Five compete for three open seats on BOE

SOMA BOE candidates debate the issues at CCR forum on Oct. 25 at South Orange Middle School

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — This year’s South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education race comes at a pivotal moment for the district as it begins to implement its access and equity plan, cope with staff departures and continue to manage high taxes. Fortunately for residents, five candidates believe they are up to the task of addressing these issues and are vying for three open seats on the board.

Incumbents Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and Johanna Wright and challengers Anthony Mazzocchi, Susie Adamson and James Davis III made their cases at the candidates forum hosted by the Community Coalition on Race at South Orange Middle School on Oct. 25, discussing their ideas for closing the SOMSD achievement gap, retaining and recruiting effective teachers, and preventing further tax increases.

Lawson-Muhammad said the board’s access and equity policy is a good first step toward closing the achievement gap since it eliminates the gatekeepers that were preventing students from entering high-level classes. But she stressed that the gap will never be eliminated unless the BOE ensures that students receive a top-quality education in every type of class they take. Currently there are students struggling in honors and Advanced Placement classes because their parents do not want them in the poorly-reputed college-prep classes, she said.

“We have to start thinking differently,” Lawson-Muhammad told the News-Record in an Oct. 28 sit-down interview. “If we’re not investing in all of our children, then we have a world that looks like it does now. So we, South Orange-Maplewood, have to make the decision that we’re not going to deal with that. We’re going to do differently.”

She said she has long advocated for emphasizing the improvement of college-prep classes. If re-elected, she said she will continue encouraging teachers not to focus on test scores as a measure of their students’ abilities. Doing so only leads to the educators focusing their classroom efforts on the highest-scoring students while the lower-scoring ones suffer, she said. Lawson-Muhammad said teachers instead must be urged to hone in on each student’s individual potential.

Lawson-Muhammad added that she is interested in finding partners who could extend students’ exposure to the arts. That way, she said the SOMSD’s children will receive a richer education when they otherwise might not have been able to afford outside programs.

Her running mate, Davis, told the News-Record that he had partly decided to run for the BOE after noticing that black males in the district are often treated differently from their classmates, resulting in Columbia High School becoming “two high schools in one,” with many minority students made to feel as if they cannot succeed. He wants to change that as a board member.

To do so, Davis said during the debate that he would pass policies when necessary and advocate for anti-bias training. Davis, who is an attorney and Achieve Foundation volunteer, said the BOE must hold the district accountable for closing the gap by insisting on measurable steps of achievement. Overall, he said he looks forward to supporting Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. as he leads the transition into a more equitable district.

Wright said the access and equity policy is great in theory — but she has not seen any real instance of its actual implementation. She said it would be worthwhile for the BOE to put Sage Consulting’s policy action plan into effect rather than allow it to remain dormant and, in conjunction with that, the BOE should push for tiered instruction within classrooms so that students who fall behind can learn the basics before moving onto the next unit. Regular education and special education teachers should also be encouraged to collaborate more so that everyone is on the same page regarding how to educate each student, she said.

Reintroducing a variety of electives is another solution for closing the gap, Wright offered. The incumbent said South Orange-Maplewood students possess a wealth of different talents and ways of feeling like a success, whether it be working on a car or cooking a meal. But the district has eliminated courses such as auto shop and home economics that could have helped them refine those abilities. If re-elected, she said she would try to bring those classes back because the students are “crying out” for them.

When asked about how the achievement gap could be closed at the debate, Mazzocchi answered that the district first has to rethink its definition of success, saying that students are more complex than anything standardized test results can measure, and thus need a diverse curriculum to satisfy their needs. But test scores continue to be used as the metric by which achievement is measured, resulting in the curriculum being narrowed to emphasize math and language arts. He said creative subjects such as art and music are getting scaled back as a result, which gives students less of an opportunity to discover themselves and feel accomplished.

