Nine vie for three seats on SOMA BOE

2017 Board of Ed election sees diverse slate of candidates pledging to work to improve SOMSD

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — This election season is shaping up to be an exciting one in South Orange and Maplewood with nine candidates running for three open seats on the SOMA Board of Education.

BOE President Elizabeth Baker and member Donna Smith are both running to regain their seats, though BOE member Maureen Jones has decided not to run for re-election. Joining the two incumbents in the race are challengers Avery Julien, Anthony Mazzocchi, Lucas Calhoun, Robin Johnson Baker, Felisha George, Shannon Cuttle and Sheila Shidnia. All open seats are for three-year terms.

Originally there were 10 candidates vying for the position, but John Sarantakis dropped out of the race a couple of weeks ago. Sarantakis told the News-Record that foremost among his reasons for dropping out are his ongoing litigation with the school district and the high probability that he will be relocating in 2019.

But the nine candidates still in the race are ready to jump into the thick of things and work to make the South Orange-Maplewood School District a better place.

For Elizabeth Baker, re-election would allow her to continue the forward momentum of her first term, which began three years ago.

“I am extremely proud of our board’s work, which I led as president, in quickly recruiting and appointing Dr. Thomas Ficarra as interim superintendent once we became aware that (former Superintendent) Dr. (John) Ramos was considering retirement,” Elizabeth Baker told the News-Record in an Aug. 28 email. “Hiring a superintendent and ensuring effective leadership for the district is the board’s number one job, but the board can only do this if it is functioning cohesively and is well prepared.

“When I became board president in January 2015, I sought to build capacity within the board through training and collaborative leadership, and to strengthen the board’s relationships with external partners such as the New Jersey School Boards Association,” she continued. “That preparation, those relationships and our successful capacity-building paid off in this search.”

But Elizabeth Baker was quick to give credit to her fellow board members, who all worked collaboratively to find Ficarra and to ensure a smooth transition. This hurdle is behind the district, however there is still more to be done. She cited three major intertwined issues: ensuring quality education for all students regardless of background or ability; creating an encouraging climate in the schools; and addressing a classroom shortage while creating space for more arts and STEM learning.

“We must ensure educational opportunity for all students — especially students of color and students with disabilities,” Elizabeth Baker said. “To that end, we have adopted the Access & Equity Policy and a new Academic Placement policy that removes the formal barriers to opportunity that were holding students back. Some students and their parents have begun to avail themselves of the right to opt up to higher level courses, but these opportunities cannot be fully meaningful unless and until we ensure that families are welcomed and that all students are encouraged, challenged and provided the academic support needed to help them succeed.”

While Smith is also pleased with the board’s alacrity in hiring Ficarra as interim superintendent, she is most proud of helping the board to pass the Access & Equity Policy.

“For years I have been a supporter of the idea that it is necessary to provide students and their parents the ability to choose the level of rigor in their coursework, while maintaining high standards and expectations for all students,” Smith told the News-Record in an Aug. 28 email. “I was on the Policy & Monitoring Committee that developed the Access & Equity Policy and introduced a resolution for its adoption. The initial implementation of the policy, which is empowering students to choose the courses they wish to take, has been difficult. Nevertheless, we already have seen increased participation in honors and AP courses by those who may have been overlooked for consideration in the past. This is very exciting and I hope to see more progress in the coming years.”

Smith added that this policy has helped further the district’s strategic direction focusing on individual learning to allow the schools to meet the needs of their diverse student bodies. But, while students are now able to more easily opt into classes, she cited a lack of space for these classes as an issue.

“The biggest challenge we face is addressing our facilities, from overcrowding to aging buildings to out-of-date classroom setups,” Smith said. “We need a facilities plan that will finally take care of a tremendous amount of deferred maintenance throughout the district. We also need to address the matter of increased student populations, particularly in the elementary schools. The demographer estimates a need for 26 additional classrooms at the elementary level and has noted that the portables in many cases are close to reaching their shelf life. Further, the space at the high school needs re-imagining. All of this work must be done in a manner that is fiscally responsible and allows stakeholders to have a voice in the process.”

Not every candidate, however, is a seasoned voice on the Board of Education; this year’s election has brought in some fresh blood — none fresher than Avery Julien, a 2017 Columbia High School graduate who is beginning his freshman year at Rutgers. According to Julien, he became very active in the fight for equal rights in the district during his senior year at Columbia and plans to continue that work.

