BOE candidates battle it out in debate

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SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Issues regarding cultural insensitivity, taxes and overcrowding were just some of the hot-button topics of the Oct. 10 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education candidates debate held by the League of Women Voters and the SOMSD Presidents Council.

There are currently eight candidates running for three open seats on the BOE. Incumbents Donna Smith and Elizabeth Baker, who is currently board president, are running, while board member Maureen Jones is not seeking re-election. Challengers running are Robin Johnson Baker, Shannon Cuttle, Felisha George, Avery Julien, Anthony Mazzocchi and Sheila Shidnia. The two Bakers are running a joint campaign.

Elizabeth Baker is a union-side labor lawyer with two children in the district; she is completing her first term on the board. Smith, an attorney who works in hiring and staffing, saw three children graduate from the district and is also completing her first term on the board. Robin Baker, who works as a consultant for corporations, previously served on the board from 1998 to 2001 after becoming involved through her children.

A longtime educator, Cuttle founded the Safe Schools Action Network, which works to eradicate bullying from schools. George graduated in 2012 from Columbia High School, where she became involved in civil rights advocacy; she is a writer and performer. Julien, another civil rights advocate, graduated from CHS in 2017 and is now a freshman at Rutgers University. Another longtime educator, Mazzocchi is the former supervisor of fine arts for the district and is now an associate director and professor at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University and runs a summer music school in Vermont. Shidnia, the mother of two children in district, has a background in marketing and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in music therapy.

George was unable to attend the Oct. 10 debate, and Shidnia arrived late, missing the first two questions.

The candidates were first asked to comment on what the board’s response should be to insensitive and downright hateful acts within the district. Past incidents cited included swastikas found drawn at South Orange Middle School and students conducting a mock slave auction in a Jefferson School classroom under the tutelage of the substitute teacher.

Each candidate was adamant that the district must work to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future. Several cited the importance of involving the entire community in the discussion and relying on community expertise to solve problems as they occur.

“During my tenure on the board, I have made a point of being out in the public and in the community talking to parents, to students and to teachers about their concerns about the schools,” Smith said, adding that such incidents not only affect the students, but the community as a whole. “Recently one of the biggest concerns has been the issue of the swastikas and the slave auction and the concerns about the climate and culture of our schools. Students who have not really been given much of a voice in recent history have much to say about this and only recently have they really had much of a chance to talk about this to the board and I think we need to have more of that because the students are on the ground they know what’s happening and we need to listen to them.”

Robin Baker said there are several aspects to dealing with these situations, including clear communication and operational improvements, such as ensuring that substitute teachers are properly equipped to deal with situations as they arise and are vetted in a manner that makes it clear to the district that they would not allow a slave auction to take place in their classroom.

“I believe in a general sense the board should firmly reaffirm its position on bias and that it won’t be tolerated in our district in any form. That should be a public pronouncement and it should be clear it is associated with whatever the incident was that occurred,” Robin Baker said. “There should be facts provided to the public about what actually happened so we don’t have stuff going around that’s half true, not true, partly true. And, in addition to the actual facts about what happened, there should be facts about what was done about it.”

Anthony Mazzocchi drew on his experiences leading a summer music program in Vermont, calling for restorative practices.

“When things happen there, the effects on everybody can be extraordinarily profound. I do restorative practices at the school and the first step from leadership on down is to express our solidarity in the idea that an injury to one is certainly an injury to all,” he said, adding that this highlights the importance of finding a new qualified superintendent. “Best-run school districts do not have slave auctions. You look a little closer and you’ll see this incident shines a light on many aspects of our schools that have really suffered in the past few years and that really prevent us from doing a best-run system.”

Elizabeth Baker stressed that the district must learn from past experiences and has to provide facts in a way that does not sugarcoat them, but also does not escalate the situation or label students.

“We have to respond on many levels and we did this last year, and I think we learned from that experience. First the board and the district must recognize these incidents for what they are: incidents of bias, racism and intolerance,” Elizabeth Baker said. “We must also look at our policies and we have been doing that. Coming out of last spring, the community and the board looked at our code of conduct and realized that bias offenses are not in and of themselves violations of the code of conduct, so we have to look at our policy.

“We must also listen to our children and involve our children in the discussion,” she continued. “Our children, especially our children in the secondary school and the high school, have a great deal to tell us about the atmosphere in their schools, about the way adults treat them, about the way they feel adults see and don’t see them. We have to involve the children in the solutions and we must keep learning as we go along.”