But even if one believes in the significance of test scores, Mazzocchi said arts education would still help. Speaking to the News-Record, he recalled that students’ scores improved after he expanded the amount of time spent on arts programming during his time as the district’s director of fine and visual arts. If elected, he said he would again push for more arts education. Not only would it help students academically, he said, but it would also allow the towns to live up to their artistic potential.

“We live in one of the most unique, diverse, creative districts,” Mazzocchi said in an Oct. 14 interview with the News-Record. “And our schools are not a reflection of that. It’s ironic that there are so many people making a living in all these amazing (creative industries), and our schools do not offer that in any kind of abundance. We have the same cookie-cutter, narrowed curriculum that most other districts do, and we could do so much better.”

Mazzocchi added he would also look closely at how the access and equity policy is being implemented, ensuring the school has enough advanced-level courses for students to take and supports in place for those students to succeed.

Adamson told the News-Record that the only way to close the gap is to fight the inequity at the elementary level — when students establish a foundation for learning. She said the SOMSD is currently segregated, demonstrated by the fact that 50 percent of Seth Boyden Elementary School children are eligible for free and reduced lunch compared to only 6 percent of South Mountain Elementary School students. To correct this, the real estate agent and former co-president of the PTA President’s Council said she would look into redistricting or at least redistributing the resources designated for each school. And she said she would stick with any program introduced for the good of the children, monitoring the data for effectiveness instead of simply giving up after a few parents complain.

Additionally, Adamson said during the debate that she would make ongoing anti-bias and cultural competency training a priority for the district, if elected. That way, she said, teachers and administrators will learn how to overcome their unconscious biases so they can fairly view students and allow them to thrive.

With the exodus of several district employees over the past several months — including teachers, principals and the BOE’s business administrator — staff retention has become a hot-button issue this election season. Accordingly, each candidate has a plan as to how they would keep the SOMSD’s most effective teachers while also recruiting the best educators of tomorrow.

Lawson-Muhammad acknowledged that the district has lost a lot of good teachers prematurely. If re-elected, the incumbent said she would push to provide more supports to new teachers, enabling them to settle into the SOMSD early on. That means giving them the space to implement changes that could positively influence the culture of their schools, she said, while also setting them up with mentors who could show them how to avoid problems.

Lawson-Muhammad emphasized the need to hire a diverse mix of staff to reflect the diversity of the district; but participating in a few minority job fairs is not doing enough to strike the balance between teachers and students, she said. Instead, she suggested directly reaching out to universities with high minority enrollment for job candidates. She said Bloomfield College, where she is a board member, is an example of a school with which the SOMSD could partner.

Davis said he believes his legal experience taking a precise, “surgical” approach to asking questions will serve him well in addressing teacher retention and recruitment. On the board, he said he would ask the superintendent exactly what he is doing to keep and attract teachers. A speaker Ramos recently engaged to instill solidarity among the staff was a good start, Davis said. And while he knows a culture shift will not happen overnight, he said he will make sure Ramos continues to lay the groundwork for making the district a place teachers want to work.

As a former district educator, the recent exodus of teachers and administrators troubles Wright. The incumbent lamented that South Orange-Maplewood is losing published and award-winning staff members who went above and beyond for their students, all because they are unsatisfied with how they are treated by the district. According to Wright, this could be prevented.

“They needed to feel respected,” Wright told the News-Record in an Oct. 28 interview. “They needed to feel like they could teach and that their hands weren’t being cuffed in terms of being creative and doing things that they really wanted to do for children. When teachers are in a position where they feel they can’t do anymore, they need to move on. They go someplace else because they can’t stand to see children being hurt by decisions that are being made for them.”

To prevent more teachers from departing, Wright stressed that the board must start listening to their opinions because they know what is best for their students. The BOE should also call for more professional development, which she said can help educators hone their craft. She is also in favor of establishing a human resources committee to ensure that the absolute best candidates are hired.

