Eight remaining BOE candidates discuss issues at forum

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SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Communication strategies, integration of elementary schools and adherence to Access and Equity policies were among the topics of discussion as South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education candidates debated at a community forum sponsored by South Orange Maplewood Cares about Schools at The Woodland in Maplewood on Sept. 27.

This is the only scheduled forum in which the BOE candidates did not receive the questions in advance; the questions were completely crowdsourced via social media and other venues. In a random order, each candidate was asked two questions. Unlike more formally structured forums, the goal here was to make the process as unbiased as possible. The event was moderated by South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca.

Taking the stage for the evening’s debate were all eight candidates running for the three open seats on the school board: incumbents Elizabeth Baker and Donna Smith, and challengers Robin Johnson Baker, Shannon Cuttle, Felisha George, Avery Julien, Anthony Mazzocchi and Sheila Shidnia.

Unsurprisingly, many questions arose regarding issues of integrating the elementary schools, the district’s perceived lack of adherence to the newly enacted Access and Equity policy, and the leveling policies that are still in place at Columbia High School.

On this topic, the SOMA Black Parents Workshop stated its belief that children are being denied a fair opportunity to level up in the high school, which is in violation of the Access and Equity policy, and asked for the candidates to respond.

“Let me just first say that yes, I do agree with that statement. If you cannot level up until Oct. 2, by the time you do enter a higher level class, you’re already a month behind,” George, a graduate of the CHS Class of 2012, said. “From the time that we’re in elementary school, we’re tracked and they’re telling us how we need to learn instead of us having the freedom to pick and choose what we need to learn. By the time we reach high school, we’re already left behind and if you have to ask for extra help, who knows if the extra help is there for you.”

The forum also raised the issue of better integrating the elementary schools, ensuring an even and diverse mix of students from the community.

“I’m not necessarily running on a plan, but what I have been thinking about is this problem that exists; my children happen go to Tuscan Elementary, and that’s an issue that is very evident,” Mazzocchi, also a CHS graduate and the former director of fine and performing arts for the school district, said. “We had a consultant who was paid to come in and look at the situation and they gave us four recommendations. They were to build more space, renovate the space that we already have, redistrict the schools and the last one was to innovate. What if we could take all four of the recommendations and address them from a holistic approach?”

Though he said that he wouldn’t call this his official plan, Mazzocchi suggested making all the elementary schools include kindergarten through fourth grade, which would free up a considerable amount of space, and then have one middle school that comprises fifth and sixth grades, another that is seventh and eighth, and keep the high school grades nine through 12.

“This is actually perfectly logical for child development, brain research shows, and then you have children in the district traveling from fifth through 12th grade together, and you can deal with integration at K through four, and develop a mapping system, which is something that I have suggested in the past when I was a supervisor in the district,” Mazzocchi said.

Community members also wanted to know how candidates plan to address budget concerns and if there is room in the budget to address increasing concerns regarding transportation for those who live a considerable distance from the high school.

“This is one of those tough questions; we would of course love to be able to provide transportation to anybody who lives far from the schools. Unfortunately, we’re in fiscal distress here, and we have had some shortfalls in recent years and we have to establish certain priorities, and the priority is that we need to spend the money in the classrooms,” Smith, an attorney who is nearing the end of her first three-year term on the board, said. “We try our best to accommodate students throughout the district in terms of transportation. I know we all pay our taxes, and I’ve always been a supporter of the 2-percent tax cap. We have to be fiscally conservative; we have no choice but to be.”

Candidates were also asked what they would do to engage community members in conversation to elicit concerns and hold dialogue, as well as whether to reinstate twice a month BOE meetings — as opposed to the monthly format followed now — and the use of technology so residents can attend meetings virtually.

“I think one of the reasons I get very frustrated when I approach the board of education with a question is that the forum in which to do so doesn’t seem to provide any response. You can email the board of education, which I’ve done, and I’ve gotten a response 100 percent of the time, or you can go to the public speaks portion of the BOE meeting and express yourself, and essentially get no response,” Shidnia said. “I think one of the most important roles of the school board is to connect the community with the administration, and we are fortunate to live in towns where there are so many community and parent groups that care about our students, and their voices need to be heard. We need actual feedback on the issues, and I think that’s an essential piece to this board that’s missing.”

Communication between parents, stakeholders and district employees was also a subject that many want to see addressed more stringently, and current board President Elizabeth Baker outlined strategies that the board has already adopted, as well as new ones she would like to implement.

“The board has been very consciously going out to community groups, and we’ve been not only meeting with the President’s Council but also going into the schools to meet with PTAs and HSAs so that we can hear their concerns, and everybody who writes to the board of education email gets a response — there’s no auto-reply, it’s an actual personal response,” Baker, an attorney who is nearing the end of her first term on the board, said. “In addition to having more presence at township meetings, what I’d really like to do is find more ways to have our committees put together a curriculum committee to meet with students, hear their concerns, and get their recommendations.”

When asked whether they have any children in the school district, Cuttle’s response highlighted that they do not feel that should be a determining factor in being a qualified candidate for the school board.

“I don’t have any children directly in our district, but as an educator for over 20 years, I’ve had many students and children in my life. But what we really need to be talking about here is not who has children in the district or not; we need to be talking about the qualifications and what makes somebody uniquely qualified to be leader in our district,” Cuttle said. “And that’s me, with my background with over 20 years of experience doing educational policy here on a local level, and also statewide and on a national level. Not just advising school boards here locally but also at the same time dozens of school boards across the country. I’ve seen successful school board operations and school districts, and I am somebody who has the unique skill set to see that all students thrive inside and outside of the classroom.”

Residents were additionally concerned about the hiring process of key administrative positions, such as the superintendent. Residents asked Johnson Baker how the school board will ensure that the superintendent is able to accurately assess the curriculum and, in turn, how the principals will identify the exemplary teachers from those who are either ineffective or need further development.

“My feeling is that most leaders are not born, they become one by watching good other people lead well,” Johnson Baker, who served on the board from 1998 to 2001, said. “If the board’s role is to set policy, then leading by example, being honest and transparent, clear, and that when we set our policies, they are implemented in a way that everyone understands how they’re being measured and what’s expected of them — those are the things that make it possible to be good leaders.”

The Newark Board of Education is reportedly revising its curriculum to be more inclusive of LGBT history, and Julien, a 2017 graduate of Columbia High School and current freshman at Rutgers University, was asked his thoughts about whether he would support the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education doing the same.

“I’m in full support of that. I think that anybody trying to access their education, anybody trying to get their voices heard deserves that,” he said. “I feel like people shouldn’t be discriminated for who they love, who they are, and their identity should be fully embraced by their principals, their teachers.”

Tuesday, Nov. 7, all registered voters in South Orange and Maplewood will have the opportunity to vote for three of the eight candidates for school board. Current board member Maureen Jones is not seeking re-election.