11 to run for 3 open seats on SOMA BOE

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — This election season in the South Orange-Maplewood School District is looking to be exciting and heated, with 11 candidates — and only one incumbent — running for three open seats on the Board of Education.

On Nov. 6, the two towns’ residents must select three of the following candidates for three-year terms on the board: incumbent Annemarie Maini, and challengers Narda Chisholm-Greene, Marian Cutler, Shannon Cuttle, Javier A. Farfan, Felisha George, Avery Julien, Michael Laskowski, Bruno J. Navarro, Christopher Trzaska and James C. Wilkes.

Hanging up their BOE hats are Madhu Pai and Chris Sabin; Pai is coming to the end of two terms on the board, while Sabin has served one. Because Pai was elected in April 2012, the year before South Orange-Maplewood moved its BOE elections to November, she has been “lucky enough to serve an extra seven months,” she said.

“There are three reasons behind my decision to not seek re-election,” Pai told the News-Record on Aug. 5. “First, I strongly believe in term limits. We have a lot of talent in our community, and the best way for the school district to move forward is with new ideas and fresh thinking.

“Second, after six-plus years focusing on all of our district’s children, I am ready to dedicate my focus to my own children. I have an incoming middle-schooler and high-schooler, and I want to be more readily available to them as they navigate these important years of schooling,” she continued. And third, “something has happened to my amazing and otherwise giving community — we’ve allowed ourselves to be impacted by the national vitriol and lost some of our empathy along the way. I never thought I would say this but, while I believe our children are the most amazing humans I have encountered, serving the adults in the community has become less fulfilling.”

Despite this, Pai looks back on her time with the BOE with pride. She is particularly proud of the passage of the Access & Equity policy, which “has opened up the entirety of the district’s offerings to all students”; shoring up the district’s infrastructure with the help of interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra; and implementing gifted and talented strategies, which “are finally putting necessary supports and interventions in place to support our gifted students.”

Moving forward, Pai hopes to see better communication, “a return to a focus on education” and the hiring of a “rock-star permanent superintendent.”

“I would love to see a board whose primary mission is the education of our children. I want social justice as much as anybody else in our community, but I believe a great education is the best equalizer,” Pai said. “One of my ongoing frustrations as a board member, a mom of students in the district, and as someone who works in communications, has been how the board is hamstrung in its ability to effectively communicate with the public. It is my belief that some of our most vocally dissatisfied community members/groups come to unproductive actions out of lack of facts and due to frustration about transparency provided by the district.”

Like Pai, Sabin is looking to spend more time with his family following the completion of his term.

“Serving the community as an elected official is a great privilege that requires a good amount of time, focus and dedication — sometimes at the expense of one’s personal and professional life,” Sabin told the News-Record on Aug. 5. “It’s been a tremendous honor to serve on the BOE. It is my love for SOMA and personal interest to ensure that my children and all children in our community have the benefit of a solid public school education which led me to take part on the board. While I have enjoyed contributing to the board navigating through some very challenging times over these past three years, and while there are still considerable opportunities and challenges for our local education infrastructure, I have taken the decision to prioritize focusing on my family at the completion of my term.

“My recent Columbia High School graduate and my two other children attending the high school will require an added level of parental support and I intend to be fully available to them,” he continued. “As a Columbia graduate myself, I have been, and will always be, an active-engaged member of this community as my family and I have been for over 45 years.”

From his time on the board, Sabin is most proud of leadership appointments the board has made in its work to create a more dynamic school district to benefit all students.

“I am proud of our appointments of leadership that have been willing to look ‘under the hood’ and tell the truth to the board and community. These truths have challenged our community to bring an equitable learning environment to all our children,” he said. “Equity comes from acknowledging that we hadn’t done things correctly in the past and that we are moving forward now to get it right. From updating our curriculum, reducing course levels and the development of a plan for safer-integrated schools while improving the management of our annual budget. I am proud that we are moving towards getting the basics done. When we do the little things consistently, the big things are not as difficult to address.”

Moving forward, Sabin hopes the board will “continue to enhance its active listening, approachability, responsiveness and sensitivity to the needs of all of it constituents. Every decision large and small must first be weighed with how it will ultimately affect the children within our diverse and dynamic school system. The board must continue to work from board governance and continue to allow the space to discuss what we can and the community to appreciate the people that have been elected. The board lives here as well and as it sometimes feels like they don’t care or listen, that is not true. I am hopeful that the board will do a better job of communication and the community will do a better job of trusting that the board is working for the total community.”

Maini also wants to work on community cohesion, especially in building board consensus, if she is re-elected.

“My motivation hasn’t changed from the first time I ran in 2015: Our district has such amazing potential and we do such great things, yet there are way too many children who the district does not serve well. I am proud of many things that the board has accomplished since 2015, most of them since the arrival of Dr. Ficarra a year ago. But all of the necessary work has only begun and needs to be sustained and nourished. In response to the board’s charge to him, Dr. Ficarra has proposed a $130 million facilities plan, to add classroom space and address glaring health and safety issues,” Maini told the News-Record on Aug. 6.

