Board of Ed candidates debate the issues

At SOMA Cares About Schools debate, 5 running for BOE discuss budget, communication, more

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The perennial issue of creating better communication between the South Orange-Maplewood School District and the community was again a major talking point during the Board of Education candidates debate hosted by South Orange Maplewood Cares About Schools at the Baird in South Orange on Sept. 13.

Though they were atypically not given the questions in advance, when the topic arose, the five candidates had no trouble articulating their beliefs that communication between the district and parents is often not as effective as it should be. And they all had their own ideas about how to fix that.

For Johanna Wright, one of two incumbents vying for the three open seats, the solution lies in making sure community members feel comfortable about sharing whatever issues they have. She recalled that, during a public forum she hosted as chairwoman of the communications committee last year, several parents revealed that they were afraid to voice their concerns for fear of retaliation against their children by the district. If communication is ever going to get better, she said, the district must do more to combat that notion.

“When you talk about communicating, you have to make people feel free to talk,” Wright said.

Fellow incumbent Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad said that communication has been a major issue for years, though the board has been trying to correct it. She said a committee is currently working with a vendor to build a new website that will provide accurate information to visitors more easily than ever. She also supported the implementation of Let’s Talk, which allows community members to reach district personnel and receive responses quickly, and she said there is a plan to expand the online communication tool into next year. But she said the BOE now is pushing to see the metrics of the program so that it can address trending topics quickly and efficiently before they become widespread issues.

Lawson-Muhammad’s running mate, James Davis III, said that effecting strong communication is more difficult than it sounds considering that the district oversees staff, students and parents. If elected, he would not simply tell Superintendent John Ramos Sr. to communicate better; instead, Davis said, he would ask specific and tough questions such as “How do you intend to communicate your new strategic plan to the community?” He said he would also advise the administration to create a plan regarding how best to engage with all stakeholders because, without good communication, a situation can quickly worsen.

Susie Adamson said the question of how to better communicate falls right into her wheelhouse as she worked in communications and advertising for 15 years. And while she is not on the board, Adamson said she is already working toward creating a more open environment districtwide by serving on the website committee as well as the strategic planning committee. If elected, she said she would stress the importance of over-communicating so that all parents will get a message no matter how involved they are with the district. And that will be helpful, she said, since the community can then buy into all the good ideas offered.

To Anthony Mazzocchi, who once worked for the district as the director of fine and performing arts, the key to improving communication is to consult with faculty and others closely involved with school happenings. Mazzocchi said teachers, supervisors, principals and PTA members are the best people to inform the board about what is working and what is not. He thus suggested bringing back teacher-supervisor-community feedback groups as a way for the BOE to discover and resolve issues before they become a problem.

“We need a well-oiled machine,” Mazzocchi said, adding that this is especially true in light of so many recent staff departures. “We have a real gap right now in institutional knowledge. And now is the time to get together and say ‘Look, what are we doing well and what do we need to do?’ There needs to be a ton of mentoring going on.”

School funding was another big issue raised during the debate. Specifically, the candidates were asked how they felt about increasing taxes.

Adamson answered that it would be easy to promise never to raise taxes, though that would be unrealistic. The candidate said that the budget will always be based on the curriculum and teachers’ needs. But she said she would like to hold a budget summit in which financial experts from the community could offer fresh perspectives and challenge the district to find creative solutions. She said she is also excited that the SOMSD is using zero-based budgeting this year, which means that every line item will be approved rather than solely variances from the previous year.

Lawson-Muhammad is also optimistic about zero-based budgeting, pointing out that it will allow for a clearer understanding of line items and a chance to see where money can be saved. The incumbent said the strategic plan will also help this budget cycle by identifying what the SOMSD’s priorities are and what can be cut as nonessential.

Aside from the budgeting process, Lawson-Muhammad brought up another major factor affecting the district’s finances: state aid. Particularly, she stressed that it will take a communitywide effort if the local schools are ever going to obtain more money.

“At the end of the day, we have got to work as a community to make our voices heard in Trenton with regard to getting our fair share of the state funding in our district,” Lawson-Muhammad said. “We deserve more than we’re getting, and we need to get it now.”

Wright knew exactly what she would do to lower taxes if she were to be elected for a second term, starting with auditing budget items such as outsourcing, maintenance, legal expenses and consultants. She said the board has paid a lot of money for consultants to do the jobs of inexperienced staff members when the board could simply hire a seasoned professional instead. In addition, she said a lot of money is spent on programs that do not work, such as the International Baccalaureate program, which was discontinued. She said the BOE should stop using SOMSD students as “guinea pigs” and save money in the process.

