moderators asked if they supported the measure and how they would fight for fair funding for the district.
"Dollars can vary so wildly from district to district," said Smith.
He noted that there are major inequities among nearby districts like Allentown and Parkland compared to East Penn based on the property tax base, yet all three districts are expected to uphold the same academic standards. He said his goal would be educating the community about what a changing formulation would look like under Wolf's proposal.
"I think education is really key," said Winch. "Cyber charter funding in my opinion is criminal. Our cyber charter program in the district is not the best. We'd have a much better program if we had better funding coming into our district," she said.
Bowman agreed, saying that disparities in funding programs like the cyber charter academy versus special education could be corrected with the changing formulation.
"I feel like that might be lower hanging fruit given the current dynamics of the current legislation," she said.
Moderators also asked about challenges in providing enough resources for special education students in the district.
"There are so many issues but I think they all stem from one thing and that's lack of funding," said Bowman.
She said she has been advocating to local representatives in an effort to garner additional state and federal aid for the district that could be used toward special education programs.
"Regardless of what different abilities a student may be bringing, standing behind that student is a family that wants to be heard," said Smith. "My role is to be sure that they're being seen and they're being heard."
Winch, who has five children with special needs, said the greatest thing a parent can do is advocate for those children.
"Be your child's advocate," she said.