MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The eight candidates running for three open seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education gathered at DeHart Community Center to discuss district concerns on Oct. 19 at the Meet the Candidates Forum, hosted by the Hilton Neighborhood Association and moderated by HNA President Carol Buchanan. Issues that received much attention included racial tensions in the district, curriculum and the district’s need to hire a new superintendent.
Among the candidates are two incumbents: Elizabeth Baker, the current board president who is completing her first term on the board, and Donna Smith, who is also nearing the end of her first term. Current board member Maureen Jones is not seeking reelection. Challengers for the three seats are Anthony Mazzocchi, Shannon Cuttle, Avery Julien, Sheila Shidnia, Felisha George and Robin Johnson Baker.
“I ran for the board three years ago because I felt that what I was doing by day was the type of work that needed to be done in our school district,” Elizabeth Baker, who is a labor lawyer by profession, said at the forum. “I wanted to make our schools welcoming, engaging and challenging for every single child who walks through the doors and I saw a school system that often looked the other way or was indifferent to children who were walking through their doors.” Baker has two daughters in the district, one at Columbia High School and one in seventh grade at Maplewood Middle School.
Elizabeth Baker’s point about students that were falling through the cracks was a subject of much discussion at the debate, with challengers George and Julien speaking about their experiences as recent students in the district. The two are running a joint campaign as recent graduates; George graduated from CHS in 2012 and Julien, a freshman at Rutgers University, in 2017.
“We can do better,” George said at the debate. “We currently have a system that is built against us. If I’m elected, I will make sure that teachers are teaching for the students and not just for a class.”
George touched upon her experiences with curriculum when she was in high school, saying that the classes she attended did not prepare her for graduation or help her figure out what she wanted to do after high school.
“I was in all Level 2 classes at Columbia,” she said. “Until I had one writing class that was Level 3. And in my Level 2 classes I got D’s, I got F’s, I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t a model student until that Level 3 class that brought me to my potential. That really shaped me and informed me … and I could tell the difference between those expectations and the Level 2 class expectations. We need to make sure that that is not something that is being repeated.”
Julien echoed some of George’s sentiments, using his youth and recent experiences as a student in the district to his advantage.
“We have, in this community, the greatest thing in the world, which is fantastic, imaginative and innovative youth that will stand up and fight for what they believe in. I can attest to that, and both of us sitting here,” he said, referring to George, “want to actively change what we went through. The current board — three years has gone by and nothing has changed.”
Mazzocchi, a professor of music at Montclair State University and the district’s former supervisor of fine arts, expressed his frustrations with the administration in the district, citing that there have been four different superintendents come and go over the last five years.
“Something has not been working. It’s crucial that we get this next hire right. The most important job of the board is to evaluate and hire the superintendent,” he said, also expressing his approval of the job that interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra has done thus far.
“Most of his work has been cleaning up a mess that’s been left behind in the last three years. I believe a good amount of the mess was avoidable these past few years,” Mazzocchi said. “When the current board is voting to reverse some of the very things they voted on a few short years ago, we can see that there may be a lack of depth of collective knowledge on the board that can prevent us from evaluating and hiring our next superintendent.”
Mazzocchi, another CHS graduate running for BOE, has two children in the district, one at Maplewood Middle School and one at Tuscan Elementary School.
“I want all children to have the opportunities that I had, and the administration has not been held accountable,” he said.
Cuttle is a longtime educator who founded the Safe Schools Action Network, which works to eradicate bullying from schools. Cuttle has acted as a sounding board for teachers, students and families in the district regarding their various needs.
“I’ve heard from parents and families across our district about needs and wants and things that should be happening,” Cuttle said, before talking about the importance of climate and culture in the schools. “Climate and culture includes not just better access to education for all students, but also leadership and development opportunities for teachers and school administrators. At the same time it looks at our district and what’s working and not working. The whole climate and culture of our district is how our students are going to be successful inside and outside of the classroom, and we have to make that our priority.”
Robin Baker was not able to be at the debate, so former board member Robin Rhodes read a statement on her behalf. Robin Baker previously served on the board from 1998 to 2001.
“I am running again so many years later because it is my hope and plan that every student can pursue his or her aspirations with the full backing and support of a learning environment that encourages excellence and a realistic and attainable path to high achievement,” Robin Baker’s statement read. “I know that our students are capable. The question is whether or not we as adults will do what is required of us in our various roles to successfully reach each child, bringing out the best of every student and the best they have to offer.”
Shidnia cited her ability to effectively communicate as one of the reasons she decided to run for the BOE, saying that she has seen a distance between the administration and families in the district.
“I’ve been troubled by the lack of transparency and the lack of curriculum implementation,” Shidnia, who is working toward a doctorate in music therapy, said. “The lack of movement on the Access & Equity policy left me wondering who was benefiting when half of our students are underserved.”
She also addressed questions about curriculum in the schools, saying that when she and her family moved to South Orange as her oldest child was starting middle school, they saw the curriculum change three times.
“I didn’t hear a word about it,” she said. “I didn’t hear when it was changing, I wasn’t told what I could do to prepare my child, and I felt like I was left in the dark,” Shidnia said. “And I find that this discussion is not new, this discussion has been part of public discourse in these two towns for the last 20 years. As a member of the BOE I would find where we can align these state mandates as we need to while moving forward as we need to while moving forward and creating a progressive and stabilized curriculum that challenges our students while providing clear and accessible assistance when it’s needed. Our students should not have to jump through hoops to figure out how to succeed.”
Smith, the other incumbent running for re-election, also discussed her issues with the schools’ curriculum. She works as customs and international trade lawyer and is an adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School. Her three children all went to school in the district and graduated from CHS.
“We need to examine whether or not students have been given appropriate advice regarding their choices and, if not, we must examine the way that guidance and the teaching staff assists students in course selection,” Smith said. “More effort simply must be made to guide and support students with their choices, particularly in the transition years from fifth (to sixth) grade and eighth to ninth.”
Smith said that the board needs to consider eliminating Level 2 classes altogether, which she considers a “path to nowhere.” She added that class levels should exist as choices, not as a way to deny students access to a diverse and rich curriculum.
To close the forum, Mazzocchi said that the approach to education that the district is currently taking is no longer working.
We have a one-size-fits-all test-centric approach to education, and I beg you all to take a good look at that, because we’re in an educational paradigm that is completely outdated,” he said. “If we don’t address that we’re going to sit here 15 years from now and we’re going to have the same conversation.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic