NAACP Rome Chapter hosts Board of Ed candidates for virtual Q&A

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Issues of equity, teacher resources and meeting the social-emotional needs of students and staff emerged as priorities as NAACP Rome, New York Chapter hosted a virtual Q&A on Monday to provide the five candidates running for the Rome City School District’s three Board of Education seats with a platform to introduce themselves to the voters and share with them their vision for the students, families, staff and faculty.

Elections will be held in Rome on Tuesday, May 18, with polls opening at 9 a.m. and closing at 8 p.m.

Jackie Nelson, president of the NAACP Rome, introduced the event moderators:

Dr. Shanelle Benson-Reid, doctorate in education leadership from LaVerne University, is a principal of Access Global Group and consultant to the Rome district; and

Maya Nelson, who holds a master’s degree in Creative Writing from Brunnell University in London, is an adjunct professor at Mohawk Valley Community College, author and a graduate of Rome Free Academy, Class of 2013.

The format for the virtual panel, presented live on Zoom, but also available to the community via One Tap Mobile or dial-in for audio-only, invited each candidate to briefly introduce themselves and their reasons for running, followed by a series of questions, to which each candidate enjoyed an equal, prescribed time frame in which to share their response.

The candidate field includes two men, three women and is diverse across education, experience, profession, race and reasons for standing up to serve the people of Rome as a member of their Board of Education. They approached the thoughtful slate of questions from richly diverse perspectives viewing broad issues through lenses ranging from those of career professional educators and administrators to passionate parents of students facing challenges including being on the autism spectrum, to medical conditions such as Type 1 Diabetes to being victims of bullying. The candidates drew from long-spanning professional experiences to poignant personal ones to frame their responses to questions reflecting the key issues currently facing Rome’s school communities.  

• Elena Cardwell-Reddick waxed with pride at being a Rome native who enjoyed the entirety of her K-12 education in Rome’s city schools, engaging in concert violin, track and field and cheerleading and going on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Cazenovia College. She ventured to Atlanta, where she built a career over decades in conflict management in the legal profession. In 2016, her daughter began to experience issues in what was a densely populated urban school district. The thought was that she may have high-performing Asperger’s Syndrome.

Rooted in the strong foundation provided to her by her own public education, Cardwell-Reddick decided to bring her daughter “home to Rome,” where she believed she would receive superior support and instruction. She was discouraged that an ultimate diagnosis of her daughter’s condition took two years from enrolling her in 4th grade and deeply disappointed in the bullying to which she has been subject.

Cardwell-Reddick hopes to make a more meaningful difference in the changes she hopes to see by serving as a member of the Board of Education.

Dr. Stephen Hampe is the only one of the five candidates to have served on the Board of Education previously, a three-year term from 2017 to 2020, during which he served as an officer, beginning as clerk, moving on to vice president, and then as president during the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Hampe grew up and attended school in Massachusetts. He went on to teach for 10 years in New York City, before going on to earn his Ph.D in psychology.

“I didn’t grow up in Rome, I chose Rome,” Hampe said of his decision to make his home in the city. He revealed a keen understanding of New York’s Foundation Aid formula, how it — more than any convening of people or events, has caused the district’s budget issues, and how recent changes to the formula, inspired by challenges emerging from the COVID crisis, create an opportunity to bring back programs sacrificed prior.

Hampe’s message diverges from several other candidates in his belief that the resources and even programs do exist, but simply haven’t “gotten the press” they need to inspire people to choose Rome and its schools. But he shares common ground with Cardwell-Reddick in his understanding of the cachet for quality by which the district was once defined.

He summed his goal in rejoining the Board as his wish to “bring Rome back to the prominence it once enjoyed and should enjoy again.”

• Felicia James-Williams has been a resident of Rome for over 15 years. A native of New York City, she and her husband met the moment where there was just too much hustle and bustle, and they too chose Rome; a small city that provided the employment opportunities in the healthcare field, where James-Williams had built her career, but also the slower, simpler quality of life they were looking for. She works as a residential director, supervising a staff of 25 professionals. James-Williams and her husband are raising their niece, who is a current student in the Rome district. It has been through her niece’s experience that James-Williams has been introduced to and impacted by the district and inspired to seek to serve on the Board of Education. “Teachers should be able to respond effectively to the diverse needs of students,” James-Williams said, “and I think I can do something to help.”

• Craig Ferretti began by sharing that “a sense of community has always been at the forefront of my thinking.” He offered that he was running to serve on the Board of Education because he wants to do something to contribute to that sense of community. Ferretti has lived in Rome for almost 20 years, since he began his career in public education in a neighboring district.

For the last 15 years, he has served as an elementary school principal for the Camden Central School District. His wife, a lifelong resident of Rome, is a teaching assistant at Bellamy Elementary school. His daughter is a junior at Rome Free Academy and his son, now a college freshman, is a graduate of RFA.

