WEST ORANGE, NJ — This November’s West Orange Board of Education election looks to be a real battle, with seven candidates running for two open seats, each for three years. Incumbents Mark Robertson and Sandra Mordecai will be vying to reclaim their seats against challengers Christopher Diaz, Tanya Atterberry, Susan Freivald, Sharon Sherman and Steve Christiano.
This election season, top issues will likely be keeping taxes manageable without cheating the students, improving academics without breaking the bank, increasing transparency and parent support, and making teachers feel heard and respected.
Robertson, who is coming off his first term on the board, is running on “A-B-C” progressive change platform of: accountability and advocacy, best practices in education, and competitive education.
“I am running for reelection to the BOE on the merits of my achievements, and the relevance of my vision for West Orange Public Schools,” Robertson told the Chronicle via email earlier this week. “Over two and a half years, I drove awareness and led advocacy on curriculum and instruction that resulted in over 20 major improvements and new initiatives, and introduced a Fund Development initiative — corporate and foundations’ grants and partnerships — to grow programs and reduce taxes.”
In the next three years, Robertson plans to focus on growing revenue while freezing budget spending, increasing academic performance to achieve a top-25-percent ranking, delivering better conversion rates and outcomes in college and career preparation, and managing facilities to eliminate overcrowding in the schools and prepare for the expected influx of children coming from new housing developments.
“My vision is to endow our children with competitive education, parents with supportive partnership, taxpayers with relief and top schools that elevate property values, and empower teachers with a greater voice,” Robertson said.
Mordecai, who is looking to serve a third term on the board, is a certificated and master school board member and vice president of the Essex County School Boards Association. During her past two terms, she has worked with her colleagues, including Robertson on some initiatives, for the past two and a half years to hire a new superintendent for the West Orange School District; make school scheduling more efficient; expand outreach to parents through literacy and ESL nights; increase science, technology, engineering and math opportunities at Edison Central Six; become more sustainable; and to improve the district’s social media presence and transparency.
“I want to continue the work started on closing the achievement gap and, to that end, we have increased time on task (from) K to 12 with block scheduling,” Mordecai told the Chronicle earlier this week via email, adding that the new scheduling has allowed for more AP and honors courses. “In our elementary schools, I look forward to implementing departmentalization this fall.”
Mordecai also pointed to the summer Step Up Program, which works to ready incoming freshman and assist students who fall in the middle academically. As in previous campaigns, Mordecai says she is dedicated to increasing technology use.
“During my previous campaign, I recall being heckled by some in the audience when I spoke of lessons on podcasts, iPods, iPads and other devices,” Mordecai said. “We have been working toward one-to-one devices for all students, now every classroom has a smartboard, and we are wireless districtwide.”
She did stress the importance though of working to relieve the tax burden by finding alternate revenue streams, supporting grant applications and working with the township toward more shared services.
“In that respect, our budget has been under the 2-percent mandated cap for several years now and, with the last two years under our new business administrator, we have implemented a zero-based budgeting method, which I pushed for a few years ago and am glad to see this come to fruition,” Mordecai said.
Diaz, a West Orange resident for 12 years and the longest-running “class dad” at Redwood Elementary School, wants to improve academics through consistency and innovation while boosting morale.
“If given the opportunity to serve on the board, I intend to make it a priority to restore morale amongst our teachers and staff,” Diaz told the Chronicle via email earlier this week. “For three years, the professionals who we entrust with our children have worked without a contract. It is time to come to the bargaining table with a fair offer and allow this issue to be resolved.”
Diaz has expressed his commitment to serving special needs children, citing the “Bubbles for Autism” program celebrated at Redwood School each year, which was begun by his family. He also stressed that, while teaching children how to use technology is vital, they also need to be taught Internet safety. “Our world is changing and, with it, the dangers of the digital landscape. We owe it to our children to give them the tools to keep them safe,” Diaz said.
As an attorney, Diaz would like to see a thorough review of the district’s current Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying policy; during the process, he would like to include HIB experts in the community to improve the policy.
Atterberry also cited the importance of collaboration with the community, explaining that listening and interacting with all stakeholders is currently one of her favorite parts of serving on the West Orange Council of PTAs.
“As the outgoing treasurer for the West Orange Council of PTAs and current Redwood School PTA president, I most enjoy my daily interactions with parents and district staff, hearing their thoughts and concerns about the issues that impact our children’s education success, such as departmentalization, smaller class sizes, PARCC prep, recess, movement breaks for children through the school day, and safe routes to and from school,” Atterberry told the Chronicle earlier this week via email.
