Eight try to snag three open SOMA BOE seats

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SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Eight candidates are running in the Nov. 6 election for the three open seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education. Running are incumbent Annemarie Maini and challengers Narda Chisholm-Greene, Marian Cutler, Shannon Cuttle, Javier Farfan, Michael Laskowski, Bruno Navarro and Christopher Trzaska. Each candidate shared their ideas for how to improve the district and what they would do if they are elected in sit-down interviews with the News-Record.

Chisholm-Greene is a manager at Verizon; Cutler has a longstanding career in public relations; Cuttle is a nationally recognized educational consultant; Farfan runs a marketing advisory firm and is an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University; Laskowski runs sales for a professional tech recruitment company Maini runs South Mountain Country Day School, an area preschool; a former journalist, Navarro now works for a startup focusing on organizational risk; and Trzaska works in operational risk management for financial institutions.

School security is an important issue to the district and the community as a whole, and the candidates shared their thoughts on how the school system can keep its students safe physically while also supporting them emotionally. Navarro said that students need to be supported at a young age.

“Once you are talking about a bulletproof door, that’s reactive thinking and we can’t do that,” he said in an interview with the News-Record on Oct. 11. “We have to have mental health and social workers available with children. They need to have someone who advocates for them in the schools. The earlier you address the problem, the easier it is to progress.”

Cutler said that, while there have not been any major security incidents in South Orange or Maplewood, the district is at just as much risk as a larger city.

“This is the reality of school today — quiet little hamlets are just as much at risk as big cities,” she said in an interview with the News-Record on Oct. 12. “There’s so much more we could do. Our schools must have secure entrances, but not scary entrances. The schools have to feel authentic; it can’t feel like you’re going through airport security.”

Cutler said more communication with parents about what drills are happening in the school buildings is necessary. She also said that security videos meant to disperse information without causing a panic are an option and adults other than police officers should be involved so that students feel less intimidated.

Laskowski said the security enhancements included in the upcoming facilities upgrade plan are a good start, but that they do not address students’ emotional health.

“We have to talk with students more about how they feel,” he said in an interview with the News-Record on Oct. 19. “We’re rolling things out without explaining. We have to give them the freedom to speak their mind because if we don’t it’s not beneficial to a child that wants to talk.”

Trzaska, like Cutler, said he doesn’t want the security enhancements to make students uncomfortable. He also wants to make sure that students at all grade levels understand the importance of security drills so that the drills are taken seriously.

“I want to gauge what we’ve drilled into them and how it has impacted them,” he said in an interview with the News-Record on Oct. 19. “I’m not convinced the severity of what we do is worth it; I don’t think we’ve driven home how serious the drills are. We have to do a better job of bridging all of those gaps and not leaving a lasting impression on them. Kids need to see their school as a school.”

Maini, like Navarro, wants to make sure that students have adults to whom they can go for support.

“Students have to feel safe, valued and respected,” she said in an interview with the News-Record on Oct. 12. “They have to have someone to go to when they feel anxious and like things are crumbling. We have to look for the child who is disengaging and we can help them.”

Maini also talked about physical improvements to the district, saying that the trailers at the elementary schools need to be removed so that students can be in class in the school building.

Chisholm-Greene also said that better communication would help improve security in the district. If there is an incident in the district, she wants parents and the community to be able to be updated quickly and effectively.

“We can use phones to give us information,” she said in an interview with the News-Record on Oct. 19. “Texts and robo calls will help us with reaching families.”

She also wants to look into hiring security guards who work for the district rather than being outsourced by a company. Students who are familiar with the guards in the schools would feel safer and more comfortable around people they see every day.

“If they work for the district, maybe the security guards would feel more invested in the community,” Chisholm-Greene said. “They already care about the students, so maybe they can be hired by the district instead of being outsourced.”

Farfan wants to make sure that both students and parents understand why security enhancements are put in place.

“They have to know why it’s needed and how it will impact them,” he said in an interview with the News-Record on Oct. 26. “Providing context is a good way to show the benefits. We always have to be aware of who is within the school system.”

Cuttle said they want to make sure that students feel safe and that they don’t feel like they have to be responsible for making changes themselves.

“People become desensitized and people don’t know where to go to talk about the emotional toll,” Cuttle said in an interview with the News-Record on Oct. 19. “We have to invest in social and emotional health, we could have a workgroup to talk about these issues. And we have to do it not just in the aftermath, but before something happens.”

As interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra’s two-year term approaches its end, the BOE has to search for and hire a permanent superintendent. The candidates shared their thoughts on what qualities they are looking for in a new superintendent and what they would want that person to prioritize in the district.

Navarro said the BOE has to look broadly for the next superintendent, and that they should be from a district of a similar size to South Orange-Maplewood.

“It’s important to do proper due diligence,” he said. “We have to visit the district, talk to parents and students to see the effect the super had on the previous district. I want someone who’s able to delegate and inspire the educators around them.”

Because the central administration has several interims heading different departments, Navarro said that the permanent superintendent will be able to hire their own staff members, which he sees as an attractive part of the job.

Cutler said that because the district is on the cusp of so much change, the available superintendent position could be attractive to potential candidates because it would be a chance for them to build their own legacy.

“The idea of giving them all the tools they need is legacy building,” she said. “I think we’re well-positioned. This super will be able to put in five or six handpicked people — it’ll be almost carte blanche. The board has to empower them to make the decisions they know are right.”

