Three vie for two open seats on the WOBOE

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Three candidates are running for the two open seats on the West Orange Board of Education in a quiet local election season for West Orange. All challengers, Jennifer Tunnicliffe, Jeremias Salinas and Gary Rothstein discussed what they would do to make the district better, if elected, in a debate hosted by the West Orange African Heritage Organization and the NAACP’s Maplewood-Orange chapter at West Orange High School on Oct. 24. Additionally, each candidate sat down for an in-person interview with the West Orange Chronicle.

A new superintendent has brought change to the district, with Scott Cascone taking over the post in July. Salinas wants to sit down with Cascone, if he wins a seat on the board, to make a list of goals they would like to accomplish together to move the district forward.

“We should make a priority list,” Salinas said in an interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 17. “If he doesn’t know what the necessities are, then all you’re doing is putting patches on things that the board thinks need to be fixed. If he knows those things, he can work on it.”

In an interview on Oct. 25, Rothstein said he feels a lot of optimism came from Cascone’s hiring and wants to continue that optimism by creating better communication between the administrators and BOE members.

“I want to make sure the communication is open and clear,” Rothstein said. “We need to work with the super to make sure we’re moving in the right direction. I know he wants to be here long term, so I’m encouraged by what’s been done so far.”

Tunnicliffe also said she is encouraged by what Cascone has brought to the district so far, saying in an interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 17 that she thinks communicating with him is the best way for the board to move forward.

“We need regular communication,” Tunnicliffe said. “We need to make sure we’re asking a lot of questions. If we can make sure he feels like he’s supported by the board and like he can do his job, that’s good.”

West Orange has a diverse population of people with different racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, and the candidates shared ideas about how to reach the students who do not have the same opportunities as others outside of school.

“Here’s where the school district needs to meet the town,” Salinas told the Chronicle. “We need to work with the town to provide things like internet. The library has it, but if we can provide access points in other places that would be near their homes, then they wouldn’t be a 25-minute walk or a 15-minute drive away.”

Salinas discussed neighborhood schools at the debate as well, saying that involving students and parents more in their elementary school would celebrate the diversity throughout the town.

“We have to be able to provide what the schools need in their neighborhood,” he said at the debate. “That’s how you build equity. You have to be able to ask the parents and listen to the parents.”

Rothstein suggested later parent-teacher conference times to accommodate parents who can’t take time out of work to meet with teachers.

“A lot of parents who are working can’t be as involved,” he told the Chronicle. “We should encourage later conference hours and make sure that translators are there for those who need them.”

In his response at the debate, Rothstein said greater equity could also be achieved by hiring a more diverse group of teachers.

“There’s such a terrific pool of quality educators from many diverse backgrounds and making sure that West Orange is attracting those educators is just really critical to our schools being successful for our students and curriculum,” he said at the debate.

Tunnicliffe thinks engaging more parents would help alleviate problems in the district caused by the town’s socioeconomic gap, and so would reevaluating funding for field trips and other extracurricular activities.

“We need to look at everything from field trips to food,” she told the Chronicle. “I know the PTAs fill in a lot there, but some have more money than others. We can make sure those parents feel they are part of the community, we need to make sure they can be available. Not everyone works from home or has a job where they can leave to be at school. Most families want to, it’s just how can we provide those opportunities?”

In her answer at the debate, Tunnicliffe expanded on how she would reach more parents who have challenges in the district.

“I think we need to ensure that parents feel welcomed in our schools and that they’re heard,” she said at the debate. “So we need to make sure that materials are printed ideally in English, Spanish and even Creole, which are the three languages that are spoken most frequently here in West Orange. We need to make sure that people feel welcomed to pull up a chair to the table, that it’s OK to sit and join these conversations and to be part of your child’s education. You know, culturally we have to be sensitive that that’s not always the case in other countries and that we need to make sure that parents feel welcome to join the conversation around their child’s education.”

Communication is a topic of conversation during every election, and the BOE election this year is no exception. To improve the way the district communicates with parents and community members, Salinas suggested holding board meetings outside of the board’s regular meeting space in the WOHS library.

“Let’s bring the BOE meetings to the neighborhood schools,” he told the Chronicle. “Not everyone can get there, and at the other schools it would be in their homes. When you’re in the neighborhoods you begin to create relationships with the people there. How are we including them? Everyone is a taxpayer, whether you rent or own. Everyone needs to feel supported.”

Rothstein said the district uses too many different forms of communication and should consolidate; each school and organization has its own social media presence in addition to the district’s, and different schools use different systems to relay information to parents.

“Having a single voice can be louder than having 100,” Rothstein told the Chronicle. “The board does a terrible job with communication. The agendas at the meeting can be difficult to follow, and I think we could have much greater efficiency if the public gets the chance to do what the board gets to do, which is see the agendas longer in advance of the meeting.”

Tunnicliffe addressed how the district can better communicate outside the district and to prospective families who move to town and will have students in the school system.

“I think realtors are a big one, because they end up talking about what the schools offer,” she told the Chronicle. “I also think we could set up an apprenticeship or internship program with local businesses, so people can see our students and how talented they are. That would show the community, ‘I can build a relationship with them.’”

Lockdown drills and other security measures are mandated by the state, and the candidates also talked about how the schools could be made safer while also addressing the other needs of students and staff. Salinas again suggested working with the town.

“We need to work with the town and the police department,” he told the Chronicle. “A security guard at each school is something we can look into, but we should make them a part of the school so it doesn’t feel like a security guard. For lockdowns, I think we need better training. The message at schools is just to hide, and we need a better plan than that. Kids need basic training on what to do if something were to happen.”

Rothstein cautioned that making public a school’s emergency plan would be detrimental to the people inside the school buildings.

“I don’t think the public should know,” he told the Chronicle. “That would make it ineffective. I think the schools have done a pretty good job, but it is an ongoing effort. But from an emotional standpoint, we can support them more. How long are they thinking about it after a drill? Should we have a recovery drill that we can do to speed that recovery process up? It’s definitely in more training.”

Rothstein isn’t the only candidate worried about students’ emotional well-being; Tunnicliffe discussed this as well.

“I worry about their mental health,” she told the Chronicle. “Not knowing it’s a drill is scary. I’d like to see more advocacy on the state and national level, because we need to find a healthier balance. There’s a lot of stress on kids now that concerns me.”

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5, and West Orange residents will select two of these three candidates to serve for three years on the Board of Education.

Debate photo by Amanda Valentovic