For Julien, involving the students in the discussions and solutions is a key reason he is running for Board of Education.

“My senior year at Columbia High School I saw these incidents take place after we spoke out against them,” Julien said. “We had a race assembly in which we addressed a teacher using the N-word. There are much larger issues besides the ones that got notoriety in the last year. I think the way the board should have handled it and should handle it moving forward, it should have meetings only for public speaks, only to hear how the public feels, to hear how the students felt about the situations and to actively progress from that. Listen to the children and move on from what the children believe.”

Cuttle spoke at length about how this issue is not confined to the SOMSD, but is being seen around the country, especially since President Donald Trump was elected, Cuttle said.

“What we need to do is acknowledge that they happen and be proactive and take steps to make sure they do not happen again,” Cuttle said. “We are not isolated, we are not a bubble; we are not exempt from dealing with hate and bias statements. One of the things we have to do as a district is to not just have better professional development and better communication between our schools, our parents, our families and our community, but we need to actually acknowledge and take action so we can prevent hate speech and bias in our schools, in our community, moving forward.”

Of course, anti-bias training, quality teachers and system improvements all require money — something the school district sorely needs as it faces an ever-growing fiscal cliff. Candidates were asked whether they would rather keep taxes below the 2-percent cap or raise taxes to restore programming. Last year, the district used banked cap to increase its tax levy beyond the state cap to 3.56 percent and for the first time used zero-based budgeting, meaning the budget is built from scratch based on need, rather than copying and pasting line items from the previous year.

Several candidates, including Mazzocchi, pointed out that reducing the budget is difficult as approximately three-quarters of the budget goes to personnel and benefits, with only a quarter going to the classroom. For Mazzocchi though, there are certainly areas that deserve more investigation.

“We need to optimize that other 25 percent of the budget by cutting the cord on our addiction to consultants, scheduling in a more innovative and cost-neutral manner to maintain some of the programs … and to identify some areas in which SOMSD is a financial outlier,” Mazzocchi said, lamenting that, when cuts do come, they often begin with the arts. He also stressed the importance of maintaining the district’s buildings, which is an investment for the future. “At the end of the day, our budget is a reflection of our values. Sometimes staying at a 2 percent may prevent us from doing some of the things that are aligned with our values.”

While Mazzocchi cited consultants as a drain on the district’s budget, Julien cited the money that was given to former Superintendent of Schools John Ramos, as well as outsourcing.

“We have a district in which we can pay a superintendent multiple salary increases for someone who hasn’t even served their full contract,” Julien said. “We are also in a district where we outsource our security for the high school. So we have the money, it’s just where is it being spent. Increasing taxes, increasing the amount of money that we already pay that is already high for the area is not going to solve the problem. What’s going to solve the problem is redistributing the money that we already have.”

Cuttle said this issue requires many critical and difficult conversations, as a tax increase — even when relatively small — can cause some people to really suffer.

“We need to look at what is working and what is not working within our school district, and how do we prioritize programs that are also lacking that we need for our students,” Cuttle said. “We need to look at the strategic plan and see which programs are in line with the strategic plan and which are not.”

According to Robin Baker, she initially ran to serve on the board in the ’90s due to high taxes. Despite the high taxes though, she has stayed in Maplewood all these years because she believes the community is worth it.

“We understand that we don’t have a Short Hills Mall here, we don’t have a Livingston Mall, we don’t have a Route 10 — we have a ratables issue here and that’s not going to go away,” she said. “We also know that the 2-percent cap is not ever enough to cover the increases in the main parts of the budget that we don’t have control over.”

For Elizabeth Baker, this question is not speculative — it is a decision she had to make last year on the board.

“I did that because the 2-percent cap combined with the absolutely abysmal and unacceptable level of state funding is an unsustainable model for sustaining public education in our state. And our board and our community, because of the level of taxes, have been reluctant for several years to recognize the impact it has had on our schools. That impact has been cuts, cuts and more cuts,” she said, adding that building maintenance has been one of the casualties of cuts. “We were very transparent to the community as to the impact of the cuts, we were very transparent to the community about the need to restore prior years of cuts,” she continued, adding that the board, to her knowledge, did not receive any complaints from the community regarding last year’s budget.

The question is also not speculative for Smith, who in her first two years voted against using banked cap out of concern for the taxpayers, but in her third year she voted for it.

