Introducing the 2020 Board of Education Candidates
October 22, 2020
Eastside interviewed each of the five candidates* for the Board of Education in 2020 and is releasing profiles of each as the election approaches. As the most extensive interviews published to date, each profile goes in-depth on issues including COVID-19 response, school start times, district funding, school building rebuilding and repairs, the bond referendum, and policing in schools. Read to find out where candidates stand on the issues facing Cherry Hill’s schools and to determine who should earn your vote.
“We don’t like the way they’re running things.”
That’s the conclusion John Papeika and his wife came to as he made the decision to run for a seat on the Board of Education. Papeika has been a resident of the Old Orchard neighborhood in Cherry Hill for the past 10 years and is the husband to a kindergarten teacher in Philadelphia; he also has two sons, ages three and one. Papeika is certified in food safety and compliance for his work in a supermarket. With his older son entering the school system this year, Papeika said his past political involvement was a driving factor in deciding to run, having run for Cherry Hill council previously.
The Board’s job, Papeika said, is to set goals, not necessarily to make the plan to reach those goals. Papeika said he has no problem asking questions and is unafraid to say “no.” For example, Papeika said the Board did not ask enough questions when dealing with the bond issue in 2018. The public, he said, deserves more answers on such topics. Still, Papeika said he is open-minded.
“It’s for the kids,” he emphasized in reference to how he’d make these types of decisions.
Coming to the hot topic issue of Cherry Hill’s COVID-19 response for schools, Papeika said the district did nothing to prepare in the months leading up to our current situation.
“The whole problem here is fail to plan, plan to fail,” he said.
Online learning, Papeika said, has been a complete failure, referencing school internet outages as one issue. In terms of solutions, Papeika said he would like to see schools open for in-person learning five days a week. He advocated a three-choice system, with options for fully remote, hybrid, and fully in-person learning for all students.
“I would like to see it stay as is,” Papeika said when asked about school start times, adding that he tends to lean toward the more traditional. Papeika said the world revolves around our current start times and it would be especially difficult for parents with younger kids to change schedules. He added that he’s open to discuss any suggestions, but is biased towards staying with the current system. As for current start times with remote learning, Papeika said everyone is just putting up with it.
Despite saying there will be funding and logistical challenges, Papeika said Cherry Hill’s buildings basically all need to be replaced in the long term. In terms of those funding challenges, he suggested using a combination of grants, bonds, donations, and corporate sponsorship to meet costs. On the bond issue, Papeika was frustrated by Dr. Meloche’s response to the bond’s failure, saying that Meloche seemed not to understand why the bond failed despite the community telling him why, and that the idea of putting the same bond up for another vote was a source of frustration.
On the issue of police in schools, Papeika said he’s in the middle of the road. He expressed openness to not having police in schools while also saying he’s unopposed to their presence. Papeika did say police should not be used for discipline in schools, which has stoked controversy across the country due to some high profile incidents. With larger populations of students in Cherry Hill’s high schools than at lower levels, Papeika said school police may be more necessary there.
In his final message to students, Papeika said he’ll put the best course of action for students first. He added he’ll prioritize what’s right over what’s popular. In addressing voters, Papeika pointed to his campaign slogan of “Challenge, Support, Educate.” He said he’ll challenge the status quo, asking “why are we doing this?” when others won’t. Support, he said, will come in the form of supporting decisions the Board makes with the resources and assistance needed to get things done. Most of all, Papeika emphasized that the point of all of this has to be to educate our kids successfully.
Miriam Stern has been involved in the fair funding fight for Cherry Hill schools for years. It’s that issue, combined with her experience as a mental health professional and involved parent, that brought her to run for a seat on the Board of Education.
As a mother of three children in the Cherry Public Schools, including one with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and wife to a teacher, Stern has a lot of experience from the parent’s side of education in Cherry Hill. She credits her career as a licensed clinical social worker with a focus on trauma as something that has helped her understand a lot about social-emotional learning. Since she’s attended about 75-80% of Board and committee meetings in the past five years, Stern understands the role of the board, which she believes is absolutely not to run the schools. Instead, she believes the Board’s job is a limited and straightforward one: to hire, evaluate, and get answers from the Superintendent. As a self-described innovator, out of the box thinker, and big picture thinker, Stern believes she’s ready to serve on the Board of Education.