For Mazzocchi, the answer to retention and recruitment lies in the board communicating a clear vision with well-defined expectations and supports to carry it out. If such a vision is in place, he said the district will develop a reputation as a “valuable destination place” for teachers and administrators to stay. But he told the News-Record that the SOMSD does not have that now, which is why so many staff members are leaving and jumping the chain of command to report issues. He said he can provide those supports on the board, having already done so in his current roles as associate director of the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University and executive director of the Kinhaven Summer Music School in Vermont.

The board also has to make hires in a timelier fashion than it does now, Mazzocchi said. By waiting until the end of the summer to employ someone, the BOE misses out on the best candidates because they’ve been snapped up by other districts, he said. If he were a board member, he said, he would call for a search committee to be formed and notice to go out within one or two weeks of a job becoming available.

Adamson said the key to fostering a positive environment for SOMSD teachers is making sure they are heard. She said the educators she has spoken with are frustrated because the board does not seek their input. That would change if she were elected, she said, because she feels teachers are one the district’s most valuable assets in ensuring student success. After all, she said, no one knows more about what goes on the classroom than they do.

“Teachers are on the ground, on the front lines,” Adamson told the News-Record in an Oct. 14 sit-down interview. “They may not be in the position of administering the big picture, but they have to be an important part of the conversation.”

She said she would seek the teachers’ advice and encourage the administration to settle contract negotiations more quickly, which she hopes will also improve communications between educators and the board.

Of course, taxes are a perennial school board issue and the candidates each had a plan to prevent taxes from rising significantly.

According to Lawson-Muhammad, the board must leave no stone unturned when it comes to looking for additional monies. The switch to zero-based budgeting would help, she said, since every expense must be justified before being approved. It also will allow the district to find new sources of revenue, she said. She said Ramos was able to negotiate a compensation deal with the YMCA for using school facilities after noticing how much the association was profiting at no cost to itself. The board can similarly find resources through the zero-based budgeting process, she said.

Yet Lawson-Muhammad has not been afraid to spend on what she feels has been necessary. The solution development executive said she voted to increase funding for Seth Boyden in the past two budgets because the school needs the right balance between teachers and classrooms.

Davis, too, is in favor of finding a balance between spending and needs. For instance, he said he would not hesitate to use tax dollars for school infrastructure improvements if it means keeping children safe. But he also would not be quick to raise taxes. In the end, he said it would come down to what the district required.

“The district has to be our first priority as board members,” Davis said in an Oct. 21 interview. “I’ll make sure that whatever decision I vote on will be the best decision for the district at the time, keeping in mind all the challenges that we have and trying to take different approaches of attack.”

One such approach Davis wants to pursue is calling upon state legislators to reform school funding. Due to politicized decisions and general inaction, the candidate said the SOMSD is not getting its fair share, which is why it is being forced to budget to the 2-percent cap. That needs to change, he said, because South Orange-Maplewood children are not receiving a constitutional education with the district so underfunded.

Wright stressed that the key to preventing higher taxes is to spend money more responsibly. But the board cannot easily do that without a full knowledge of its finances. So, if re-elected, Wright said she would call for the BOE to receive more detailed budgets with actual expense amounts included.

In addition, Wright said the board should consider pursuing more shared services agreements — particularly for health care. She is also strongly in favor of making the SOMSD an intake district for special education, pointing out that doing so would bring in a lot of revenue for the schools. And she said the district should stop hiring consultants to handle tasks that could be done by existing employees.

In order to optimize the school budget, Mazzocchi said he would want to see budget numbers and actual expenses from year to year to could analyze all line items and cut whatever is unnecessary. He admitted that he would raise taxes if it meant saving teachers’ jobs, but stressed that an increase would only be a last resort, since he would first look at all possible alternatives such as shared services and deferred maintenance. Having worked on school budgets extensively, he said, he knows that spending more will not fix a problem.

As a taxpayer, Adamson also said that she would not want to raise taxes. At the same time though, she said the district’s finances cannot be looked at in a vacuum. Thus, she said she would weigh the option of raising taxes with whatever issues the SOMSD needed to address

Be sure to vote for three of the five candidates for Board of Education on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Debate photos by Sean Quinn