Wright said that she would like to explore the option of having the SOMSD become an intake district for special education and to look into shared services agreements for various budget items, including health insurance, which the district has actually been investigating for many years. She said that she would also push for school equity funding in New Jersey, though she said South Orange and Maplewood should provide an equitable funding formula for both towns as well. Currently, the numbers show that South Orange is paying more per student despite sending fewer students to the public schools.

Mazzocchi believes his experience managing a $50 million budget as associate director of Montclair State University’s John J. Cali School of Music and handling zero-based budgeting for his nonprofit Kinhaven Summer Music School will serve him well if elected to the school board. He pointed out that he even has experience working on the SOMSD’s budget, which he did when he was on staff, at one point implementing a K-4 Suzuki program during a bad budget downturn.

Judging from his experience working on the budget, Mazzocchi recalled that there is not a lot to optimize. But he promised that if he were ever in the position of speaking to the community about taxes, he would ensure that the budget was optimized as much as possible. And if he were forced to raise taxes, he said he would be honest about it.

Davis was also upfront about the likelihood of raising taxes, saying that sometimes an increase is warranted if it means saving a popular program or making infrastructure improvements. The safety of the district’s children is more important than a 2-percent tax hike, he said. But the candidate vowed that raising taxes will only be a last resort for him, if elected. He said he would always explore alternative funding options first and never vote for an increase for nonessential items.

Davis also had a lot to say about another major topic of discussion — the student achievement gap. The candidate recalled that when he and his wife were looking into moving to South Orange, his Realtor told him that Columbia High School was great for students “on the right track.” He also talked about noticing the black boys in his daughter’s class being treated differently than the other children, both at the elementary and middle school levels. Now that these children are in high school, he wonders how they are doing and whether their destinies were set when they were young.

If elected, Davis said he would work with the community to ensure that all children are treated the same so that no achievement gap will result.

“Our district has allowed two schools to exist in one high school for a very long time,” Davis said. “We should be ashamed as parents and as a community for letting that happen.”

Adamson agreed that race is at the root of the achievement gap problem, though she said many people do not want to acknowledge this. Financial equity also plays a role, she said, pointing out that only 5 percent of South Mountain Elementary School students qualify for free and reduced cost lunch compared to 50 percent of the Seth Boyden Elementary School. She said that is an unbalanced situation that is contributing to the gap.

A lot has been done to fix the achievement gap at the middle and high school levels, Adamson said, but stressed that addressing the issue in the elementary schools — where the foundation for a child’s learning is established — is the only effective way to close the gap completely.

“I firmly believe that one of the hard things that we need to do is take a good, hard look at the balance issue at the elementary schools,” Adamson said. “Are we providing not equally but equitably against the need that is there for the students so that they can achieve at the youngest level so that they can then go on to achieve at the highest levels?”

Lawson-Muhammad said the achievement gap has been an issue that she and other board members have grappled with for decades. She said that passing the district’s Access and Equity Policy was a step in the right direction, though she acknowledged that there are still many steps to be taken before the measure can take hold. Still, the incumbent was happy with the policy’s approval since she had pushed for the language not just to cover access to Advanced Placement classes. Instead, she said, she called for it to enforce that all teachers view every student as “a being capable of greatness.”

If teachers set aside preconceived notions of students’ abilities based on their race or socioeconomic background, Lawson-Muhammad said students will not face any hindrance in achieving success. Therefore, while others may focus on AP classes, she said she will continue to focus on making college prep classes fair to everyone so that all students who graduate from CHS have the education necessary to take them wherever they want to go.

Wright agreed that the Access and Equity Policy was a good measure, but said nothing has really been done about it since it was passed. Besides that, she said the ACLU’s complaint regarding the unequal treatment given to minority students has never been addressed — the board has not followed the action plan provided by the consultant it hired for guidance, according to Wright. Overall, she said that the board is just “spinning our wheels” while the gap continues to be perpetuated.

Mazzocchi said no one has the whole solution for the achievement gap, which is an issue both nationally and globally. He said the board can only work as hard as it can to find ways of closing the gap. But, he said the BOE must also make sure that students are being instilled with a love of learning and the tools to be a good citizen.

Tuesday, Nov. 8, all registered voters in South Orange and Maplewood will have the opportunity to vote for three of these five candidates. Current board member Beth Daugherty is not seeking re-election.

Photos by Sean Quinn