“And there is much unfinished business,” she continued. “I want to see all of that through. Most importantly, we are starting to move the needle on ensuring that: special education services are delivered effectively and in a way that gives parents comfort that their child’s needs are being met, the percentage of children opting for and being prepared for higher level courses continues to increase, and the social and educational climate of our schools makes all students feel valued and welcome.”

Maini, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math education with experience designing curriculum, has for the past 10 years managed South Orange Country Day School, a preschool in South Orange. With children in the district, Maini has been involved in PTA groups since 2006. She hopes to remain on the board to assist as it undertakes the job of finding a new superintendent.

“I am most proud of my role in helping to identify and recruit our current interim superintendent, Dr. Thomas Ficarra, and buildingboard consensus on the key short-term goals with which Dr. Ficarra was charged when he arrived,” she said. “I look forward to a spirited campaign and hope to describe the understanding I’ve gained over the last three years in what it takes for a Board of Education to drive effective change in a school district of 7,000 students, so that we can realize our vision of serving all children well.”

Though none of the challengers have board experience, all are looking to hit the ground running and make positive impacts on the school district.

Chisholm-Greene has lived in SOMA for more than 35 years and is herself a product of the district, having attended Jefferson Elementary School, South Orange Middle School and CHS, from which she graduated in 1990. She then experienced the district as a parent, with three of her children having graduated from CHS and her other two on track to graduate from the school. A senior manager at Verizon, where she runs the Network Operations Center and manages a staff of more than 50 people, Chisholm-Greene holds a graduate degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in telecom management, currently serves on the Cougar Boosters board and was co-chairwoman of CHS’ Project Graduation, aka “Midnight Madness,” in 2017.

“I am a concerned parent who has decided it’s critical to not just sit back but get involved,” Chisholm-Greene told the News-Record on Aug. 5. “The opportunity to make a difference is just two seats away and I am up for the challenge! I do not anticipate making changes on Day One or even Day Two, but I plan to be as collaborative and communicative as possible. I want the parents of this district to know that I not only earned their vote; but that they also have my ear and 110-percent commitment to ensure that all children of our community have the support needed to reach their highest potential.”

She told the News-Record that her primary goal is “to advocate for educational excellence for all students and address issues such as: hiring of a permanent superintendent who can envision the potential of our community, revisiting the building plan, finding plausible solutions for integration and the closing of the achievement gap in our school district.”

Cutler, an area resident of nearly 20 years, has consistently held volunteer positions with the YMCA, the schools and youth soccer; she is currently the director of travel soccer for the Cougar Soccer Club.

“I am proud to call SOMA my home,” Cutler told the News-Record on Aug. 6. “We moved here more than 18 years ago and have benefited from the strong and thoughtful education afforded our daughters. With one having gone through the entire school system, from South Mountain to SOMS to CHS — 2016 graduate, one at SOMS and one still at South Mountain Elementary, I have a robust appreciation for all the good our schools provide as well as the areas of potential we have yet to tap.”

With professional experience in corporate communications, Cutler plans to leverage these skills to represent the district’s diverse need and to work with all stakeholders to ensure the district provides quality education for all students, regardless of background or identity. She believes that many problems within the school district can be solved with improved communication, especially from the administration regarding its choices.

“Our community has been subjected to a central administration with a virtual non-existent ability to communicate with authority or believability and it’s time we demand better,” she said. “As a member of the BOE, I commit to delivering accountability, communication and transparency; it’s the basis of almost all social contracts and it’s time administration and the BOE lived up to the same.”

Communication is also an area in which Cuttle thrives as an outspoken activist in the towns. An activist in the field of inclusion and education for more than 20 years, Cuttle has a background in educational research, best practices, policy, oversight solutions and student issues, speaking nationally at various venues in the public and private sectors pushing for intersectional, inclusive and safer schools. Here in SOMA, Cuttle has worked to end food insecurity at CHS, mentors students, is a Maplewood Memorial Library trustee appointed by Mayor Vic DeLuca, serves on the SOMSD Parenting Center advisory committee and serves on the board of SOMA Action.

“My life and career have been inspired and driven by students and families. I started in the classroom, then moved to administration, then to education policy, a field in which I’ve become a nationally recognized expert. In SOMA, I have been inspired by the enormous need and have volunteered to help end food insecurity at CHS, help raise up and empower students’ voices, help create safer schools, and help ensure all students have access to supports and opportunities, including with the CHS Senior Fund and CHS Pop Up Prom Shop,” Cuttle, who also ran for the BOE last year, told the News-Record on Aug. 6. “I’m inspired to run for BOE again because I see clearly how my policy expertise can contribute to systemic change, which will have greater impact for more students than the individual volunteering and community organizing I’ve been doing. We need an experienced advocate and leader working on district policy that will help not only to move our district forward together, but to fix some of the underlying issues that create such a large number of students and families who need advocates in the first place.”

