ORANGE, NJ — The Oranges-Maplewood NAACP honored the Committee for an Elected Orange School Board for its leadership in the fight to successfully change the Orange public schools from a Type 1 district to a Type 2 district at its 105th annual Freedom Fund Awards Banquet at the Wilshire Caterers in West Orange on Sunday, April 29.
In a Type 1 district, the mayor appoints members to a board of education, whereas in a Type 2 district, voters elect board members to represent them.
“We have a series of elections coming up to actually fill the board and we’re going to need to work on voter education, so that so there will be a good turnout and voters can make good choices for the board,” the Rev. Anthony P. Johnson, a member of the CEOSB, said Sunday, April 29. “If they’re voters, they need to watch the issues and the candidates and get out to vote. If they’re not voters, they need to speak up to the board of education when it’s needed and they need to make sure the people who do vote get out and vote.”
Peter Learmont and his wife, Mary Reid-Learmont, who are also members of the CEOSB, said they intend to do exactly that in preparation for the upcoming Orange Board of Education election.
“I got involved because I thought we needed a little bit more openness in government,” Peter Learmont said Sunday, April 29. “We need more transparency in the government and we need to open it up to the schoolkids. The schoolchildren are failing. Our school board had become so politicized that they’re not paying attention to the changes that the children and the residents want.”
He added that he hopes the CEOSB’s success will inspire more Orange stakeholders to join the group to focus on improving the city by empowering its residents.
“What happens now, for me, is we need to change the culture on the Orange City Council that is compromised or being guided by a string in the nose,” he continued. “We want to see people that are independent thinkers and independent-minded on the council. We’re hoping that we can change the council and, if we can do that, then we can change the town forever.”
Reid-Learmont agreed with her husband, but added a few more items to their wish list for the future.
“Orange Pride means a lot to us,” she said Sunday, April 29. “Peter and I worked very hard, particularly on our street and in our block, to maintain the type of community that we wanted to live in, that we wanted out son to grow up in, and we want to see the rest of the community flourish. We want a street that is not full of a lot of noise, a lot of cars. We want people to maintain their property. They take pride in their community and they want to live in a peaceful community. That’s what we want in the city of Orange.”
Mary also said she would like to see “a more active program by the code enforcement, by the Public Works Department in Orange, to make sure that properties are maintained and kept up properly.” She said her personal goal is to hopefully “put the pressure on public works and code enforcement” to create a better Orange by maintaining existing properties.
Jody Leight said she became involved with the CEOSB because she had been hearing complaints from her neighbors for years about the school district. After the Orange Board of Education found the money to hire an attorney to overturn the first referendum approving the change in district type, she knew it was time to find a group of like-minded people and do something about it.
“I was really shocked that the school board actually had money to sue to get that overturned. So when the opportunity came up to be involved with a group of people that were going to get a referendum on the ballot fresh off of Judge (Thomas) Vena’s decision, I was happy to get involved,” said Leight on Sunday, April 29. “There were only 10 of us in this group and a group of 10 determined people who did their homework was enough to get this wrong thing undone. One of the lessons that I hope people take from this is that you don’t have to just put up with it and say: ‘Oh well, that’s just how it is.’ A small group of determined citizens that does their homework and stays on message can overturn an injustice. I hope that this is just the first of many such successful efforts, because we can do it.”
Leight said she feels blessed to have been part of an effort to support the will of the voters in Orange.
“Elections shouldn’t be overturned, but what we were able to do was make it clear that this was the will of the voters and the voters knew what they were doing when they voted to approve that first referendum,” said Leight. “I am so thrilled. The minister of the church where I grew up, where I’ve been since I was a baby and I’m still a member, was one of the founding members of the NAACP a little over 100 years ago. So, for me, being able to continue the work of this organization, let alone to be recognized for it, is like following the tenets of the faith that I grew up with. It’s a thrill.”
Leight said she doesn’t expect that thrill to last long, however, because there is still more work to do for the CEOSB.
“There are still only two elected members of the school board. They have to make a transition … We’re not going to be endorsing specific candidates, but we’re going to make sure that there are debates so that the candidates’ positions are known accurately,” Leight said. “We’re going to try to get out the vote. Enough people don’t show up to vote. People within living memory have been killed trying to get the right to vote. It’s a shame that, when we can vote safely in this community, people don’t take the extra effort to do it. It’s a continuing effort to get people to show up and to inform themselves.
“I have faith that, if we keep doing that, more and more people will know what these issues are and will stand up for our kids needs, for keeping our politicians honest with how they handle our money. This is just the beginning.”