When it comes to Cherry Hill Public Schools’ COVID-19 response, Stern said, “my role would simply be to ask questions,” adding that analyzing data would also play an important part in her decision making.
Stern has several questions regarding returning to in-person learning. She questioned what is being done to address teacher concerns expressed in a survey where they brought up issues like air quality and in-school procedures. Why, Stern also asked, did the district turn a two-week preparation period for teachers into a two-month period of no in-person learning? And why, she asked, was the date of November 9th picked? Transparency on these issues would be sought by Stern as a member of the Board, where she said asking these questions would be her main role.
Emphasizing the increased difficulties brought by remote learning for younger students and English Language Learners, Stern said that as long as they’re deemed safe and healthy, schools should see students return at the district’s November 9th point of reevaluation. She also suggested a possibility of bringing students struggling with remote learning back earlier, emphasizing that she’d seek to discover what barriers exist for doing so. By seeking answers to important questions and analyzing data along with community needs, Stern would construct her own approach as a Board member in our current situation.
The controversial issue of school start times sees compelling data on academic performance, mental health, physical safety, but has logistical challenges, stoking debate nationwide. Stern has a clear position.
“We should be following the science and the data,” she said, later adding that she is “100% in favor of high school starting no earlier than 8:30.”
Calling the current 9:30 remote learning start time a gift for students and parents alike, Stern said this would be a great time to pilot later start times in the long term. While she recognized it could be difficult to implement in Cherry Hill, Stern said school start times should be flipped across grade levels, with elementary students starting earlier and later start times for older students.
When it came time to discuss fair funding for Cherry Hill Public Schools, building improvements, and the bond issue, Stern was well-prepared with much to say. Stern has served on Cherry Hill’s Alternative Funding Committee, testified before the New Jersey General Assembly about the issue, and been an advocate on the issue for years. Explaining the issue in-depth, Stern referred repeatedly to the years of underfunding for Cherry Hill schools and the fact that it will be another five years before more recently implemented state law returns Cherry Hill’s funding level to what it should have been for years according to the state’s funding formula.
“We need to ensure that the governor and the legislature… comply with the law,” Stern emphasized. In light of recent budget issues caused by COVID-19, Stern expressed concern with the governor’s funding decisions for schools, saying he prioritized already well-funded districts over Cherry Hill and other underfunded districts.
As Cherry Hill fights and waits for increased funding, Stern believes other funding opportunities must be explored, specifically for building improvements. Stern emphasized the fact that Cherry Hill buildings have been deemed past their lives, necessitating major repairs or total rebuilding. Funding possibilities she said are worth exploring include alumni fundraising initiatives, a private-public partnership, naming rights for buildings, a new bond initiative, and the pursuit of grants. Stern also supports hiring full-time employees for managing alternative funding and writing grants, respectively. Grant opportunities, she said, are an area where many districts find a great source of funding but Cherry Hill has lagged behind without sufficient coordinated grant-writing efforts. Approaching opportunities for alternative funding while also continuing to pursue fair state funding will be priorities for Stern.
“We have to be more understanding of what it means to have a police officer” in a school, Stern said on the topic of school police.
In making decisions regarding police in schools, Stern said it would be important to base those decisions on input from students of all races, backgrounds, and experiences. Thoughtfulness and sensitivity to community needs would also be key, she said, including with consideration of the challenges police can pose to students with special needs. Having been involved with meetings and conversations about school security, Stern said some things haven’t changed since parents expressed a desire for improved security. Many parents wanted security, but not necessarily policing, Stern said, and that can revolve more around issues like the need for effective policies to limit who can enter school buildings. Overall, Stern said we need to better employ restorative practices in our schools and the role of police in schools absolutely must be examined.
