Montclair school board candidates discuss their backgrounds, thoughts on referendum
Three of the four candidates running for seats on the Montclair Board of Education in November took part in a candidate forum on Wednesday, answering questions about why they would be a good fit for the position, their thoughts on the upcoming bond referendum, how they would work to close the achievement gap and more.
Yvonne W. Bouknight, Brian Fleischer, Monk Inyang and Noah Gale are running for three seats on the board in the Nov. 8 election. Gale did not attend the candidate forum Wednesday due to illness. All four candidates have previously vied for a seat on the board, and Inyang currently serves on the board.
During the virtual forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters for the Montclair Area and the Montclair branch of the NAACP, the candidates were asked questions submitted by the public. They are running for a three-year term.
A video of the forum is available on the Montclair TV34 YouTube channel.
Bouknight, a mother to two daughters that attended and graduated form the Montclair public schools, spent her career as an educator, working with all ages, from kindergarten to college, she said. She taught future teachers as an adjunct professor at Kean University, worked with children with special needs and served as a literacy expert.
“I would love to serve the community of Montclair,” Bouknight said. “As a longtime resident of Montclair, I have firsthand knowledge of the cultural impact that exists in this town.”
Bouknight has advocated for women, children and youth all over the world, she said. She has supported a school in Haiti, teaching English as a Second Language to promote literacy, and worked in Newark, where she grew up, with women who experienced domestic violence and women who were incarcerated.
“My experiences are diverse,” Bouknight said. “I bring to the board an openness, a listening ear and also an advocate for public education. I believe all children should have the right opportunity to grow to be a person of the 21st century.”
A Montclair High School graduate himself, Fleischer is now a parent of two in the district. Fleischer has dedicated his career to the field of public education, he said. He has served as auditor general for the New York City public schools, business administrator for the Montclair public schools and now serves as the director of enterprise risk for the New York City School Construction Authority. He has served as president and vice president of PTA’s across the district and recently finished a two-year term as Montclair PTA Council vice president.
“Public education is my thing, it's what I've dedicated my life to,” Fleischer said. “I was raised by an educator, I'm married to an educator, I've surrounded myself with educators and district leaders and custodians and nurses and school support staff.”
Fleischer’s mother was a kindergarten and first grade teacher in the Montclair Public Schools for 23 years and his wife is a school counselor at Teaneck High School, according to his campaign website.
“I know where we need to go and I'm really passionate about this district and want to help it get there,” he said.
Inyang, who was chosen by board members in January to fill the seat of the late Dr. Alfred Davis Jr., is a father of two students in the district. During his tenure on the board, he has served on the finance and facilities committee, working with community members, teachers and administrators to help shape the upcoming bond referendum, he said. He has also worked to help with the expansion of the Restorative Justice program and continued to focus on ensuring equity throughout the community.
Inyang comes from a diverse professional background, with time spent in the arts as an actor and writer and in the corporate world, he said. He’s passionate about the creative arts and strategy. He currently works as the influencer and entertainment partnerships director at Anheuser-Busch.
“I want to continue to see some of the big strides that we've seen,” Inyang said. “With the improvement of communication between the district and the public with the hiring of a communications director, the work that has to be done with the bond and the reinvestment in our communities and the work that we do to continue to revamp our curriculum with equity as a key stakeholder.”
Gale, a junior at Montclair State University, is a Montclair High School graduate who frequently volunteers at district events and regularly attends school board meetings, he said in a statement shared with the forum sponsors and read aloud at the beginning of the event.
What he lacks in experience, he makes up for passion for the Montclair schools, he said in the statement.
“I am running for the Board of Education because I care about students, teachers, staff and public education,” Gale said in the statement. “Our goal should be to have as many different voices as possible to be part of the conversation.”
A main focus of Gale if elected to the board would be to “protect special education.”
“I believe that we need more special education professionals and need to make sure that they all get the health benefits that they deserve,” he said in the statement. “I also think we need early screening of children by special education evaluators so that intervention can begin when students are as young as possible.”
All four candidates have expressed support for the $187.7 million bond referendum that will be placed before voters Nov. 8. Bouknight, Inyang and Fleischer all said Wednesday that the referendum work was one of the most important issues facing the district. Inyang and Fleischer emphasized the execution of the project plans and the transparency and accountability throughout the process as being critical to its success.
The safety of the school buildings is essential to the success of students, Bouknight said.
“The project and opportunity is massive,” said Inyang, who has worked on the referendum in his position on the board’s finance and facilities committee.
The projects will take years to complete and require the help of several stakeholders, community members and contracted experts, he said. And throughout the process, communication will be key.
“This is a big year, as far as you know, stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, there's been some misses in the way we've communicated in the past,’” Inyang said. “The only way to show that there has been some change in that area is to have an opportunity to do that.”
As a current board member, Inyang is not permitted to tell people how to vote, only to provide information about the plans.
It’s “absolutely critical” that investments are made in the schools, Fleischer said.
“For too long we've tolerated an inadequate level of investment in our school facilities,” he said. “And it's really come back to bite us over the last several years both before and during the COVID pandemic.”
It’s also critical that the work is properly overseen, a process that Fleischer is familiar with, he said. In his current position with the New York City schools, he works to “assess risks to the successful execution of school capital projects.” He’s “very familiar” with the capital project oversight that's necessary to be successful, he said.
In response to a question about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected students, the candidates discussed their ideas for working to get students back on track.
Learning loss and a downturn in the social and emotional health of students is clear after the pandemic, Inyang said. Kids are having to learn how to resocialize, he said. But efforts such as those by school board student representative Justin Comini to push for mental health support for students and creating safe spaces for students are exciting, Inyang said.
Working with teachers to identify kids who may have fallen behind and then providing the resources they need will also be essential, he said.
“Many of our students have suffered trauma, and we need to take care of their mental health and social and wellness needs,” Fleischer said. “They're not going to be in a position to learn if they're not well, so we've got to look at that.”
By providing additional learning opportunities, after school, during weekends and the summer, students can learn standards that they have missed, Fleischer said. The district also needs to provide staff with the professional development they need to support students who are struggling, he said.
The pandemic affected the whole community, and it’s essential that the district provides safety nets for students and staff, in school and out of school, and in collaboration with community partners, Bouknight said.
“I think it's important that we just not think that it's going to disappear or it's going to get better, but provide the resources and the opportunities to get children and teachers and parents back on track,” Bouknight said. “Healthy minds bring about healthy children and healthy children and minds have healthy parents which make a healthy community.”