“We noticed a lot wrong with the schools and the district, from how they were treating students of color, to just using the facilities. I became involved in the activist side of Columbia,” Julien said in a Sept. 5 phone interview with the News-Record. “The Board of Education doesn’t foster change or student activism and I knew we needed to change that. The best way to do that was to get inside the board and change things.”

While Julien is also concerned about facility shortfalls, he cited his main concern as racially motivated disparities between students within the school district.

“Racial issues have plagued our district for the past 10 years. This past year alone there were three or four — including the slave auction and posters assignment,” Julien said, citing the mock slave auction that fifth-grade students put on at Jefferson Elementary School and the school assignment for which students made mock posters to sell slaves, which were then hung in the hallways at South Mountain School.

But Julien does not feel this problem is insurmountable. He cited a schoolwide assembly held at Columbia last school year dealing with race issues that he feels really did bring about change, with some teachers altering their teaching styles and even in some cases apologizing to students for acts they had not realized were harmful.

“It’s just ignorance,” Julien said.

While Julien is fresh from being a student within the school district, Mazzocchi has been both a student in the district and an educator. A CHS graduate, Mazzocchi is the district’s former director of fine and performing arts and has worked in education as both a teacher and administrator for the past 20 years; he now teaches at Montclair State University.

“Our schools are not a reflection of our community — but they can be, and they should be,” Mazzocchi said in an Aug. 24 statement to the News-Record. “It is a vision of a great school system for all that drives my life’s work, and compels me to run once again for the South Orange-Maplewood BOE this year.

Mazzocchi is using an unsuccessful BOE run last year as a learning experience; he said he often reflects on all the support he received, which continues to inspire him to strive for a broad and inclusive curriculum. He believes that he has the skills necessary to assist the district in some of its greatest upcoming challenges.

“This coming year, the most important job of the Board of Education will be to hire — and then to evaluate — our next superintendent,” Mazzocchi said. “I believe my history as an educator, an artist and an educational leader will add much-needed diversity of thought to our current board, and give our community and our district its best chance to get this crucial next hire right.”

Calhoun, who also has worked as an educator, intends to work with the community to improve teacher morale, commit to effective implementation of new policies and increasing equity within the district.

I have direct experience in installing academic policies that ensure teachers are supported, all students are challenged, and the community is engaged — and most importantly, I am committed to the long-term ‘follow-through’ of policy implementation,” Calhoun told the News-Record in a Sept. 5 email. “As a teacher and a dean at one of the most diverse schools in Los Angeles, I learned that seeking excellence in academics and access and equity for students are not mutually exclusive concepts. I am not afraid to work toward ambitious heights for our schools. I believe in collaboration and focusing on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of policies to achieve those goals.”

Calhoun stressed that serving on the board would allow him to be a stronger voice for students and would add value to the community he “proudly” calls home. He said also looks forward to furthering the board’s most pressing concern: hiring a new superintendent.

“Our community needs a superintendent who understands not only the district’s financial challenges, but also the opportunities we have — with our cultural and academic diversity — to be a truly exceptional school system,” Calhoun said. “She or he needs to think beyond the standard measures of success, and support students in the context of their rapidly changing world. Our new superintendent needs to have a proven track record as an instructional leader, conceptual thinker and motivator. We can’t simply hire someone who just talks a good game.”

For former BOE member Robin Johnson Baker, despite no longer having a child in the school district, she knew she had to regain her former seat on the board after learning about recent events in the schools and in the community as a whole.

“I had been somewhat ‘out of the loop’ on district-related issues since my daughter graduated from Columbia High School about three years ago,” Robin Johnson Baker told the News-Record in an Aug. 28 email. “Then, with increasing frequency, I began to hear about negative situations arising around diversity in our community. Among them were the fallout from an elementary school’s Colonial history assignment depicting ‘slave auction’ posters, the complete misinterpretation of an artistic work performed at the high school to the song ‘Strange Fruit,’ the police treatment of students in the streets Maplewood on July 5, 2016, and the significant rise in middle school out-of-school suspensions disproportionately affecting students of color. It seemed to me that we had regressed, as a district and community, and were revisiting issues that were very similar to the ones that motivated me to run for the South Orange-Maplewood school board back in 1998.