Given a chance to address any other issue important to her, Stern brought up the importance of equity in education. She’d work to ensure students don’t just receive the same treatment, but that which will help them each individually succeed. This applies, she said, specifically to ensuring that students at different schools are all given what they need to be successful in this difficult time and beyond.
Addressing why she’d be someone students can trust to act effectively on their behalf, Stern said “I love that students have a voice,” and emphasized the importance of being engaged in the political process. She recognizes that above anyone else, Board members must put the best interest of students first, even when it means making hard choices. In working with other board members, acting with integrity, and driving the district toward a more modern approach and future, Stern said she can be an effective advocate for students in Cherry Hill. For that reason, along with emphasizing the importance of voting and making your voice heard, Stern said she would ask for your vote.
Carol Matlack, a current member of the Board of Education and candidate for re-election, declined an interview with Eastside. She offered to instead submit responses in writing to questions that were provided.
With a degree in elementary/early childhood education and as the mother of four kids in Cherry Hill, Matlack emphasized positivity. She expressed dismay with negativity that she believes has permeated the community. Instead of negativity, Matlack wants to focus on finding solutions collaboratively and creatively.
“The most pressing reason I am running for re-election to the board is my desire to move our school district forward by working together in a positive, thoughtful way,” she wrote.
Emphasizing the need for strong leadership, Matlack highlighted her experience as a preschool director, Philanthropic Educational Organization chapter president, and PTA president. Matlack also wrote that her experience on the Board for 10 years, serving as Board president for two years and as vice president for another two years, puts her in a unique position to move the district forward.
Matlack named the the safe reopening of schools as a top priority, in these “unprecedented” times.. While she wrote that everyone, including her, wants schools open for full in-person learning, Matlack wrote that the health and safety of students and staff must come first. She added that remote learning may be the safest viable option at times, but that the district is providing choice for families to stay remote or return in-person.
Mentioning this health crisis won’t last forever, Matlack wrote that “our students are resilient and our staff is doing a tremendous job under very trying circumstances.”
Matlack did not offer her personal position on the issue of school start times when asked. Matlack did write that the issue of school start times, especially for high school students, has been a topic of discussion many times. She added that it was on the agenda for discussion at the October Policy & Legislation Board Committee meeting and that the committee reported that the issue may be brought forward for a full discussion in the very near future.
On the issue of fair funding for Cherry Hill schools, Matlack wrote that the board has met repeatedly with legislators to advocate on behalf of our schools. Emphasizing that Board members must work together as opposed to advocating on their own, Matlack said she has sometimes testified before legislators or met with and discussed alternative funding options. Other times other Board members have been the ones doing that advocacy; Matlack wrote that at all times, the fight has been backed by the whole Board When asked about the Cherry Hill bond issue and whether a new bond vote should occur, Matlack did not mention the bond in her response. Instead, she wrote that the Board is actively working on solutions for building maintenance and the required funding for such projects. Adding that one solution may not solve every problem, Matlack expressed openness to moving towards both building new buildings as well as repairing and remodeling existing ones.
On the issue of police in schools, Matlack wrote that “recent events have brought layers to this issue that the board needs to consider.”
Referencing the fact that campus police have been in Cherry Hill’s schools for over 30 years, Matlack wrote that the district expanded the school police force in light of security concerns and desire from the community a few years ago.
She wrote that the district and Board are working closely on the issue “with the Cultural Proficiency/Equity/Character Education Committee, our students from East and West who have presented to us at Board meetings, our township civic associations and a newly formed group Just Education Initiative who has reached out to work with us.”
Finally, Matlack emphasized the importance of voting, discussing the issues and candidates, and finding a candidate representative of your values.
“Give the job to the person who is already in it.”
That was one key message from Dr. Aslihan Cakmak, a candidate for Board of Education and current educator. An economist by trade, Cakmak has worked in the education field since 2003, where she is currently a chairperson for an institution of higher education. Responsible for overseeing over 2700 students and 100 faculty and staff, Cakmak emphasized the importance of her experience and having educators on the Board. Along with that experience, Cakmak was driven to run by seeing “a gap in the system”.