“This past year, however, the district really came through with very open discussions about the budget, explaining it to us clearly, and operating on a zero-based budget, meaning they weren’t just carrying over lines year by year. Instead were really examining what each department needed,” Smith said. “We need to explore other areas of funding and also go to the state and insist upon tax reform. There has been a little bit of movement on the issue this year by legislators, they are finally talking about the issue and trying to make some concrete proposals. They haven’t come through with much, but I’m hopeful that because this is becoming such a big issue — not just for our district but for every district — that something might be done soon.”

Many candidates cited the district’s infrastructure as a main budgetary concern, seeing as many of the buildings are old and in disrepair. Additionally, a demographer recently told the school district that, due to increasing enrollment, it needs an additional 26 elementary school classrooms.

Robin Baker said solving this problem requires the district to look to the long term and short term concurrently.

“Our dearth of space in our school is pretty clear and pretty concretely defined. We do know today that we are short 26 classrooms — that includes 16 portables that are going on 15 years old,” she said. “The shorter term view is that capital plans don’t happen overnight, so we still have this issue of these classrooms that we are short and so I don’t think that three more years in that condition is going to work. I believe that we’re going to have to look at some potential alternative funding sources, specifically for either updated or upgrading the portables or look at the potential for leasing and trying to make sure that we upgrade those facilities in the most economical way possible.”

According to Mazzocchi, the demographer’s report said one option is for the district to innovate — “that was not extremely helpful,” Mazzocchi joked — and he believes that innovation is required in looking at how grades are dispersed throughout the district’s buildings.

“I went back and I looked at the student numbers and I came up with an interesting scenario where, if the elementary schools were K through 4, and the fifth grade was not there, all of a sudden we have that space back,” Mazzocchi said, adding that the schools would no longer need to use the portables that are also in disrepair. “All of a sudden there’s that space. One middle school, say South Orange Middle School, becomes a 5-6 school, and child development-wise, educationally, that’s very interesting. And now the students are moving as a cohort, instead of (being together for) the first time in ninth grade. Another school would be 7-8, and then we’d have the high school,” he continued, advocating for magnet schools as well.

In addition to overcrowding in many schools, current districting leaves many schools appearing segregated. Julien said the district needs to have a “consistent work ethic” to combat this.

“In all honesty, I do not have a concrete plan at the moment,” Julien said. “I think that if we keep maintaining diversity in our schools a priority, if we try to use the facilities that we have, like the Montrose building, if we open up our classrooms, and we continue to put forth an effort to create that diverse learning experience, then segregation will fall to the side.”

School segregation is also a topic Cuttle wants to address.

“We need to have a conversation about segregation in our schools and we need to have it now,” Cuttle said. “It’s a health and wellness issue, first and foremost. If our students don’t have spaces where they can feel safe, affirmed and welcome so they can thrive in the classroom, they can’t be successful. If our students don’t feel safe and affirmed and welcome in the classroom because of who they are, it’s not going to be the best case scenario.”

Elizabeth Baker agreed with Mazzocchi that the district needs different organizational models for its schools; she said the district should take a closer look at programming, transportation and new buildings to solve these issues.

“We can’t fit too many kids in too small a space,” she said. “We have to build. We have to look at organizational models that do not rely on the current zone-based elementary school model, because when you do that we’re not going to have consistent integration in our schools.

After defining the board’s role, Smith stressed that it is vital for the board to provide strong leadership.

“The goal of the board is to develop policies that serve to guide the administration in its operation; it is not to develop plans to operate the district. So I do not have a specific plan,” Smith said. “However there are several things the board can do in its policy governance role. It can provide guidance to the district insisting upon something to be done that will desegregate the elementary schools.”

Smith also advocated for the creation of magnet schools and for the district to deliberate about whether it needs to create a new school. “We are very close to being in a situation where we can’t continue,” she said.

According to Shidnia, this issue is one that has been ignored for too long.

“The outlook from the school board just seemed so dire upon hearing the results from the consultant and I had a hard time believing this was a new issue,” Shidnia said. “So it seems to me the school district has had this issue going on for years and years and years and now we are at this point where it does seem like a fiscal cliff as far as having to deal with: Can we build new buildings? Can we repurpose some of the buildings we currently have in order to manage the increase in population?

“And really I feel like that there needs to be a better outlook on where we generate additional income,” Shidnia continued. “If we have from the state level, if we are not getting the funds that we need, we need to find new ways of generating these funds instead of constantly every year going into this deficit and always starting at a loss and always starting at a patchwork. So my plan is really generating new sources of funding from the community and from outside the community.”

Election Day is Nov. 7. Be sure to vote for three of the eight candidates running for the SOMA Board of Education.