BOE candidates debate issues in district

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Six of the nine remaining candidates running for the three open seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education squared off in a debate at Maplewood Memorial Library in an event hosted by South Orange-Maplewood Cares About Schools on Oct. 3. Running are: incumbent Annemarie Maini, and challengers Narda Chisholm-Greene, Michael Laskowski, Bruno Navarro, Christopher Trzaska, Shannon Cuttle, Felisha George, Javier Farfan and Marian Cutler. Each candidate had three minutes to answer one question directed to them, and one minute to answer each of the other questions directed at their opponents.

Maini was unable to be at the debate as she was at “The State of Segregation: 21st-Century Opportunities for Racial Integration in New Jersey’s Schools” at Montclair State University, a panel she had been committed to attending since the spring. Cuttle was attending the New Jersey School Board Association Candidates Briefing, an event for BOE candidates from around the state to learn about policy and best practices. George did not attend due to illness.

The six candidates tackled questions about many issues the school district is facing, including the proposed redistricting plan and the search for a permanent superintendent. Facilities were also a topic of much discussion, with candidates offering their opinions about how to upgrade the old school buildings in need of repair.

“We have old facilities that are falling apart,” Laskowski said at the event. “That’s not good from a safety and security issue for the children in this district. That needs to be addressed immediately. It does not need to be addressed with $131 million bond. You can find other ways to do that and maybe lessen the load of that bond. Otherwise, why are we sending kids to school if they don’t have proper facilities? They have leaky roofs, they have mold, they have things that are just unacceptable.”

Last May, the district proposed bonding to repair the district’s many aging buildings and to build increased space to accommodate the expected growth in the student population.

Navarro said immediate fixes need to be made to the schools, lamenting that many temporary solutions have become permanent because they have been around for too long.

“I’ve been looking at the capital improvement report and seeing pictures of ceilings that are caving in, boilers that look like they’re from the 1800s, rotting window frames,” he said. “Also, the over-reliance on temporary classrooms — which at what point do we stop calling them temporary? Some of them are so old that they are literally crumbling and rotting, and when it smells damp it’s not a stretch to think that there’s mold in there.”

Navarro said he wants to spend the money to make improvements to the schools, because the longer the district waits, the worse it will get over time.

“A lot of these issues have been going on for so long that it sort of boggles the mind,” he said. “If we have a leaky roof on our house, we don’t wait until the ceiling collapses to fix it because the longer we wait, the more money it will cost.”

Trzaska said that the capital plan, which includes redistricting the middle schools, making Maplewood and South Orange middle schools centralized for fifth- and sixth-grade students and for seventh- and eighth-grade students, respectively, could solve some of the overcrowding issues the district is seeing. Students are often pushed to attend an elementary school for which they are not zoned because their neighborhood school has reached capacity.

“I’m definitely in favor of the capital plan,” he said at the debate. “This is just kicking the can down the road if we don’t do something. Move fifth grade into the middle schools. It’s going to free up capacity in the various elementary schools, which is going to allow you that extra space that you need to get rid of the portables and at least alleviate the overcrowding.”

Farfan, who is running a joint campaign with Maini, also said he would support the capital investment.

“I support the capital investment. We don’t want to keep on kicking it out to the next year; next year will continue to have challenges,” he said at the debate. “We have 16 failing portables and we need an additional 10 to 15 classrooms. An increase in population in the past 10 to 15 years, has grown from 6,000 students to now over 7,000. That’s going to continue to grow, so we need to make sure that we’re focused on that.”

Chisholm-Greene agreed with Laskowski, saying that she doesn’t think a bond should be issued for the capital improvements. She wants to address the safety issues first and save money that way.

“As far as the decaying buildings and the safety issues, I think we need to take care of that right away,” Chisholm-Greene said at the debate. “I agree with Michael that we don’t need to spend all the money on that now. What we need to spend on is safety and security, those things first.”