Ferretti shares his understanding of the reality that resources are not infinite and need to be used responsibly, but promises that, if elected, he will “keep the best interests of Rome’s kids” central to every decision he makes.

Anna Megerell proudly calls herself a “lifelong Romer.” A graduate of Rome Free Academy, Megerell studied journalism and ventured to Atlanta, where she had the opportunity to work briefly for CNN. She found her passion, though, in collaborating to open restaurants, and opened almost two dozen of them. But, like Cardwell-Riddick, when she had the first of her three children, she, too, came home to Rome and the quality public school education she remembered.

She shares a home with her fiance, with whom she has two more children. She currently works in the education field for Madison-Oneida BOCES as a teacher assistant in the 8:1:1 Intense Management Needs Program while, at once, pursuing her bachelor’s degree in special education. Her professional and academic goals are informed by her personal life as a parent to one child on the autism spectrum and another facing the challenge of Type 1 Diabetes.

Megerell said as both a resident and a parent, she does “not really like the way the school district is run.” But, she believes it is important that parents with children currently attending school in the district step up and serve on the board and bring that perspective to it. She and her family enjoy living in her home city and, in the context of having lived in the large urban center that was Atlanta for over 10 years, she believes that “there is no better place to raise children.” 

If elected, what would your priority be?

Cardwell-Reddick and Hampe were similar in their focus on connecting parents with administrators. Cardwell-Reddick hopes to be a “bridge,’ while Hampe sees his role as a “steward,” but they both hope to help those cohorts to find “common ground.” James-Williams and Ferretti hoped to hone in on the students.

James-Williams tied in the importance of the teachers and providing them with tools to reach the needs of all students, while Ferretti highlighted the social-emotional needs of students, made more acute by the challenges created by facing COVID-19 this past year, and the importance of addressing those needs to help students be “ready to learn.”

Megerell placed a poignant priority on students with special needs and offered specific examples of how recent cuts to programs and resources have left too many of these most vulnerable students and their parents with “nowhere to go.” She hopes to see Rome schools be a place where all students are welcome, “no matter their background.”

What is your position on resource officers in schools?

Hampe was an outlier in pointing out that he has not always agreed with the presence of security officers in Rome’s schools, pointing out that many don’t know that there is a distinction between school resource officers and school security officers. He shared the distinction is not defined by the district, but by the state and that he was surprised to learn that there is little to no training provided specific to working in a school-based environment or directly with students.

He reminded that, while the rash of school shootings that inspired the desire to have resource officers in schools were very real, they also remained statistically very rare, and that while many residents were comforted to know that the officers were present in the schools, it was also important to consider that “not everyone sees a police officer as a comforting presence.”

James-Williams and Cardwell-Reddick supported the presence of school resource officers, but were concerned with their appearance in police uniforms, carrying weapons, as being intimidating to students, where that was counter-intuitive to the unique opportunity they enjoyed to build relationships with the community’s youth. Megerell offered personal, positive experience with working with a rotation of school-based officers who did an admirable job of engaging the students.

Ferretti, Megerell and Cardwell-Reddick echoed the importance of officers building relationships with students and that doing so should be a primary responsibility. Ferretti and Megerall emphasized the importance of keeping the school community safe and acknowledge the role that the on-site officers play. Megerell pointed out that there was no means by which to prevent a student from entering school with a concealed weapon, such that the security function the officers filled was important.  

Ferretti seemed to sum up the consensus of the candidates in his closing message to school resource officers, “Get to know the kids. Be there for them.”

With resources spread to varied degrees across the district, how will you build equity?

Ferretti pointed out that the challenge was not necessarily to add resources, but to instead evaluate the resources Rome already has and re-allocate them based upon identified need. He shared that sound data exists to define what resources exist and where they are needed and that this data should be relied upon when deciding where to commit them. Hampe agreed that need should dictate the distribution of resources and acknowledged that this is primarily an issue for elementary schools, where some parents are better able or feel more empowered to speak out and advocate than others, which tends to result in the desired outcome of increased resources. James-Williams echoed that the priority should be placed upon the needs of a school.

Cardwell-Reddick adopted a deeply practical and realistic point of view as she expressed her position to simply say, “it’s difficult.” She shared that it has been her experience that all things are not likely to be equal across the board and that it was living in Atlanta for over a decade that helped her realize that she did not understand the quality of the education she got in Rome, until she went elsewhere. Megerell agreed that achieving equity was a difficult task and focused on more specific examples, including class size and lack of teaching assistants. She raised the example of reading inequity and that the failure to provide early support leaves some students so far behind by the time they reach high school, that they “just give up.” She suggested computer-based reading remediation programs that would provide object progress reports.

Hampe honed in on equity being the key word and reprised the importance of “stewardship” in uniting parents and school teams on common ground in the best interests of the students.

How should Rome recruit teachers from diverse backgrounds?

Most of the candidates agreed that Rome should motivate its students to seek to become teachers and create incentives for them to come home to teach. James-Williams suggested establishing relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to recruit and attract their top talent to Rome. She reminded of the importance for students to see teachers and administrators who “look like them.”

