ORANGE, NJ — The Orange Citizens Action Group held an Orange Board of Education online candidates forum on Oct. 17 that saw six out of nine candidates participating. Participating candidates were Samantha Crockett, Marsha Escalliere, Sharon Forde, Charles Pryor, Tyrone Tarver and Leonor Young. Candidate Fatimah Turner did not attend due to a death in the family. Candidates E. Lydell Carter and Jeff Wingfield did not attend for undisclosed reasons. There are three open seats on the BOE.
Candidates were asked what the school board can do to make sure that all students have the chance to get the best education possible given the circumstances of the pandemic.
“I do believe that COVID-19 has taught us to be ready and prepare to teach students in and outside of the classroom,” Escalliere, who is running with Forde, answered. “I do look forward to working with administration to ensure that the right resources are put in place with technology for the students and their families.”
Forde agreed with her running mate.
“I believe that the Orange district has to invest in technologies and ensure that our students and our teachers are prepared for the challenges of COVID,” Forde said. “COVID was unexpected. A lot of us didn’t know how to respond to it. As a board member, we must make sure that our staff are up to date with the guidelines when it comes to COVID. We must make sure that we are dealing with the mental aspect as well with our students, to make sure that they’re feeling OK and not depressed. We have to work together as a team.”
Pryor mentioned untapped resources within the community in his response.
“I think the district has come a long way. The district has learned a lot of lessons over the time and during the very early beginnings of the pandemic,” Pryor said. “We have a number of people that are struggling with (not having) high-speed internet. How could we look at other entities such as the library that could maybe dedicate space for young students?
“One thing about the internet, you might have a strong connection, but if you have about two or three students using it, it slows things down. If we can figure out how to partner with more people in the community, outside of the district using their resources, I think that we can go a long way.”
Tarver, the board’s current president, approached the question from a different angle.
“Concerning COVID, we were very fortunate to have received many grants and many additional sources of funding from the state and the federal government,” Tarver said. “Our budget was actually cut earlier in the year by $4 million, but through those additional grants and funding that we’ve received, it made a huge difference in making our schools safe for social distancing for children and teachers when they return to schools full time. Just recently, within the past couple of weeks, Gov. Murphy signed a new additional budgeting act that gives us an additional $600,000 to provide more COVID materials for the children. So, we are making a huge push to have devices one-to-one for the children, and we’ve made great strides. I’m proud to have been a part of that.”
Young emphasized the importance of partnerships, both monetary and with local organizations and businesses, to provide things like internet access and other equipment.
“Partnerships with either corporations or companies in order to bring more resources and, like Tarver said, also partnering with the state and giving additional grants to see what we can do and how we can bring more resources,” Young answered. “How can we inject that into the system beyond whether it’s local taxation, philanthropic, gifting or grants and how we can reach out and do things like that in order to bring resources?”
Running with Young, Crockett agreed that access and grants are important.
“The part I’m most excited about working with the board and the superintendent is progress monitoring,” Crockett said. “None of us want our kids to fall behind. Now that they’re home, I think a fear of everyone is making sure our kids are not losing time. So, with progress monitoring, I’d say making sure all kids are having check-ins and that no one’s falling behind. If there is someone that is falling behind, for example below a 2.5 GPA or not submitting assignments, we should have resources and people who are reaching out to those families to find out what is that barrier. Again, we have to come back and make sure our kids are learning.”
Each candidate was also asked how they envision engaging the community and to provide an example of one thing they plan to achieve for the new year.
If re-elected, Tarver said his goal would be to better engage community members who do not have children in the schools.
“One thing the school board members do have on their plate is that we are all assigned different schools as liaisons,” Tarver said. “When each school has different events, the board members can attend those activities. We are able to interact with the community there and even with some of the school staff. With some of the residents that don’t have school children in the district, it’s very important to try and engage them as well, because a large portion of their tax bill actually supports the school system on a quarterly basis. There absolutely should be more outreach. We should try advertising these meetings more so the stakeholders and the homeowners can participate in the committee meetings. We can promote having relationships with them. Being a school board member, there’s a lot we can do within our boundaries but there’s much more that we can’t do.”