Cutler said she does support a bond to get the work done, saying the district can no longer make small fixes to each school building and that the larger problem needs to be addressed.

“We as a district have been issuing bonds on a very regular cycle. They’re $10 million, $15 million and we have replaced boilers and we’ve replaced the windows and we’ve put firebreaks in the high school,” she said. “We’ve been doing a lot of work. But we are at the point that we can no longer chip at it from the outside at these $10 million increments. So I do support the $93 million bond that needs to go in order to deal with the infrastructure from a safety and security standpoint.”

Of the approximately $131 million bond proposed in May, approximately $93 million of it would go specifically to capital improvements, while the rest was earmarked for expansion. At the debate, candidates also had a lot to say about the redistricting portion of the proposed facilities plan, which would rezone the elementary schools and end the Marshall-Jefferson configuration that sees kindergarten through second-grade students attend Marshall Elementary School before moving on to third, fourth and fifth grade at Jefferson Elementary School. If approved, all the district’s elementary schools would house students from kindergarten through fourth grade. Seth Boyden Elementary School’s broad enrollment would end. The plan also pushes for the earlier discussed rezoning of the middle schools.

When asked if they would support the plan if they had the chance to vote on it, Navarro was the only candidate who said that he would. The other five candidates at the debate instead proposed alternative plans.

Laskowski does not support redistricting because he feels it will place undue hardship on students during a critical time in their lives.

“It just adds additional transitions for students during their cycle from kindergarten to high school,” Laskowski said. “We have an achievement gap in this district and the gap is not going to go away. For students who are lagging in their studies in math and English, adding additional transitions to their cycle will draw a drain on them. So we’re going to add a transition and move kids into another school just because we think five and six, and seven and eight should be together for integration. That’s not the solution. That’s not helping the students from an academic standpoint.”

Laskowski said he would be in favor of creating another configuration like Marshall-Jefferson, creating two schools for kindergarten through second grade and two schools for third through fifth grade. He said the transition to a new school would be easier for younger students.

“Study after study says that when you start to transition kids at fifth and sixth grade, it has a direct negative impact on the achievement gap,” Cutler said, agreeing with Laskowski. “We as a district have an achievement gap that is ridiculously stubborn. Adding to it will be a negative impact and another negative variable is not what is best for our students.”

Offering an alternative, Cutler said that creating magnet schools at the elementary level would eliminate that transition as well as help with overcrowding and the integration issues the district currently faces.

“I wouldn’t support it,” Chisholm-Greene said of the middle school redistricting plan. “We’ve talked about transitions and who it’s going to impact. It would impact the children that I look like, sadly, and I don’t want that impact for any of the children in the district. Additional transitions would not be good. Some of our children would be fine, but a lot of our children would not be fine.”

Trzaska and Farfan both said they would not support the redistricting plan, but did not elaborate.

Navarro said that while there are studies that say children transitioning schools at the middle school age can negatively affect them, there are also studies that say the opposite. He said he leans toward supporting the plan.

“There’s evidence on both sides of the issues; it’s not a clear cut data point,” he said. “I am concerned that the students who need support get it. There needs to be greater support to students making that transition. Some kids will be fine, other kids will need help. I want to make sure that they get it.”

In addition to facilities issues, the BOE is also now searching for a permanent superintendent, as interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra, who has helmed the district since June 2017, can only serve up to two years. At the debate, candidates shared their thoughts on what skill set the permanent superintendent should have.

Trzaska said the superintendent has to be a good manager and leader, and be able to deal with the long-term issues facing the district.

“There are a number of issues that he has to deal with at a high level form a management perspective,” he said. “He’s got to be an effective manager, obviously, because he’s got scores of people in various functions beneath him, each of which has its own issues — many of which are in the process of being fixed and addressed, but in other cases, not as much.”

