WEST ORANGE, NJ — In a quiet local election season for West Orange, there are two candidates running for the one open seat on the West Orange Board of Education in the Nov. 7 election. Challengers Chris Diaz and Ken Alper shared their platforms with the public at a debate on Oct. 26, as well as in sit-down interviews with the West Orange Chronicle.
Alper has two children in the district, one at West Orange High School and one at Edison Middle School. He believes his background as a statistician would benefit the BOE and the district.
“I can apply my data and analysis experience to how the district is spending, do a deep dive into the curriculum and stabilize taxes on the things that we can control,” Alper said in an interview on Oct. 19. “I want to stay in West Orange after my kids are out of school. I think some new blood can smooth some of that and would serve all of West Orange.”
Diaz, an attorney who advocates for special education students, has a daughter at Liberty Middle School. He wants to make the district more inclusive for every student and family, and also believes his professional experience would benefit the BOE.
“We can no longer fail to act,” Diaz said at the debate. “I have the ability to listen; I don’t have to be right all the time. It’s not my way or the highway. I’m unwavering in my ability to do that.”
Taxes are an issue that has received much discussion and Diaz said that even though it isn’t realistic for him to say they will decrease, more can be done in the district to keep increases under the 2-percent cap each year.
“There are education grants and sponsorships that are available that we just don’t seek out,” he said in an interview on Oct. 20. “We don’t continue to negotiate health care and look at self-insurance for employees. It’s worth looking into to save.”
Alper also wants to look at where the district can make cuts to save money, which will in turn keep rising taxes at bay.
“It adds up,” he said in an interview. “Everything we do is real money. Obviously we can’t cut academics because that’s what we’re here for. We can look at the administrators and consolidate in the superintendent’s office.”
Alper also has concerns about the overcrowding that plagues many school districts, West Orange included. The trailers at the elementary schools have a shelf life, and he wants to see a solution, whether that entails building a new school or redistricting to spread out students. Alper said he is unsure how many children will be enrolling in the district when Phase II of the Edison redevelopment project is completed.
“We’re in a tough spot,” he said. “The trailers need to go, Redwood’s especially. We’re in a spot where we can change it, whether that’s redistricting or building.”
Diaz agreed that the recent demographic study done on the district did not properly address the overcrowding that is being seen in the schools, also mentioning the Edison project.
“It’s unacceptable for a town of our size to cram kids into the schools,” he said. “There’s no room for growth.”
Diaz wants to manage the district’s budget so that building a new school or acquiring an already existing building is possible in the future.
“We’re not setting aside the funding for upgrades, and we could use grants for that, too,” he said. “Hiring a forensic accountant will show us where we are wasting money and how to better allocate money.”
Diaz wants to improve the relationship between the BOE and the district’s teachers as well. Many teachers feel they are not being heard by the board and administration, and Diaz has several ideas about how to change and improve the relationship.
“That culture needs to change. Regular climate surveys will craft a better culture of understanding,” Diaz said, adding that he wants to see meetings that are devoted specifically to teacher feedback and communication. “Too much is done behind the scenes. Out in a public meeting we’d have a better understanding, because the teachers don’t feel as if they’re being included. It would help create a culture where they don’t feel oppressed.”
Alper, who works for a company that creates and conducts surveys, also wants to meet with the teachers more, citing the two years it took for the BOE and the West Orange Education Association to agree on a new contract, which finally occurred in May.
“There was a lot slowing it down, and it was frustrating to watch and teachers were frustrated,” Alper said. “It could have been done more easily. We could have town hall meetings that involve teachers. We should be listening to them and realizing that they know what’s going on. It should be a more collaborative process.”
Alper also thinks communications should be improved between the district and parents.
“Having parents come in at night for parent teacher conferences would be more convenient for many families,” he said at the debate. He also said the district should hold ESL classes for parents and family members who might need the support but are facing a language barrier between home and their child’s school.
Diaz had other ideas about how to tear down the language barrier, like sending notices and surveys home with students in multiple languages, if necessary.
“The town is great about robocalls whenever there’s snow or anything like that,” he said. “We could be doing that for events, telling people to come out, that we want to hear from you. Reaching out in some way impacts our students.”
At the debate, candidates responded to a question about expanding the current five-person BOE to seven. Diaz supports this, saying that adding two more people to the BOE would create more diversity.
“I would like to see as diverse a pool of personalities as possible,” he said. “I think it could be a real opportunity to become more independent, and I don’t see the downside to that.”
Alper disagreed, saying that BOE meetings are already too long and adding two more people to the board would be a hindrance to any accomplishments that could be made.
“The smaller it is, the more it will get done,” he said. “I think we should find more evidence and feedback before making a decision to add like that.”
In a district as diverse as West Orange, both candidates have ideas about how to approach concerns regarding minority and LGBT students. Alper wants to listen to students more, since they are in school every day.
“We need to make sure that we’re listening to our students,” he said. “We need to make sure that they know what they’re dealing with on the BOE, and that everyone feels welcome here.”
While Diaz applauded the May BOE vote that enacted a policy allowing transgender students to use whichever bathroom or locker room corresponds to their gender identity, but expressed the need to go further.
“We took too long to make that decision,” he said. “It seemed like such an easy decision to make. I’m open and willing to discuss, because I think we could do more. We need to continue to listen to them.”
Another student-related issue brought up by an audience member at the debate was the dress code. Both candidates were in agreement that dress codes in many districts, including West Orange, can be problematic, but have different perspectives. Alper, whose two children are boys, said his own children are not often affected by the dress code.
“It mostly affects girls, and that’s the problem,” he said. “It can be sexist.” Alper cited a high school in Illinois that has specific rules about what students can and can’t wear to school as well as how teachers and administrators can enforce the code, as an example of what West Orange should do.
Diaz, who has a daughter, said that the dress code should be uniform across the district and crafted in a way that it does not cater to biases against certain groups of students.
“When it’s applied teacher by teacher and classroom by classroom, it goes beyond body shaming and possibly into a Title IX violation,” Diaz said.
In interviews, both candidates discussed how the district could be more environmentally friendly.
“Simple things could be done, like turning off the lights when no one is in a room,” Alper said. “The schools are so overheated in the winter, we can reduce that.” He also said that solar panels could be installed in the parking lots of the schools.
“Some projects are not necessarily a huge cost to the district,” Diaz said. “And there are experts who could be brought in to give us a plan, someone who knows how to do that. That would be money well spent.”
Both candidates are seeking the one open seat on the BOE. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Photos by Amanda Valentovic