Young suggested that the BOE hold more meetings.
“I think a way to engage the community is having the community participate and engage in more board meetings,” Young said. “We need to identify the needs of our community. That’s great while I’m here and running as the candidate but keeping that while on the board, keeping that momentum and asking the community what their needs are and bridging that between the school board and their needs and then meeting them there. That’s how we can engage them too. If we know their needs as it relates to the schools and education, then clearly, we can have them participate.
“I know that we’re in COVID now,” Young continued. “I know that many schools have performances, having mass communication where we are inviting people who don’t have children to come to these performances and see what our students are doing and engage in that way. I think that is a way to also engage the community.”
Expressing how important communication is, Crockett detailed her desire to take communication to the next level.
“My son started preschool this year during COVID, so I’ve had the chance to just see how the school district has already engaged families,” Crockett said. “I feel very close to our teacher even though we are virtual. We go to the playground on Fridays and I meet the other families. I share that because, as a parent, that goes such a long way because everyone wants their child to start school and get excited about it. I can tell you a 3-year-old is not excited about staring at a screen for a couple hours a day.
“Parent engagement starts with the teacher and with the schools,” she continued. “As a board member, you get to see how those decisions are playing out. I know the superintendent made a goal for communication to be one of his top goals and I see that happening. I’d like to take that to another level — see how we can figure out what’s missing and what our families want more of and help the superintendent reach that goal as well.”
Escalliere said it is imperative for the community to come together.
“It takes a village to raise a child and we need to make sure that the Board of Education will continue to develop the partnerships with our parents, community members and the government to foster our students’ prosperity in the long run,” Escalliere said. “I do believe that it’s going to take some time and it will take some work.
“Regarding what I’d like to achieve in a year,” she continued. “Everything right now is dealing with COVID. We would have to work on the safety and the health of our teachers, our staff and the students, and getting them back to what is normal.”
Forde shared similar sentiments as Escalliere and Young, adding that the community must help children manage their stress.
“We have to come together as a community,” Forde said. “We have to remember that we’re all residents of Orange. I’ve lived in Orange for 35 years and I’ve had situations where friends, family members, were going through something; the board, the mayor, teachers were there asking, ‘How can we help?’ We’ve lost that over the years. We’ve become a society where we forget about the people we are serving once we are in charge. What I want to do is I want to get back to that community togetherness, everyone working together with one common goal.
“What I plan to do within a year, I’m already doing it,” she continued. “I’m implementing yoga and meditation on Oakwood Avenue because I know these kids are so stressed out with COVID, so I’ve found a way to help. Hopefully, by the end of next year, it’ll be in all the schools.”
Pryor laid out three goals for the coming year.
“I have three very tangible things I’d like to address,” Pryor said. “One would be reengaging community members to participate in board committees. That is a place where community members can participate and see what’s going on in the day-to-day operations of the board, especially where financial, facility and curriculum decisions are made. Second, there are a number of community-based organizations, such as neighborhood watches and neighborhood associations, in all wards. So, engaging those groups, contacting them to tell them, ‘We’d like to hear from you,’ ‘Your kids are students in Orange’ or ‘You’re residents in Orange,’ ‘What value do you see in Orange schools and how can we help to help you see the increased value of Orange schools as we continue to improve and make those schools great?’
“The other thing is having more business done in a public session,” he continued. “I think that that would be immensely helpful. I think one of the things that’s frustrating for a number of residents is the amount of board business that’s done in a private session and then very little discussion on resolutions or decisions and operations are done in a public session. Coming out of COVID, leveraging technology better to invite more people in as everyone is not able to physically get to a board meeting. Also, using the technology to get the message out and get participation in.”