Alper, Huerta discuss special education, more at debate

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The two candidates running for the one open seat on the West Orange Board of Education participated in another virtual debate on Oct. 12, in an event jointly hosted by West Orange Cares About School and the West Orange Special Education Parent Advisory Council. Incumbent Ken Alper, the current BOE president, is running for a second term on the board against challenger Melinda Huerta.

Special-needs students were a topic of discussion at the debate, with each candidate speaking about how to better support those students while school buildings are closed and virtual learning is ongoing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we’d all agree that distance learning is just a stopgap measure,” Alper said, after praising the efforts that special education teachers have already made in the last several months. “We need to get our kids back to school as soon as we’re safely able. We can’t pretend that Zoom is just as good or that we can do everything we need to do over Zoom.”

He added that to meet the requirements of special education students’ IEPs, the district needs a plan that replicates in-person learning while online in the best way possible.

“You want to be able to get to the heart of our concern, that some kids might be regressing,” Alper said. “That’s why we’re being so deliberate in the way we’re assessing skills, to see where the regressing is taking place so we can tackle it as soon as possible once we’re back.”

In her answer, Huerta said that expectations for special-education students can be lower than they are for general-education students.

“We’re not providing the rigor that they deserve,” she said at the event. “I think that’s a real disservice to our students, when we don’t challenge them enough and we don’t raise the bar for them and help them really achieve the level of academic success that they are capable of.”

Alper and Huerta were asked if they would support expanding the number of seats on the board. Huerta supports expansion; Alper does not. There are currently five seats on the West Orange BOE; many other Essex County boards of education have nine seats.

“I believe that by expanding the board, we can have better representation of the community and also help alleviate the workload,” Huerta said. “Just having the five members, it can be a lot of work.”

She pointed out that expansion would take at least two years, because the BOE would have to vote to approve the measure, and then it would subsequently be on the general election ballot. But Huerta also said that having more board members would help expand outreach into the community and better help families navigate the school system.

Alper, however, took a different view.

“I don’t agree that it would reduce the amount of work each board member has,” Alper said. “This is the least important reason, but the reality is that it would add work and delay the board’s processes by pushing things off to committees. That means more meetings, not fewer.”

In his answer, Alper said that board members wouldn’t want to miss being involved in board processes that happen on a committee on which they don’t sit.

“You can’t miss it,” he said. “You don’t want to miss it. You don’t want to be the board member who says, ‘I didn’t participate in the budget process; I’m not on that committee,’ or you didn’t think it was important to go to the equity training because other people on the board went.”

Alper also pointed out that, with more seats, there is a higher chance that candidates would run for election unopposed, without much scrutiny.

“That’s how you end up with people on your school board who are vehemently anti public school,” he said. “That’s the real danger in expanding.”

Other topics discussed at the debate were diversity, gifted and talented programs, technology, and facilities. The debate is available for replay at Election Day is Nov. 3; West Orange voters should have already received their mail-in ballots.