Laskowski also emphasized the ability the new superintendent will have to hire new staff members, saying that it makes the pool of candidates larger because the job is an attractive career move.

“Ficarra has set up building blocks for the district, but he’s not going to be here for that,” Laskowski said. “They’ll have some latitude and flexibility to build their own team and that’s enticing to a candidate. They can ask themselves if this is the flagship opportunity for their career and a place to create their own legacy.”

When talking about the qualities he wants to see in a permanent superintendent, Laskowski said that he wants them to have been a principal in the past and possess strong communication skills.

“They have to be a leader of the district and have communication skills with their team, the board and the community,” he said. “There has to be long-term commitment so we can feel that our leader is engaged. They also have to have a vision that goes all the way down through all the schools. That comes from overall leadership and the board stepping back a little back and letting them do their job. We can’t hold back the super by being too hands on.”

Trzaska said that stability from the new superintendent is important, but the new administrator has to be able to fit into the district and the initiatives that have already been put into place.

“You need some level of stability, but you can’t sacrifice what you’re doing now,” he said. “I want to bring in a new super with a rolodex, someone who is going to come in with their own team to replace the interims.”

According to Maini, having someone committed to staying in the district for longer than a year or two is vital.

“We are a vibrant community and a vibrant place to work,” Maini said. “This is the place to be; the work attracts candidates. We don’t want anyone without that five-year horizon to commit to; we have to get someone here for the long term. They have to have a level of expertise to move the district forward.”

Chisholm-Greene also wants to find a superintendent who has the intention of staying in the district for a long time.

“We need someone who understands our vision and wants to take that on for longer than three years,” she said. “The super should be the anchor of the district. They have to be in contact with the principals. They need to be able to meet with each other and talk to each other. It’s also important how the teachers feel. If there are policies that make them uncomfortable, we have to look at that communication and make it so that they can talk about it.”

Farfan wants to find a superintendent who has a vision that matches the BOE’s vision.

“They have to align with the needs of the district at this time,” he said. “We’re in a good place right now. There are some key things that we’re looking for, we need a person with the type of guidance and empathy so that there’s no retention problem. We need someone who is committed to this district and wants to stay here.”

He also wants the superintendent to come from a district similar to South Orange-Maplewood so that they have experience with the same issues that the district is facing.

“They need to know how to operate and teach in a district like ours,” Farfan said. “They need to know about infrastructure and the achievement gap, have that type of experience.”

Cuttle wants to the see the BOE and the district set clearer goals so that a permanent superintendent who would be a good match for the district can be found. They also want someone who is committed to staying for the long haul.

“We don’t need a warm body,” Cuttle said. “We haven’t really set the goals yet and we need to look at the finer points to create a true match for the super. They have to have leadership qualities that have been successful and they have to be invested in and passionate about our district on a day-to-day basis.”

Communication has been a topic of conversation in the district for some time, with many in the community feeling like the board and administrators need a better system of talking to parents and students. Navarro said that a specific strategy needs to be put in place for communication to improve.

“It’s a two-way street; you need to solicit feedback from the community,” he said. “There’s not a strategy in place and we need one. We don’t really have a social media presence and our website is old. We could also focus more on the positives. There are so many good things in the district and we could do a better job of highlighting that.”

Cutler said that she thinks a timeline of communication would help.

“At meetings our board listens but in a way that feels almost disrespectful,” she said. “You leave feeling more incensed and you may not get what you wanted. That culture and climate needs to change. We have to commit to getting back to people in 48 hours.”

Laskowski said the district is too reactive when it comes to communication and too often focuses on the negatives that go on in the district.

“It doesn’t have to be negative,” he said. “We just react. We need to set a timeline for what goes on. We need to be more transparent and own up to our mistakes when we make them. We need to set goals, check in every once in a while for status updates and update those goals. That transparency and accountability isn’t happening. I understand there are action items that the board can and can’t discuss, but they also take too long to follow up and share info.”

Trzaska said that the district doesn’t anticipate well or communicate in advance.

“We’re reactive and keep things close to the vest,” he said. “We need to tell the public enough so that they know we are looking for the info they asked for. Board members need to make themselves more available to the public.”

Maini said that the district’s website needs to be improved, and timely and relevant information needs to be relayed to the community faster, though she added that she believes the board is responsive to the community.

“We have to realize it’s also the administration’s role, not just the board’s role,” she said. “I do think we need to recognize that we read the emails that we get and try to respond. Call us, email us, stop us at the grocery store if you see us.”

Chisholm-Greene said that while she also believes that the website is cumbersome and hard to navigate, she wants to find a way to reach the parents who don’t go on the website or have that ability.

“There are parents that don’t go online or go to meetings, and we need to find a way to reach them,” she said. “If we had more social workers working in the district, we would be able to have the liaison and contact the parents that can’t be reached.”

Farfan wants to create a plan for when parents reach out to board members and administrators, and let the community know that they are being heard.

“There are things that you can’t say legally, but then that turns into ‘let’s stay quiet,’” he said. “Then the conversations start because it looks like something is being hidden and parents care. We need to create that framework and give those tools to the superintendent and communications staff. We need to prioritize that as something that needs to get done.”

Cuttle expounded on the need for BOE office hours and goal setting.

“Communication comes in pieces,” Cuttle said. “We need to set goals for the district and be more accessible. We can hold office hours and create access points for communication. I want to be as engaged as possible, not just once a month at a meeting. In order to truly move forward we have to do that.”