SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Seven people are running for three open seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education in the Nov. 5 election; two are incumbents and five are challengers. On the ballot for the third time will be Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and Johanna Wright, and the challengers are Sharon Tanenbaum Kraus, Carey Smith, Narda Chisholm-Greene, Erin Siders and Thair Joshua. All the candidates discussed what they would do to better the district in sit-down interviews with the News-Record.
All the candidates said they want to improve communication. Tanenbaum Kraus said that while not everyone in the two towns may think communication is a problem, she wants to see Superintendent Ronald Taylor hire a communications director who has experience in school districts.
“I’m not so sure that it’s collectively thought of as an issue,” she said in an Oct. 18 interview. “We have to really be behind our parents and urge Dr. Taylor to hire someone qualified who is excited to talk to the public. I also think we’re a little old school and we need to modernize now. There’s got to be a better way to do it.”
Smith also said a communications director should be hired.
“We need to get that person to distribute information,” he said in an Oct. 18 interview. “We shouldn’t have to search for things. We need to get things out from the board more quickly; maybe there needs to be another forum for public comment.”
Chisholm-Greene wants more interaction between the public and the members of the board, and said in an interview Oct. 18 that she would have office hours if she is elected.
“I don’t know why board members can’t have conversations with the public,” Chisholm-Greene said. “I’d have open hours to come talk to me. We should find communication resources that can bridge the language gap we have, using churches and community members. We should be talking to kids in school directly and making sure they have an avenue that they know about.”
Aside from hiring a communications director, Siders said the board should have a communications policy to follow.
“We need a policy, then we have a person whose job it is to follow that policy,” she said in an interview on Oct. 18. “We don’t do that at all. We also need to publish the agenda more than three days before the board meetings. I think a 48-hour turnaround time on emails policy is appropriate, because maybe then people wouldn’t show up to yell at the board.”
Wright said in an Oct. 25 interview the board has a history of silencing community members, and parents should understand the avenues they can take to reach people in the district.
“Silencing and muting people is something we do,” she said. “Parents need to understand their rights. You should be able to talk to the teacher, then you talk to the guidance counselor and the principal. By the time they come to the board, they’re at their wit’s end.”
Lawson-Muhammad spoke with the News-Record on Oct. 18. As previously reported, the New Jersey School Ethics Commission recently ruled that Lawson-Muhammad had violated New Jersey statutes during a traffic stop on April 27, 2018, saying she had attempted to leverage her position as a board member to avoid receiving a speeding ticket; during the stop, she also called the South Orange police chief a “skinhead.” As such, the commission recommended that Lawson-Muhammad be suspended from the BOE for six months.
On Oct. 31, the commissioner of education came out with a statement and reduced penalty suggestion for Lawson-Muhammad. After reviewing the case, Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet affirmed Lawson-Muhammad’s statements that she had reacted thusly due to her fear of being pulled over by police, especially considering the many incidents in the nation of black people being shot by police following traffic stops. As such, the commissioner reduced the suggested penalty to 30 days of suspension, calling the initial six-month suspension “unduly harsh.”
Repollet criticized the SEC for “ridiculing” Lawson-Muhammad’s statement to the officer who pulled her over that she was afraid because police sometimes hurt black people. Repollet said, “The SEC failed to consider the appellant’s words within a broader cultural context or to understand appellant’s desire to immediately dispel any concern Officer Horst may have entertained as to whether, as a black woman, she might pose a threat to him. Given the contemporaneous racially motivated events occurring around the country involving police officers, appellant’s fears – while not entirely rational – were justified.”
Regarding communication in the district, Lawson-Muhammad acknowledged that the board and the district should be better at communication, she said that it goes both ways. She discussed the board’s updated public speaks policy, which doesn’t allow members of the public to speak on non-agenda items until after the action portion of the meeting. Students and people who are speaking about agenda items will speak first. The board is no longer allowing residents to cede time to one another.
“It’s a big district, it’s a lot of kids, you’re never going to be perfect,” Lawson-Muhammad said. “I am supportive of not allowing ceded time; people need to keep comments in a time frame that makes sense and then submit their comments somewhere else.”
Lawson-Muhammad said she supports ensuring that people who are speaking on agenda items speak first, as she wants to be sure she hears their concerns and comments before she votes, as it may change her opinion, and subsequently her vote.
Joshua, who is running a joint campaign with Siders, said in an interview on Oct. 25 that he thinks better communication should be one of the goals the board develops with Taylor. Like other candidates, Joshua wants board meeting agendas to be released further in advance of the meetings.
“You can’t hold the board members accountable until you know what’s on the agenda,” he said. “We also need to be sending notices home with students in the three most popular languages that are spoken here.”
Taylor has been at the head of the district since July, and he is the fifth superintendent that the SOMSD has had in the last six years. Further turnover is something that all seven candidates want to avoid, and they shared their ideas for how they would support the BOE’s only employee.
“Retention is important in any workplace,” Tanenbaum Kraus said. “When expectations are not met and things are sloppy, let’s course correct. We have to be aware of what he’s doing, but not micromanage. You have to build that trust.”