Like Cuttle, Farfan is also viewed as an expert; in his field of finance and marketing and currently serves as a consultant to several private clients. With a bachelor of arts degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies, master’s degrees in both organizational psychology and business administration, Farfan’s career has involved numerous senior roles at notable companies, such as JP Morgan, Microsoft and Verizon.

“My career in marketing is about motivating people, building understanding about the many cultures that make up these United States in 2018,” Farfan told the News-Record on Aug. 6. “The messages we work on for commercials and social media are less about pushing a company’s product and more about communicating to people from all various backgrounds — especially Latinos — and celebrating their contribution to the larger society.”

Farfan has helped initiate several programs to support students from disadvantaged families in New York and he hopes to continue that work here in SOMA.

“I’m running for a position on the Board of Education because I want to be on the front lines of making sure my 4-year-old son — and all children within our school district — obtain a quality and inclusive education,” he said. “My mother is an Ecuadorian immigrant and single parent who struggled to ensure that I received a quality education in New York’s inner city. Because of her efforts and those of many other wonderful adults, I was able to carve out a successful path to higher education and career. It’s time for me to give back. I know it’s possible to make that happen for all children in our district even if it won’t be easy.”

George, who is running for the second year in a row, champions educational equity for all students and has been a vocal activist in the community since she was a teenager at CHS. George currently teaches hip-hop and politics to high school students in New York City, which she says teaches her what this current generation of students needs to succeed in education.

“I am a 2012 graduate of Columbia High School and I am more than honored to have the opportunity to one day serve our students on a more active level. It is important for me to show them that even though we may lose the race, the only person who can truly stop us is ourselves,” George told the News-Record on Aug. 6. “This year I am running without a manager and instead with an advisory board and I am most thrilled about our community getting to know me as an individual. I believe that it is time for a young, fresh, creative mind on the board to help influence brighter and new decisions for our youth instead of the constant uncertainty that our board now brings to the community.”

While some may view George’s youth as a detriment, she sees it as a benefit, as she can more easily relate to the SOMSD’s main focus: the children.

“Our students deserve a voice that is for them at the table and can cast a vote for what is right,” she said. “With my strong influence with our youth, I plan to use my platform to push forward everything that they need from us. It is time for us to sit back and listen to the people that we’re all fighting to make this school system better for. By having a young person at the table we can get more youth to feel comfortable in attending BOE meetings, speaking up and contributing to the conversation, and more insight on what it is we need to fix.”

Similarly, Julien is running to ensure the youth of South Orange and Maplewood are given true representation and supported. A 2017 graduate of Columbia High School, the sophomore at Rutgers University also ran for the board last year.

“I want to be a part of the unique time of change that is occurring in MAPSO,” Julien told the News-Record on Aug. 6. “This Board of Ed election is my opportunity to be a significant part of the reform that these two towns desperately need. My inspiration and qualifications are intertwined in my experiences as a student in this district. I have taken the lessons learned from my last campaign and have matured in the year since. I have taken inventory of my last campaign, looked at what I did well and what I need to work on. I have a dedication to the truth and am ready to be the best candidate that these students and their families deserve.”

Like many of his fellow candidates, Laskowski was educated in the SOMA schools, attending Tuscan, Montrose and Jefferson elementary schools, SOMS and CHS, graduating in 1990 along with Chisholm-Greene. The father of four moved back to Maplewood in 2003 and is pleased to send his children to district schools.

“How we are as a district today, what we were in the past, and where we are heading in the future is very important to me,” Laskowski told the News-Record on Aug. 5. “I am proud to have grown up and live in a town that is known as a welcoming, diverse community in close proximity to NYC, but I want more for our community. I want SOMSD to also be known as the premier educational district in New Jersey for: outstanding curriculum and facilities for learning and athletics; retaining and attracting innovative, engaging, dedicated and caring teachers and administrators to work with our diverse student population; and bridging achievement gaps at the earliest stages of learning.”

For the last 20 years, Laskowski has built a career in professional recruitment and, for this reason, he believes he is uniquely qualified to assist the BOE in finding “a superb superintendent who can fulfill our vision for educational excellence for all.”

With three young children, Navarro has a vested interest in improving the SOMSD, where his children will eventually be educated. Navarro, who moved to Maplewood with his family in 2015, has more than 20 years of experience as journalist, covering varied topics such as government, education, business and more. This career has taught him how to gather facts, be open to varied viewpoints and ask questions, he said.

“Having moved to Maplewood in 2015 from Brooklyn, I am grateful for the level of parent participation within the district, and the high standards that have resulted from that involvement,” Navarro told the News-Record on Aug. 3. “Our family is fortunate to live in a progressive, creative, socially conscious community, and we have been grateful for having encountered amazing educators over the past three years — yet I believe that the school district can do an even better job of communicating its goals and values, while itself achieving a higher standard of accountability and greater attention to the varied needs of its student population.

Trzaska and Wilkes were unable to respond to requests for comment by press time this week.

Photos Courtesy of Candidates