“The current Board is not doing what a Board is supposed to be doing. They are silent on many issues, or they just… do not push enough to make the sound decisions,” she said.
Additionally,with the Superintendent needing more support in Cakmak’s view, she emphasized her readiness due to her experience working with education for her daily job. Giving our current remote learning situation as an example of where the Board needs to improve, Cakmak said the district needs better management of remote education and could have planned for this situation better. In regards to that issue, again referenced her professional experience, saying she was ready for her institution’s response by May 2019.
On the topic of Cherry Hill schools’ COVID-19 response, Cakmak said our current situation “should have been prevented with good planning.”
Cakmak said she would have customized the response based on analyzing the most important needs in the district. In accordance with CDC guidelines 10% of students could attend in-person, she said, and students with IEPs, grades kindergarten through four, and other groups with the most need would be prioritized to return on campus. At the high-school level, Cakmak said this could include students needing to complete labs for science classes. To do so, she suggested students could come in later in the day, potentially up to 8 p.m. In order to make up for other missed learning Cakmak also mentioned possibilities including eliminating winter break, having students attend on weekends, and having summer school to bridge the equity gap. Cakmak emphasized the importance of data in any response, calling herself a numbers person and a “geek.”
Cakmak said “we need to constantly keep updating” in reference to the issue of school start times. Stressing modernization and warning against always sticking to what’s traditional, she said she definitely supports moving towards later school start times. Current start times are not in students’ best interests, Cakmak said, and she feels “so bad” for kids dealing with the current times. In terms of other improvements to make education more modern, Cakmak said some classes could remain online even after the current remote learning period ends.
Moving to discussion of fair funding for Cherry Hill’s schools and the state of our buildings, Cakmak said we need to work on securing additional state funding, but also accept the current circumstances and understand what the district can control right now. Cakmak said that as an immigrant, she knows we cannot expect everything from a certain source and must be able to find alternatives when needed. For now, Cakmak said we should work with outside stakeholders to secure funding for new buildings and building improvements. Even with more funding promised by 2025, Cakmak said Cherry Hill must be prepared if promises are not delivered on and emphasized working internally and with private sources for solutions.
As an economist, Cakmak said, she would not approach a new bond vote right now. With financial insecurity and the loss of jobs prevalent issues right now, Cakmak said every penny counts and she would wait at least until after the current COVID-19 crisis has abated before looking to a new bond for funding.
From personal experience and her students’ testimonies, Cakmak said she knows many students feel unsafe with school police. That concern is driven by biases that have long been seen in police. Still, Cakmak said she understands concerns around security that relate to the issue of having police in schools. With a controversial debate like that, Cakmak said she’d prioritize listening to the community.
Speaking to students on why she would be a good representative and decision maker for them on the Board, Cakmak said to look at her accomplishments and background. Emphasizing the importance of voting as a way of taking control of one’s life, she said to look at who will serve students best and help them get a better education. The already-large equity gap, Cakmak said, is widening among students now and necessitates long term educational solutions to address it. Despite the challenges, Cakmak said she is proud of students in this current situation.
“We should see this as a business,” Cakmak said in reference to how she’d approach improving education for students as a member of the Board.
Addressing voters, Cakmak emphasized her experience and role as an educator. Using an analogy, she said one would not go to a grocery store to fix a car, one would go to a mechanic. Cakmak hopes to be that metaphorical mechanic, an educator improving education, and is asking voters to give her a chance to do so.
“I don’t want Cherry Hill East students to tell their parents to go and vote for me.”
That may not be the message you’d expect to hear from a Board of Education candidate, but it is what Ineda “Corrien” Elmore-Stratton told Eastside in discussing her 2020 run. Cherry Hill voters should “make sure they’re selecting someone that represents their voice in its entirety,” no matter who that candidate is, Elmore-Stratton said.
Elmore-Stratton’s career in and passion for working with youth and families as the Executive Director for the Greater Philadelphia YMCA, as well as her experience as a mom of four boys and 30 year resident of Cherry Hill, drove her to run for a seat on the Board of Education. With her experience on the Board for a brief term as an appointed member in 2019, as well as her experience leading and serving on multiple professional boards throughout her career, Elmore-Stratton said she is prepared to become a leader on educational policy for Cherry Hill.
