BOE looks to future under Mordecai, Schwarzbaum leadership

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Sandra Mordecai and Irv Schwarzbaum were unanimously elected president and vice president, respectively, of the West Orange Board of Education during the board’s Jan. 5 reorganization meeting.

This is Schwarzbaum’s first leadership position on the board since joining last year, and the new vice president said he is looking forward to taking on a larger role in contributing to the West Orange School District. Mordecai, on the other hand, is no stranger to heading up the board as she served as president in 2014. Still, she said it feels “wonderful” to be chosen for the role once more.

“I am excited to be provided with that opportunity again,” Mordecai told the West Orange Chronicle in a Jan. 9 phone interview. “I’m looking forward to working with Irv Schwarzbaum, who is the vice president, as well as my other colleagues on the board in moving the district forward.”

Mordecai already has plans for the year ahead. For one, she said she wants to follow through with her campaign promise to introduce transitional college fairs for special needs students. The new president said while universities offer programs to help those who need it, many parents and students are not aware of these opportunities. Gathering college representatives in one place to showcase their initiatives could provide a real resource for these families, she said.

The new president also wants to see how the district’s honors program can be improved, adding that a committee is being formed to explore just that. The committee will examine what is good about the initiative and what needs to be changed, she said. Mordecai mentioned that she herself would like to see enrollment in the program increase, perhaps by expanding the admittance criteria to include classwork portfolios in addition to testing.

“Students don’t always test very well, and if you focus only on one or two criteria you may not get as many students as you’d like,” Mordecai said. “So I’d like to cast a wider net to ensure that more students have access to the program.”

Both Mordecai and Schwarzbaum said implementing the district’s strategic plan will be a priority for them in 2017, especially the mandate to reduce overcrowding in the schools. To address this issue, the president said the board intends to commission a demographic study predicting population growth for at least the next three to five years. Knowing how many students to expect in the coming years — including those from the township redevelopment projects — will be useful to the board when determining what solutions to pursue, she said. For instance, she said, knowing the number and age range of children could make the difference between building an expansion and repurposing an existing classroom.

According to Mordecai, the study should be completed sometime this year.

Of course, the two board leaders will also face the ongoing teacher contract dispute that has lasted for more than a year, with Schwarzbaum in particular serving on the negotiations committee alongside board member Laura Lab. The vice president said the BOE is determined to work collectively with the West Orange Education Association to negotiate a fair contract. The problem is that, as much as the board would love to give the teachers everything they want, it faces constraints such as the 2-percent budget cap, he said. Since salaries and benefits account for 80 to 85 percent of the budget, and with health care costs being out of the board’s hands, he said there is not much leeway.

Schwarzbaum said the BOE is exploring alternative solutions, such as different types of insurance plans. He said the board would also like to give the teachers a pay raise, though that would depend on the cost.

“There’s a balance between what we can afford and what’s within the constraints of our budget,” Schwarzbaum told the Chronicle in a Jan. 9 phone interview. “It has been a very protracted process, and it’s difficult — it’s difficult on both sides. But we will hopefully come to a consensus.”

As for teacher morale, which many have complained is at an all-time low, Schwarzbaum said the BOE is working with Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky to see what can be done. The vice president said the board cannot micromanage the day-to-day operations of the district. But he stressed that the board members do value West Orange’s “phenomenal” staff and definitely recognize that they have a “thankless” job with hours well beyond the school day.

Aside from the contract negotiations, Schwarzbaum said he would like to focus on exploring the possibility of introducing a career track in West Orange High School. He explained such a track would allow students to prepare for careers that do not require a college degree, such as plumbing, coding, carpentry and electrical work. While the district will continue supporting those who wish to go on to college, the vice president said the career track would be an alternative for those who do not feel that college is for them.

“I’m asking the very simple question: Is (college) the right track for everyone?” Schwarzbaum said. “I don’t believe that 100 percent of students want to or should go to college.”

Before a career track would be implemented, Schwarzbaum said he would like to research whether other schools have tried the model. He said he would also have to figure out what a core curriculum would look like and at what grade level students should start such a track. Above all, he said he wants to gain feedback from the community, adding that he would be in favor of doing town hall style meetings, at which residents could comment on whether a career track should be pursued at all.