Smith wants to give Taylor as much support as he can but, if elected, wants to make sure that the board does not just sign off on every decision he makes.
“We need to support him as much as possible, but not rubber stamp everything,” Smith said. “I think the board needs to question him too. I also think the removal of the pay cap will help too, because then administrators won’t go somewhere else. We need to give them the bonuses and the resources they need.”
Chisholm-Greene said she likes what Taylor has done so far, and wants to make sure his goals align with the goals of the district as a whole.
“We have to make sure we’re getting the best out of him,” she said.
Aside from the board supporting Taylor, Siders said she wants to see the district and residents in the two towns support Taylor.
“The community needs to get behind him,” she said. “There needs to be an environment that he’s supported in. Our community can be overly critical and the board has had to go beyond the realm of its responsibility in the past in part because of incompetent superintendents. I’m hoping the board can step back and be that voice to support him.”
Last spring, Wright abstained from the vote to appoint Taylor as superintendent because she believes the board’s vetting process in the past has not been thorough enough and has led to hiring people who she believed did not have the right experience. She does, however, support Taylor, she said.
“I’m happy he came with the experience he has,” Wright said. “I’m happy he’ll be able to run the district without interference from the board.”
The interim superintendent who preceded Taylor in the SOMSD was Thomas Ficarra, who spent two years working with the BOE and the administration. Lawson-Muhammad said those two years gave the board time to identify what they wanted in a superintendent and determine the district’s biggest priorities.
“Taylor inherited a place that had been fully vetted,” she said. “He’s going to have a board that is supportive, not micromanaging him. We have to give him space to make decisions. We do not run the schools. We can say ‘yes, we like that,’ but then it’s his job. I want to ensure that he gets a place to thrive.”
Because there are currently several administrative positions in the district filled on an interim basis, Joshua wants to give Taylor a year to hire people permanently.
“We have to stay out of his way,” he said. “We have to give him his year and allow him to put together a team. Let him focus on that, and let us focus on the policies and enforcing them.”
After a BOE meeting where a group of fifth-graders asked board members to decrease the number of code red lockdown drills during the school day, security has been a topic of discussion in the community. The students asked for the drills to be less realistic because they were making them and their classmates increasingly anxious.
“Everyone should have their IDs on them,” Tanenbaum Kraus said about how the district can address school security. “That’s an important thing we need to make sure is happening.”
She said drills are important and required, as the state mandates they be held, but what the district can change is how the drills are performed.
“The disconnect is in how they’re carried out,” Tanenbaum Kraus said. “They shouldn’t be scary. You should know it’s a drill. Everyone should be on the same page.”
Smith said there is an opportunity for the upcoming renovations to the school buildings to include better security. He wants the main offices to be closer to the front doors, and for only one person at a time to be buzzed in to the school.
“With drills, they could be done differently,” Smith said. “The teachers need to be trained better. With other safety, the lunch aides and paras don’t know CPR or how to use an EpiPen, which could delay response time. As a parent, I want to know that my kids are safe.”
Like Tanenbaum Kraus, Chisholm-Greene also wants everyone in the school building to know that a drill is a drill.
“We should announce it,” she said. “They should know they’re drills. I also want to look at the number of male and female security guards so that all bathrooms and locker rooms can be checked. I’d also like to hire some security guards in house so we can have at least one that is going to be invested in our district and not from an outside vendor.”
Siders doesn’t think the code red drills make students and school staff any safer, and there are other ways in which they can be conducted.
“Why do we make children play act that they’re in danger?” Siders said. “No one is traumatized by fire drills. Why can’t we do it like that? We can hand them a sheet of paper saying what to do. Children don’t need to be security experts.”
Wright suggested more counseling for students and teachers alike to deal with security concerns, and also said the way the district conducts the drills should improve.
“It’s not the drills, it’s the way the drills are done,” Wright said. “We have to have the experts use their experience. You have to prepare for something happening, but it’s how you do it.”
Chisholm-Greene and Tanenbaum Kraus are not the only candidates who think disclosing that a drill is a drill is in the best interest of the students; Lawson-Muhammad does as well. She also wants to listen to the community’s ideas for how to keep the school buildings safe.
“The community comes up with amazing ideas that we should listen to,” she said. “We don’t have to change the policy to change how we do drills. We have to do what the state mandates but we don’t have to do more.”
Joshua discussed the emotional and social health that are affected as a result of security drills, and he said that the district needs to provide more resources to ensure students and teachers are mentally healthy. Instead of conducting physical drills, he suggested a video.
“They don’t simulate a crash on a plane,” Joshua said. “We don’t need to do these in real time. Teachers also need to be trained on these things.”
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5, and South Orange-Maplewood residents will select three of these seven candidates to serve for three years on the Board of Education.
Editor’s note: This story was updated after its initial publication to clarify a quote from Lawson-Muhammad and to provide information received after the story’s initial publication in the News-Record on Oct. 31 regarding the April 2018 traffic stop and its results; specifically, that the commissioner of education, after reviewing her case, said that her fears about being pulled over by police were justified and that, although her actions did give the appearance of impropriety, the six-month suspension recommendation was “unduly harsh” and he replaced it with a 30-day suspension.