Elmore-Stratton is confident in her ability to deal with pressing and long-term issues. Top of mind in any current conversation around education is one such issue, that of Cherry Hill Public Schools’ COVID-19 response.
“There’s not gonna be one solution where everybody’s happy,” said Elmore-Stratton when asked how she would personally address the issue. In order to find a solution that would work the best for the most people, Elmore-Stratton said she would first use existing benchmarks for evaluating learning a few months into the school year to see where teachers and students stand in terms of traditional curricular success.
Additionally, she emphasized the need to listen to the community and be transparent, saying the Board must “set the table for there to be another open conversation,” and that “one of our bigger issues is that this time has caused a little bit of a distrust.”
Releasing a new survey for Cherry Hill families to explain what would be best for them moving forward in the school year is one step Elmore-Stratton believes the Board should take. According to her, many families were undecided when a previous survey was released, or have had circumstances and opinions change after experiencing the first month or so of remote learning. Elmore-Stratton believes that by working with community members to analyze current circumstances in order to find the best path forward, the Board could ensure an optimal outcome.
One less-discussed impact of remote learning is schools’ start times. The CDC recommends that high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., and while East has traditionally begun classes at 7:30 a.m., remote learning has brought about a start time of 9:30 in the morning. This change feeds into an already intense nationwide discussion as to whether schools should start later, especially for older students. While research exists saying that delaying start times can improve everything from students’ academic performance and mental health to their risks of car crashes or obesity, major logistical challenges can get in the way of changing start times.
Elmore-Stratton said she and her high-school-age son have both enjoyed not having to get up at 5 a.m. for school. Seeing the potential benefits of moving to a later start time for schools in some permanent fashion, Elmore-Stratton believes this is the right time to research more and determine whether the change would be best for Cherry Hill. Again suggesting the Board should engage and survey the community, she said we should look into what parents and students have learned and experienced in what will be several months of having had a later school start time. She also said this would be an opportune time to make a potential move, as bussing contractors may be more flexible in order to re-secure business that’s been lost with in-person schooling on hold.
One area Elmore-Stratton said she does not particularly have a position on as of yet is that of fair funding for Cherry Hill Public Schools, building maintenance, and the issues surrounding those topics. However, she did say that residents can’t want change in the schools while not wanting to pay for those changes. When it came to the bond that failed to pass in 2018, Elmore-Stratton said she voted based on her son’s needs in terms of improvements at his school for sports facilities. Without voting for change, there will be no change, she emphasized when it came to the bond issue.
The final policy issue discussed with Eastside, police in schools, was a personal one for Elmore-Stratton. As issues around police and race have risen to the forefront of recent American discourse, whether police should remain in our schools is an issue that has stoked controversy.
As an African American family with several sons in Cherry Hill schools, Elmore-Stratton said she was initially very afraid for their safety with police in schools. However, her fears have eased due to her involvement in the community when it comes to these issues. As a board member of the African American Civic Association, Elmore-Stratton made it a point as a parent to be a part of community conversations on the issue and to tell police her fears. Through developing a positive relationship with the chief of police in Cherry Hill, as well as other important figures, she was able to emphasize the importance of positive police-student relationships, helping to ease those fears. In her view, police cannot be there for discipline, but rather must be there to help kids and be a positive presence.
When it comes to the related topic of school security, Elmore-Stratton said there are many lines of defense before school police when incidents arise. Describing security vestibules as one great measure, she also said the first response to a serious situation such as an active shooter should be outside police.
Finally, Elmore-Stratton explained what this election is about in her final pitch. Emphasizing that we need to begin working together as a team again in the Cherry Hill community, Elmore-Sttratton urged voters to choose candidates who will be their best advocate on the Board.
“Look at this year as a turning point year and not a year of losses,” she said, adding “You are not going through this alone.”
Most importantly of all, Elmore-Stratton had this message for anyone 18 or older: “vote.”