Trzaska also said the superintendent has to be able to multitask and juggle more than one project at a time. He also wants someone who has a history of being a superintendent and has the experience to lead the district. Navarro agreed.

“Whoever takes over this position needs to have just an amazing grasp of the issues and an ability to hit the ground running,” Navarro said in his response. “They have to have the ability to build consensus and to reach out to the community. They have to be an excellent communicator. They need to be cognizant of all of the unique issues that Maplewood and South Orange have, but most of all they have to be an effective manager. That’s a tall order, but it is possible.”

Laskowski echoed Trzaska and Navarro’s requirements of being a good manager and communicator, and added that he wants the new superintendent to be in charge of the district for many years to come.

“We want someone that’s going to look at this as the long-term play,” Laskowski said. “This is where they’re going to come work for the next 10, 15 years. This is not a stepping-stone district. You’re coming here for three years and then want to move on? That’s not the person we need. We need someone that’s going to look at this and say, ‘I can make this district the best district in New Jersey; there are 7,000 students and I want to be part of it.’”

Cutler wants a superintendent who can come to the district and create changes and opportunities that weren’t there previously. She said that while she has not always agreed with every decision Ficarra has made, she believes that he has done a good job in setting up the district for a permanent superintendent who will hire key leadership roles.

“Someone who comes in here is going to be unique in that they are going to pick their own key leadership people to be part of our change,” Cutler said. “So we need someone who definitely comes in with a vision and who sees the opportunities for what they are, that are long-term and career-defining, if not fully legacy-defining.”

Chisholm-Greene said that the diversity of the two towns is important, and finding a superintendent who understands this is important. She also wants someone who has experience as a principal and who has worked in a district of similar size to SOMSD.

“The superintendent is a huge risk-taker,” she said. “It’s a risk to come to our district to take on the challenges that we face. I think they also have to understand the diversity of our community and want to be a part of that change that we want to effect. I think that their relationship with the community is important, but most importantly we need to have someone who has experience.”

Farfan listed many of the same requisite skills as the other candidates, adding that he wants a superintendent who is able to work with teachers and other district employees to include them in the vision for the future.

“They’re committed to making sure they’re there for the long term,” he said. “He has a vision, he’s a motivator. He has operational experience, has changed management experience, is empathetic to the parents, but also to the teachers and what they’re dealing with and how to get them revved up for the vision that he has. He knows how to prioritize and knows how to communicate, and he’s an educator.”

In an email to the News-Record on Oct. 5, Maini said she is running for a second term on the BOE because she wants to finish the work that has been started to turn the district around.

“It is a rocky journey and I do hear the many voices in the community who are upset and anxious about a wide range of issues. I am running for a second term to try to stay focused on and finish the work we’ve started,” she said. “I am determined to see through the changes we’ve undertaken and hopeful about the future. Our district is on the cusp of making our schools places where all students feel welcome, respected, inspired and safe. Our goal is to help all students discover that they can, through persistence, curiosity and self-reflection, become lifelong learners. We can succeed if we harness the energy, enthusiasm and talent of everyone in our wonderful community.”

Cuttle said in an email to the News-Record on Oct. 8 that, if elected, they want to improve the climate and culture in the district.

“We all have a part to play in ensuring all of our students thrive inside and outside of the classroom. Climate refers to the ‘air’ students breathe: the way that a school environment empowers and impacts students’ motivation, self-esteem, comfort level and relationship to the schools,” Cuttle said. “Culture refers to the functioning of relationships between adults — from administrators, to teachers, to support staff. Is there trust, support, inspiration and high expectations between the adults? When there is, a nurturing and motivating school climate is created for students. The overall culture and climate of our district — from policy, to leadership, to curriculum, to infrastructure — is in a moment of transformation, towards equity, safety both physical and social/emotional, and excellence. My focus is on shepherding that transformation with best practices in the most professional and committed way possible.”

George did not respond to requests for comment by press time Oct. 9.

Photos by Amanda Valentovic