Orange BOE candidates appear at forums before Nov. 6 election

Photo by Chris Sykes
Jody Leight, center, of the Orange Citizens Action Group grassroots organization stands with, from left, Orange Board of Education candidates Siaka Sherif, Hamza Agwedicham, Derrick Henry and Rhoda Irodia on Sunday, Oct. 27, during the Candidates Night forum at the artfulbeancafe in the Valley section of the city that the group organized for all the candidates vying for the three seats in the BOE election on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Leight moderated the forum.

ORANGE, NJ — The race for the three open seats on the Orange Board of Education is nearing the finish line, with Candidates Night forums organized by the Oranges-Maplewood NAACP and the Orange Citizens Action Group on Monday, Oct. 22, and Sunday, Oct. 28, respectively, giving voters a last chance to meet and greet the six candidates.

According to Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin, the candidates running on Tuesday, Nov. 6, are: Siaka Sherif, Derrick Henry, Brenda Daughtry, Hamza S. Agwedicham, Jarteau Israel and Rhoda O. Irodia.

Henry, Agwedicham and Sherif participated in the Oranges-Maplewood NAACP Candidates Night forum at St. Matthew AME Church in Orange on Monday, Oct. 22.

“All we can do is extend the invitation. I live in East Orange, so the important thing is for the community of Orange people to make decisions about what they heard and how they’re going to react,” said Oranges-Maplewood NAACP President Tom Puryear on Monday, Oct. 22. “We got some information that there were conflicts with some of the incumbents. Those who showed up, hopefully, the audience got some feedback about what they stand for and how they can influence the upcoming election.”

Henry, Agwedicham, Irodia and Sherif participated in the Orange Citizens Action Group Candidates Night forum in the Valley Arts facility on South Jefferson Street on Sunday, Oct. 28.

According to Puryear and OCAG member the Rev. Anthony Johnson, the two forums were intended to serve the same purpose.

“We reached out to Pastor (Melvin E.) Wilson, to make sure that we could have this building, in order to hopefully get the community to come out to share their thoughts, to learn about what was going on within the Orange Board of Education and so that they would have knowledge about the candidates that are running for office,” Puryear said. “There are six candidates and there’s only going to be three who can get elected. We are a civil rights organization. We try to get information out to people, so people can have choices and be knowledgeable about what is and what can be.”

Puryear said the forum followed a format wherein all the candidates had to answer questions that had been prepared in advance by the Oranges-Maplewood NAACP. One of those questions was about the Amistad legislation authored by former Assemblymen William Payne and Craig Stanley, of the 29th and 28th Districts, respectively. However, none of the candidates appeared to have a grasp on the legislation, which calls for African-American history to be incorporated into the school curriculum in New Jersey.

“I am an Amistad commissioner for the state of New Jersey and it’s important for all New Jersey students to understand what Amistad is about, to receive the instruction that Amistad can offer, and it’s important for students of color to understand the contributions that African-Americans have made to American society,” Puryear said. “So it’s something that’s very dear to me, because of one, being a commissioner, but also my interest in culture and history for African people. So I think it’s important for board members to know what is, what can be done and what is happening in our school district or what is not happening in our school district and, if it’s not happening, what they can do. One of the questions was about policy. That is in the domain. Policy and Amistad go hand in hand.”

Johnson agreed with Puryear that voter education and empowerment is important, which is why he said he became involved with the Committee for an Elected Orange School Board that successfully changed the Orange public schools from a Type 1 district, in which the mayor appoints BOE members, to a Type 2 district, in which voters elect BOE members.

“We saw the need to change how the school board was elected, so that we could address the issues in the schools in a way that was responsive to the residents and to both the voters and the non-voters. A lot of our parents are not eligible to vote and we’ve got to be concerned about that as well,” said Johnson on Sunday, Oct. 28. “This a community with a lot of immigrant parents and those who are able to vote and take part really need to put themselves out there. Politics, per se, is not a bad thing. Is it possible for full participation in the political process? That was not the case when the board was appointed. It can be now, going forward, as we build up an elected board and, if those elections can be really independent of elections for other posts in the city, we can have a politically dynamic situation here in the city of Orange and a good situation.”

