SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — After almost two years with an interim superintendent, the South Orange-Maplewood School District is now being helmed by Ronald Taylor, who formerly served as the Willingboro superintendent for eight years. Taylor began his career as a kindergarten teacher before advancing through the administrative ranks to superintendent, and when the SOMSD Board of Education approved his contract on April 11, President Annemarie Maini said he has the experience to guide the district into a better place.
Thomas Ficarra, the former interim superintendent, spearheaded the Long Range Facilities Plan initiative, a $158.9 million bond project that will build additions at and renovate nearly every public school in the towns and renovate Underhill and Ritzer fields. Taylor wasn’t yet in the district through the bulk of the process, but completed a similar plan in Willingboro, a district is Burlington County with approximately 5,000 students. He plans to stay on course with SOMSD’s plan.
“We will meet consistently with our construction professionals, i.e., architects, engineers, project managers, general contractors and bond counsel to systemically review and manage this massive undertaking,” Taylor said in an email to the News-Record on July 26. “I will regularly update the board and stakeholders on our progress. We will be transparent with the community on what to expect — and when — to avoid compromising the instruction occurring in the schools.”
According to Taylor, who began in his new position July 8, the LRFP, which is scheduled to be completed in September 2021, is the most pressing challenge the district is facing right now, along with the redistricting of the elementary schools. He also wants to bring stability to the leadership in the district, which has had three superintendents in the last five years. Taylor said he wanted to come to South Orange-Maplewood because he has prior experience elsewhere solving the types of problems SOMSD is facing.
“The district is diverse and dynamic,” Taylor said. “SOMSD also has challenges and needs that are very similar to other districts where I have worked. These previously mentioned ‘needs’ were successfully addressed for the betterment of our students by a team approach. The success we achieved was the result of a ‘team’ effort.”
Taylor comes from a family of educators — his sister, aunt and uncle have all been in the field. In high school, he worked as a camp counselor and found the time he spent with the younger children energizing. He entered college as an education major and never looked back, beginning as a kindergarten teacher before moving on to become an assistant principal, principal and a regional superintendent in Newark.
“I love working with students, parents, teachers, principals and all members of the school ‘family,’” Taylor said. “Though we may not all agree on every topic, discussion, decision, I have found that if our conversations focus on doing all we can to support the academic and social-emotional growth of our students, we can usually come to a consensus that moves us forward together.”
Parents and BOE members have in the past stressed the importance of communication, citing it as a top issue for the district to address. Taylor said he is concerned about poor communication as well and is trying to determine what the problems are, what caused them and how to fix them.
“We currently have vacancies in this area. We are moving forward in hiring talented professionals to address this specific issue,” he said. “Additionally, our website has recently been updated and we will be launching social media sites this school year. I have and will be personally responsive to our stakeholders. By simply replying quickly, even with an acknowledgement or a follow-up, helps to reduce angst and bridge gaps between the community and our district.”
Communications director is not the only open position in the district. CHS Principal Kalisha Morgan is serving on an interim basis and the high school is also looking for an athletic director. Taylor said the district is working to fill the positions, and won’t rush to recommend appointments to the BOE haphazardly.
He also has plans for the district’s special education department, in an effort to retain students currently placed out of the district and ensure SOMSD can meet their needs.
“It is also our systemic goal to ensure students are enrolled in their legally appropriate Least Restrictive Environment,” Taylor said. “That also encompasses expanding current successful programming and building attractive innovative new programs that keep our parents/students/families ‘in-district.’”
Despite the challenges, Taylor believes there is a lot that is good about the district he inherited. Enrollment is growing, which he sees as a positive rather than an overcrowding issue. He also lauded the grant from the New Jersey Department of Education to expand the district’s preschool program, which will add more students to the district. There are ways to build on it to make the schools the best they can be for students, he said.
“The district’s student enrollment is growing rapidly and consistently. That is fantastic!” Taylor said. “In this age of school choice, there are many communities that have shrinking public school systems. We have to build upon this momentum and ensure that we are providing both the rigorous instruction and nurturing environment that continues to make SOMSD the No. 1 choice of our parents. I have found our stakeholders to be very welcoming and excited for our future. The importance of this enthusiasm and positive energy cannot be understated; it can be a catalyst to transformational improvement.”
Taylor has been superintendent for less than a month, but said that his time interacting with the community has been positive so far.
“Though my time in district has been brief, the interactions I have had with our students, parents, educators and support personnel have confirmed that I am in the right place,” he said. “I know that together, the South Orange and Maplewood School District family will successfully conquer our challenges and meet our mission, to empower and inspire each student to explore and imagine, to pursue personal passions, and to collectively create a better future.”