Megerell agreed and emphasized a need for generational citizens to be more open-minded and that every student “deserves to feel connected.” Ferretti and Hampe both concurred that you need to be able to sell candidates who did not grow up in Rome on the quality of the community. Hampe shared that favorable changes to foundation aid and programs such as Rome’s downtown revitalization should help in this regard.

Cardwell-Reddick believes that “Rome is trying hard. Very hard” and cites that as a reason she was so happy to return. But she warns that it is “slow going...To get diverse teachers, Rome needs to reflect diversity,” Cardwell-Reddick said, “and, right now, it just doesn’t.”  

While Ferretti emphasized the importance of recruiting, Cardwell-Reddick offered that there are plenty of qualified teachers right here in Central New York. “We just need to make sure that everyone feels welcome in Rome,” she said.

The candidates were unanimous in their priority that teachers should be equipped with the resources they need. Hampe reminded that it starts with teachers, while Ferretti prescribed that giving them the resources they need is the responsibility of the district.

“Anyone can be a ‘keyboard warrior’ - Tap. Tap. Tap,” said Cardwell-Reddick, “or you could get up and really do something.”

James-Williams believed that K-12, especially middle school, will define where a student will go and that diversity is needed, across the board, to actually understand what these children are facing. Megerell warned that, if teachers do not have what they need, that failure trickles down to everyone.

What makes you equipped to serve? Why should the voters choose you?

Cardwell-Reddick, James-Williams and Megerell invoked their personal experience as parent/guardians and the poignant experiences their children have faced as uniquely suiting them to lend valuable voices as members of the Board of Education. James-Williams offered her desire to see a school environment that serves the needs of all students. Cardwell-Reddick defined herself as a “parent who truly cares.” Megerell cites her relationships and experience working both as an educator and parent with students with special needs and promised to “go above and beyond for kids and teachers.” 

Hampe reminded of Rome’s extraordinarily diverse make-up of students and families from all of rural, suburban and urban communities and his confidence in the resources they offer to support the success of all students. He reiterated his belief that Rome is challenged to change the perception and get that word out. Ferretti simply promised that, as a Board of Education member, he would “work in the best interests of the kids. Every day.” After a pause, he concluded, “that’s my passion.”

How do you plan to help those still coping with the effects of COVID-19?

Ferretti returned to his earlier priority on the social-emotional needs of students. “The need is so overwhelming,” he said. He believes Rome shares this challenge with all districts and that it is perhaps the most important piece to address to get things “back to normal.”

Cardwell-Reddick and James-Williams shared the belief that it is important to evaluate the status of students and teachers emerging from the COVID crisis and to “get help.” Provide counseling for students and teachers. “Let them know there is help.” James-Williams commended teachers for doing the unimaginable work this past year of meeting the needs of remote learners and, at once, students in their classrooms and warned not to forget to help those teachers who need it.

Hampe concurred that counseling was an important piece, but also shared that Rome as a community should NOT hope to go back to the “way it was,” but - instead - assess what we have learned from this past year and let those lessons inform us as we move forward on to “bigger, better ways of doing things.” He recognized the benefits of remote learning, but hopes that the importance of hands-on learning is not lost. Students need to return to the classrooms.

Megerell raised the specific desire of some parents to have students repeat the grade that was subject to challenges created by the pandemic and her concern that the district may be responding to want to “push them through.” She suggested testing, especially for the primary grades 1 through 3, and using the results to inform decisions in this regard. She concurs with Ferretti in his concern regarding social development and that resources should be devoted to identifying and meeting those needs.

Moderators thanked the candidates and community for connecting this evening around the issues facing the Board of Education and concluded a thoughtful, balanced exchange by posing the following, final challenge to the candidates:  

Offer a word, one word, that embodies them and that they will bring to the board, if elected:

Hampe: Advocacy;

Ferretti: Tenacity;

Megerell: Listen;

Cardwell-Reddick: Inclusiveness; and

James-Williams: Diversity.

Eligible Rome residents may cast their votes for three of the five Board of Education candidates, as well for whether they approve of the proposed 2021-22 school budget, on May 18, with polls opening at 9 a.m. and closing at 8 p.m. Polling places assigned by Ward are listed below. Voters wanting more information about casting absentee ballots should call the district office at 315-338-6500 and request to speak to the district clerk:

First and Second Wards: Staley Elementary School, 620 E. Bloomfield S.;

Third Ward: Redeemer Church, 129 N. Washington St.;

Fourth Ward: Gansevoort School, 758 W. Liberty St.;

Fifth Ward: Strough Middle School, 801 Laurel St.;

Sixth Ward: St. Paul’s Catholic Church, 1807 Bedford St.;

Seventh Ward: Copper City Community Connection, 305 E. Locust St.;

Eighth and Ninth Wards: Stokes School, 9095 Turin Road; and

Tenth Ward: Western Library, 9172 Main St., Westernville.

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