“I feel that my unique blend of attributes as a mother of a college student and elementary school students, a community leader, a professional financial leader with budget and analytical skills, and a taxpayer would add a new voice for education to help make objective, educated and practical decisions that would continue to advance efforts to increase student academic growth, achievement and safety,” she continued.
Atterberry feels the district should focus its efforts on resolving contract negotiations in a fair and timely manner; retaining and attracting the best district staff to cater to West Orange’s diverse student body; enhancing professional development; improving communication between all district stakeholders and increasing transparency; beginning to identify solutions to overcrowding, particularly in the elementary schools; continually evaluating the curriculum in collaboration with the community to ensure students are being given the skills and knowledge necessary for their success; and maintaining fiscal responsibility, “which is a balance of keeping our property values high, our taxes low and our children’s education optimal,” she said.
Freivald, a co-president of Parents Advocating for Special Services in Education, or PASSE, comes to the election as a spokesperson for those she feels are not being cared for or heard.
“The board lacks a strong voice that stands up for the rights of students and parents,” Freivald told the Chronicle earlier this week via email. “As a result, the board has often been passive in the face of compliance questions ranging from students with disabilities to PARCC refusals to the elimination of kindergarten classroom aides, while superintendents have provided incomplete, misleading or incorrect information to parents and the public.
“Board members may not micromanage, but they should not sit silently under these circumstances,” Freivald continued. “The board’s devotion should be to our students’ education, and its obligation lies with students and the public — the board’s loyalty should not primarily be to the superintendent it is charged to oversee.”
If elected, Freivald plans to focus her energies on creating an open and timely dialog with the superintendent and public, increasing compliance according to state laws, improving education and fighting for fiscal responsibility. Most importantly, Freivald wants to ensure the board is asking the hard questions, searching for the truth and discussing these issues in public meetings to increase transparency.
As a teacher herself, Sherman is in a position to see district issues from the sometimes overlooked teachers’ side. Though previously an attorney, Sherman went back to school to focus on education and has since taught general education to fifth-graders and now works at a private school in Englewood on curriculum improvement.
“My motivation to run is to continue to improve the education of West Orange students,” Sherman told the Chronicle in an Aug. 1 phone conversation, adding that she is running under the slogan: “putting our students first.”
And Sherman has plans to accomplish this goal, such as using targeted spending to improve the educational outcome for students; using social media more efficiently to highlight the district’s accomplishments; improving college guidance for both students and parents, making sure they all know what they can and should be doing; making the public schools desirable in order to prevent the common shift of students finishing the West Orange elementary schools and then moving to private schools for middle and high school; and increasing staff and parent input in the decision-making process.
A lifelong West Orange resident, Christiano has not only had three daughters graduate from West Orange High School, but he served as legal counsel to the West Orange Board of Education for 28 of his 36 years as an attorney. Currently he is an attorney at Sciarrillo, Cornell, Merlino, McKeever & Osborne, a school law firm in Westfield that represents more than 70 school districts.
“I am running for the school board because I believe, with my devotion to West Orange and years of experience with the district, I can offer a valuable service,” Christiano told the Chronicle late last week via email. “If I am elected, I will endeavor to encourage the board to act in a truly collaborative effort, not as it is now, with certain personalities dominating its decision making.
“We owe it to our children to provide them with the best education possible, while remaining mindful of how tax dollars are spent,” Christiano continued. “In education, more is not necessarily better. We need to understand that many in West Orange are struggling with their tax bills and we also have an obligation to them to run our schools in as efficient a manner as possible.”
On top of the budget, Christiano intends to focus his efforts on improving the management of the schools from the highest levels, which he believes has had a direct negative impact on teachers and staff morale in recent years.
“The morale among staff is the worst that I have ever seen, which I blame directly on this board and administration,” Christiano said. “Teachers — not curriculum, not facilities — are the bedrock of our children’s education, and they deserve to be treated with respect. There is a top-down management style that is antithetical to the operation of an effective school system.”
The WOBOE election will coincide with the general election on Nov. 8. So, while voting for president, be sure to cast a vote for the Board of Ed candidates.
UPDATE: This story has been updated since the print edition to reflect that Steve Christiano is running. The Chronicle initially failed to interview Christiano after his name was not included on the list of candidates sent to the Chronicle by the county clerk.
Sandra Mordecai’s qualifications were updated as well.