“‘Yesterday,’ in the late 1990s, we addressed the current issues of the day with solutions that were effective in their time: the Demonstration School model resulted in the voluntary achievement of socioeconomic and ethnic diversity at Seth Boyden that was sustained for over 10 years. The Montrose Alternative High School addressed a concentrated but moderate disciplinary issue at Columbia while also helping dozens of students graduate who had begun to flounder in the larger more regimented environment at Columbia,” she continued. “‘Today’ we again have a slow but steady slide away from the diverse schools and classrooms that enrich us, and an increasing number of disciplinary actions that appear to be unevenly applied to the detriment of our district overall. These are the issues that initially sparked my interest and desire to run again. I believe they absolutely can be addressed and resolved, lifting our whole district to new heights academically and socially.”

Seeing the direction the SOMSD has gone in, Robin Johnson Baker said it would be impossible to pick a top issue in the school district, as they are all interdependent with one another. Specifically, she cited equity, budgetary constraints and attitudes.

“Whether a child is a high performer in need of additional challenge, a recipient of special education resources, or a candidate for remedial help, each student’s progress should be highly sought after and valued by our district,” she said. “There is no magic in developing a collaborative spirit across our district — one that is inclusive and seeks to engage parents, the board, community leaders, teachers, administrators, students, etc. The answer lies in how we lead as board members and administrators. Do we assume good intent and seek first to understand, or do we retreat to our corners and defend our positions? How we work together and the examples we set are where true collaboration begins.”

For Cuttle, running for the Board of Education is a golden opportunity to further their intentions to improve the school district and public education in general.

“I am running for the Board of Education because I have always been invested in public education at the local level,” Cuttle told the News-Record in a Sept. 4 email. “As a dedicated community member and national safe schools expert, I have seen the challenges and transitions our district has faced over last several years. Throughout this period, I have been an active voice engaging in best practices and providing support for students, parents and educators in building inclusive safer schools here locally and on a statewide level.”

Should they be elected, Cuttle plans to address the overall climate and culture in the SOMSD, which they feel does not benefit each student as it should.

At my core I support the best interests of all children and all families in the district. Equity and inclusion provide the groundwork for development of a positive climate and culture for learning, and thriving for both students and educators,” Cuttle said. “With my 20 years of expertise in this area, I am the best person to help fill that void. Addressing climate and culture is an intersectional issue that includes the whole-school community and other stakeholders to find the most effective solutions. This entails connecting best practices, policy, research and implementation.

“However, policies and procedures alone will not change the climate and culture of a school community. What will make the most difference is a leader’s ability to understand what’s needed for planning, implementing and sustaining change while also finding the most effective solutions and uniting the hearts and minds of parents, students and bodies of influence. I am someone who is ready to jump into the challenge head on to help pave a way towards long term solutions, give a voice to and cultivate partnerships, with a shared vision and values that will positively impact all families.”

According to Shidnia, she is running because she has seen inconsistency and poor planning within the school district and knows that neither her children nor their peers are receiving the best education they can be receiving.

I am increasingly frustrated by decisions made regarding access and equity, curriculum review and implementation, and a general lack of communication from the district and the BOE,” Shidnia said in an Aug. 28 email to the News-Record. “For example, I moved into this district three years ago, and watched my middle schooler be introduced to three different curricula in three years — without notification, discussion, or opportunity for parents or children to understand what they needed to do to succeed. Changing a curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate to one focused on Common Core standards was a radical shift for a school. To do this without informing the community was negligent.”

Shidnia also cited the “obvious flaws, lack of oversight and poorly executed assignments” in the district’s fifth-grade Colonial America unit. Seeing such issues, Shidnia believes the district must develop a workable strategy that will create positive change in the long-term.

“Whether we are talking about our children’s daily experience — curricula implementation, access and equity — or long-view strategic planning — communications with parents, community feedback — we need a stronger framework for success,” Shidnia said. “We are lucky to have a community of active and willing parents, that have been doing the legwork needed to get this school district back on its feet. The administration must hear their voices and work together to bring their ideas to fruition. It is the job of the BOE to ensure that this happens. They are the voice of our community.”

George, a member of the CHS Class of 2012, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Before the community can begin working with any of the nine candidates to improve the school district, however, it must choose three. 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 News-Record 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.