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Brockton School Board adds experienced educator

Peter Roby
Brockton School Board adds experienced educator
Jorge Vega PHOTO: Alonso Nichols

The Brockton NAACP hosted a candidate forum last week to help fill a vacancy on the school board at a time when the city’s schools are navigating a financial crisis and mounting frustration from parents over the state of public education in the majority-Black city. The night following the NAACP event, the Brockton City Council and School Committee met in a joint session and named Jorge Vega to fill the vacancy for Ward One. The public officials’ votes were split between three candidates on the first ballot, necessitating a runoff second round.

Vega, the director of technology for the New Heights Charter School, will fill the seat vacated by Kathy Elhers. The newly appointed school board member described himself as the proud parent of three Brockton Public Schools-educated children. His oldest, he said, graduated from Brockton High and now attends Cornell University.

As a community liaison for Brockton High’s School Council, Vega said he’s been hearing from students, parents and faculty. “Their concerns are clear,” he said, “Brockton wants safe schools. Brockton wants fully staffed schools.”

Vega has also served as vice chair of the Brockton Public Library Board of Trustees. In that role, he’s building relationships with community and schools.

Recent staffing woes in Brockton, driven by deficits and cost overruns, resulted in national coverage of unsupervised students at Brockton High roaming the hallways, smoking marijuana and getting in fights eagerly recorded on cellphones by fellow pupils. A call for the National Guard to patrol the hallways was rejected by Gov. Maura Healey.

The school system’s highly publicized failings have led to greater scrutiny of school finances and more pressure on administrators and elected leaders to address the problems.

Despite the context of controversy and crisis, officials and residents following the school board selection expressed satisfaction with the outcome saying all the candidates were exceptionally qualified.

Brockton NAACP President Phyllis Ellis, who emceed the forum, wondered where all the talented candidates were during the last election, when the Ward One seat was uncontested. Nonetheless, she was encouraged by the present level of engagement.

“Any one of them could have filled the seat,” she said. “I believe in giving candidates the opportunity to be seen and heard. Our forum did just that.”

Those sentiments were shared by attendees of the forum at the South Middle School.

A former football coach and public school teacher of 15 years, William Wells III received the second-most votes Thursday.

“My heart is Brockton,” Wells told the audience Wednesday. “I’ve been here all my life. I’m doing everything I possibly can to help these kids.”

More than rhetoric, Wells’s commitment includes an annual scholarship for aspiring educators of color named for Ramona Wells. He also ran training to help young teachers of color to prepare for Massachusetts’ teacher certification exam.

Wells’ candidacy for the Ward One position was said to have inspired the hope of some Brockton parents and teachers.

Steven O’Malley, a retired Brockton School Police Officer, earned the next-most votes Thursday. At the NAACP forum, O’Malley credited his career’s work with youth to the “tough love” of his mother and grandmother, both BPS teachers.

After graduating from Brockton High School, O’Malley worked at the Arnon School, where he held open gym for students. He recalled raising small grants to get kids pizza or to fund trips to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The fourth candidate, Elaine Gatewood, holds a master’s degree in social work and works with local families through the Brockton Multi-Service Center. A Jamaican immigrant who chose Brockton after living in Connecticut and Randolph, Gatewood spoke passionately about students’ mental health and social-emotional needs.

“Change takes consistency,” Gatewood explained at the NAACP forum. She serves on the storied civil rights groups’ education committee and offered BHS Principal McCaskill support regardless of the outcome. Gatewood emphasized the importance of “holding leaders accountable” and spoke to her long-term commitment to service.

NAACP moderators asked applicants about state education policy, cuts to the district’s DEI office, disagreements among school committee members, transportation spending and their personal commitment to public service.

Asked about legislation on Beacon Hill to relegate seniority to a tie-breaker after performance metrics in teacher retention matters, Vega’s reply was more reserved than his peers. The others juxtaposed seniority and teacher diversity, favoring the latter.

“I work in school systems where instead of seniority, you actually have to demonstrate your ability,” said Vega, while acknowledging his limited familiarity with the bill.

Comprehensive legislation promoting teacher diversity, H.4519, advanced last week on Beacon Hill. Its approach favors incentives and oversight of districts’ faculty diversity. Notably, the bill would mandate each district employ a DEI officer or team.

Ward One candidates uniformly endorsed DEI in Brockton’s school system. Vega said his family discussed diversity regularly, but knew there’s more to do.

“It’s frustrating because it shouldn’t be an argument,” he said. “The words of diversity, equity and inclusion; I don’t know which one of those words is challenging for people.”

Brockton High School, Brockton School Board, Jorge Vega