WEST ORANGE, NJ — In addition to voting for New Jersey’s next governor, West Orange residents will have the chance to choose a leader on a much more local level: The Nov. 7 general election will also have a spot for residents to choose one of two candidates to fill the sole open seat on the West Orange Board of Education.
Challengers Ken Alper and Chris Diaz are vying for the seat being vacated by longtime board member Laura Lab, who has decided not to seek re-election.
According to Alper, the decision to run for office stems from his belief in helping one’s community and from the example set by those around him.
“Growing up, my parents and my friends’ parents were all active in the community, in the PTA, as coaches, firefighters, Scout leaders, and town council and school board members,” Alper told the West Orange Chronicle in an Aug. 26 email. “I became active in the Gregory PTA in several capacities when my older son was there. During that time I chaired the Traffic Safety Committee that was able to resolve a longstanding dangerous situation by working together with the township and the Board of Education to build our successful kiss-and-go and bus lane. Through that experience I came to know people from across West Orange and I saw that it’s exactly the same as when I grew up — that we have good people standing up and doing what needs to be done for their community.
“Now that my younger son is starting sixth grade at Edison, it feels like the right time for me to stand up myself and give back, to help my town,” Alper continued. “I’m running because I believe that I bring a data-driven perspective to the table from my work in polling and market research, and because I think the board needs people like me, who have a history of seeing the big picture — of being able to hear the different sides of an issue, ask smart questions and propose commonsense, workable solutions to the challenges we face.”
Of those challenges, Alper sees communication as the biggest.
“There is much room for improvement in just about every aspect of how the district communicates — everything from how board meetings are run to how we combat some of the untrue perceptions out there about our schools to how and when we involve the community on big decisions,” Alper said, adding that he also wants to focus on ensuring all children — at the top, at the bottom and in the middle — are receiving a quality education; holding the administration accountable when necessary; and involving the community more.
Diaz, who ran for the BOE unsuccessfully last year, cites several reasons for his interest in joining the board, including pride in the West Orange School District’s accomplishments while recognizing areas for improvement, such as administration and board response to stakeholders.
“I also believe that while our children get a quality education in West Orange, we can fulfill the promise of a great one,” Diaz told the Chronicle in an Aug. 27 email. “We should be looking to strengthen our math curriculum in elementary school, enhance our science program in middle school and work to provide the best possible preparedness and guidance in our high school. I also firmly believe that we must address issues such as HIB reform and body shaming of our young girls. We need to focus efforts on living up to our responsibilities for all of our students no matter what their learning style, challenges or strengths. We must be welcoming and tolerant of students of varying beliefs, orientations and persuasions. I know that every one of our students can and should be given an equal opportunity to succeed.”
Diaz also stressed the need for more transparency and accountability in the district.
“Too often, parents, students and educators are left in the dark about decisions which affect them directly,” Diaz said. “Board members are granted a sacred trust by the people whom they serve. They must hold administrators and educators alike accountable to deliver the absolute best educational experience possible for our children while being careful and thoughtful stewards of the tax dollars they spend to accomplish that goal.”
He also looks forward to working together as a community to improve the West Orange School District, Diaz said.
“I am sure that I do not stand alone in believing that we can do better, together,” Diaz said.
Before the community can begin working with either candidate to improve the school district, however, it must choose one. When voting, it is vital to understand the role of a local school board.
“The school board has a dual role: To represent the concerns of the citizens, taxpayers and parents to the school administrators, and to represent the needs of the students and school district to the citizens, taxpayers and parents of the community,” Janet Bamford, the communications and publications manager at the New Jersey School Boards Association, told the Chronicle in an Aug. 28 email. “The school board does not operate the district on a day-to-day basis; that is the job of the superintendent, who is the district’s chief executive.
“Rather, the school board sets goals and objectives for the district. It follows through by setting policies aligned to these goals; by monitoring the administration’s progress toward achieving the goals; and by providing the necessary support and resources. The school board, under state law, evaluates the performance of the superintendent annually.
To learn more about the role of a school board, visit https://www.njsba.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/FAQ_howtobecomeaschoolboardmember-3.pdf.
According to Bamford, people often cross-attribute roles to the school board and superintendent.
“Sometimes there is confusion among members of the public about the board’s role and the role of the school district superintendent and administration. The superintendent or chief school administrator is responsible for administering the policies adopted by the school board and for running the school system; the superintendent is accountable to the board regarding how well it is run,” Bamford said. “Some of the duties that properly fall within the role of the chief school administrator include: development, expansion and evaluation of the education program; recommendations for hiring of new staff and renewal or nonrenewal of nontenured staff; recommendations for disciplinary action for those tenured staff members not performing at expected levels; preparation of the district budget; monitoring expenditures and the establishment of control systems for purchasing and accounting; maintenance of school facilities and equipment; and development of necessary transportation systems.
“The school board acts on the superintendent’s recommendations when it votes, for example, to adopt a particular curriculum, on personnel matters, or to adopt a proposed budget,” Bamford continued. “The school board and superintendent work together, but have distinct roles.”
To learn more about who in the school district is responsible for which aspect of it, visit https://www.njsba.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/publications_whodoeswhat2014.pdf.