Zelda Spence-Wallace Elected as New School Board President in Montgomery Township
By Anna Reinalda | January 5, 2022 — Updated on January 6, 2022
For the first time the Montgomery Township Board of Education has appointed two vice president positions. Cookie Franco-Herman and Patrick Todd were elected Tuesday night by their fellow board members, alongside Zelda Spence-Wallace, who was elected board president.
“It was never my plan to run for public office,” Spence-Wallace said at the school board meeting on Tuesday night. “Knowing we’re making positive contributions where our students and staff benefit is gratifying.”
Acknowledging former president Phyllis Bursh, Wallace commended her “relentless advocacy” on behalf of the district. Bursh was the first African-American president. The first African-American to serve on the board was Montgomery Township resident Sandra Donnay in 2013.
“We are looking for opportunities to grow more productive and efficient,” Spence-Wallace said. “Please continue to hold us accountable.”
Vice President Franco-Herman said she is devoted to her new position as a collaborative leader. “I want to help our board to … promote excellence in a format that is productive and meaningful. It’s more efficient to divvy up responsibilities.”
The decision to add vice presidents to the board was prompted by the challenges of working through the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought to light the fact that the board president’s work is better distributed among three people.
All board members volunteer their time and work tirelessly to improve the Montgomery school system. The work involved in balancing the needs and perspectives of thousands of parents and students can be draining.
“We all have full-time jobs and families,” Vice President Todd said. “We will continue to do good work in this town … to make things better for the future.”
Patrick Todd, Martin R. Carlson, Richard Specht, and Maria Spina were all sworn in at the meeting’s onset.
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The Tuesday, January 4 meeting took place during the midst of a week in which Montgomery High School was back to virtual schooling due to high rates of contraction of the COVID variant Omicron. The elementary and middle schools are all full-time, in person this week.
During the meeting’s only public comment session, two parents spoke up to ask that education not suffer in response to the rising numbers of infections in the district.
A Skillman mother commented that the Montgomery School District: "Needs a plan in place for students who need to be at home, besides a self-study packet. Our students are hurting.”
Next, Dara Zimmer, an Upper Middle School Art teacher and mother of a high school student, asked that the schools remain open. Describing the laid back atmosphere of her classroom, Zimmer stressed the importance of giving kids the opportunity to socialize with their peers.
School Board President Spence-Wallace responded: “We all agree that our preference is to remain in-person. However, these data-driven decisions we make … can be a difficult and daunting task. We have a responsibility to the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff.”
Superintendent Mary McLoughlin noted that the take-home educational packets for students who are not present at school are being revisited this month for improvement.
Chris Wilson of Skillman returned to the podium to plead with the board for an improved literacy program in the elementary schools. Wilson speaks often at board meetings about his child’s struggles with reading, saying that, even for non-dyslexic children, the current “balanced literacy” reading curriculum is ineffective.
“The most important and fundamental [purpose] of a public school district is to teach children how to read,” Wilson said. “Literacy is a human right. Without literacy, there is no justice.”
Wilson brought with him copies of a letter by Erica Twitchell, executive director at AdvocacyNJ, which he distributed to the board members.
Twitchell’s letter presented findings of 2018 Units of Study Series reports, which found the balanced literacy program to be lacking, spanning grades kindergarten through eighth.
“Everyone has their own data,” Wilson said. “But I hope you’ll listen to the voices of the dyslexic community.”