Johnson said the two Orange BOE Candidates Night forums the OCAG organized for Saturday, Oct. 13 and Sunday, Oct. 28, were the first steps on the road to increased voter participation, better schools, and more transparency, accessibility and accountability.

“We support the candidates that are running, but we’re not endorsing candidates. We wanted to make sure the candidates have an opportunity to speak. Hopefully, next year, we’ll be doing more public education that will help people step forward in the next round who might not otherwise be thinking of running, because they will know and understand what’s involved in the school board.”

Johnson said he is hopeful about the future of the Orange BOE and the city.

“I’m hopeful. Hope is earned. Optimism is easy. Hope has to be earned. And I think the fact that we did so well with the referendum, the fact that we have high-quality people willing to step up and run for these offices, that gives me hope for the future,” he said.

“Hey, we’ve got two more election cycles after this one to get a fully elected board,” Johnson continued. “We want those elections to be successful and really give us a board that’s responsive to the community and is really committed to making sure our schools do the work they need to do for the kids, and also for the benefit of the parents. I come back to the fact that we have a lot of immigrants in this community and we need to be looking more, not just at we’re doing for the kids but what we’re doing for those parents.”

“I think we had a really good, lively discussion here today. The four candidates who were present were engaged, as were the citizens in attendance. I think we learned a good deal more about the candidates today than we could tell from their literature or even those that answered questions from our brochure.”

The candidates had insightful answers to questions they were asked regarding the school district’s challenges.

“There are many (challenges), but I think the biggest challenge is our inability to keep the politics from where they are and still educate,” said Agwedicham on Sunday, Oct. 28. “Education is a cousin of politics. If anybody on this board said they are going to completely eradicate politics, they are lying; it’s not going to work. As a board member, I would work with every single politician, whether they are a friend or not. I will sit with that person and talk to them. If you never talk to a person, you will never find common ground.”

Henry agreed that politics is a problem in the district but it’s not the only issue.

“The biggest challenge is board encouragement of voter participation,” said Henry on Sunday, Oct. 28. “What needs to happen is the board needs to commit fully to this process and we get to not only select our people, but our budgets as well. We need to give this board, in its entirety, over to the people. That’s the biggest problem that has hindered us, to date.”

Irodia said the biggest challenge in the district is improving students’ academic performances.

“The Orange schools, right now, academically, are struggling. Primarily, my main objective for being on the board is to see how we can improve our schools,” said Irodia on Sunday, Oct. 28. “The political side is bad. You know, the dynamics between the board and all that. However, the biggest problem is academics. The grades are low and our kids are struggling along and some of the issues we’re dealing with are the curriculum, which I don’t think is of high enough standard and instruction. The political side is there, but I would say curriculum and instruction are the main problems.”

Sherif agreed that curriculum and instruction are the top two issues in the district.

“We need to improve on our curriculum, that’s No. 1, because, if we have a curriculum which is at level with the state level, it would give good lessons to students or to our kids to learn,” said Sherif on Sunday, Oct. 28. “No. 2, employing qualified instructors for our students. The population is growing in our community and to make something available in our community that is not already there, that another school can provide for that particular population. The political side is already there. Nobody can erase that. But the board is also working with some of it.”

Henry ran for a seat on the board during the Orange School District’s first BOE election March 28, 2017, and won, along with current board member Tyrone Tarver, only to have Superior Court Judge Tom Vena overturn that election and void the results. This led to Orange changing to an elected school board, thanks to a special question on the general election ballot of Nov. 7, 2017. Tarver and Sherif were elected to terms of two years and eight months and for eight months respectively, at a special Orange Board of Education election on Tuesday, March 13. Sherif’s term is coming to an end, so he is running for one of the three full-term board seats.