BOE candidates duke it out at first debate of the season

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — South Orange-Maplewood Cares About Schools kicked off election season in SOMA by hosting the first Board of Education candidates debate of the season at Maplewood Memorial Library on Oct. 10, allowing the public to ask the seven candidates running for the three open seats on the BOE questions in advance of Election Day on Nov. 5. The candidates include challengers Sharon Tanenbaum Kraus, Carey Smith, Narda Chisholm-Greene, Erin Siders and Thair Joshua, and incumbents Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and Johanna Wright.

Each candidate was given one question in the two rounds of the debate, and they had three rebuttals to use to answer questions of their choice. Not every candidate answered every question.

The role of the superintendent was debated at the event, with a member of the public asking how candidates, if elected, would hold the head of the district accountable. Ronald Taylor took over as the district’s superintendent in July. He is the fifth superintendent in the last seven years. Wright abstained from the vote to hire Taylor, saying she believed the process should have been more transparent.

“We should absolutely do a much better job of evaluating superintendents,” she said at the debate. “We have to do a complete and thorough search. You cannot do a search on the superintendent without having everyone who would like to go visit where they are. I’m hoping that now we can make some sort of progress.”

Lawson-Muhammad said the process that the BOE used when Taylor was hired was rigorous, and she shared her ideas for how to continue working with him moving forward.

“We establish goals with the superintendent, and those are public so there are no surprises,” she said. “Throughout the year, we are accumulating information with regard to the superintendent’s performance, and that’s a robust process.”

Joshua said the BOE retreat meetings, which are open to the public, are the best way to have a conversation between board members and the superintendent. At the meetings, both parties are able to set goals for the superintendent and district for the next few years.

“I saw a very rigorous discussion between the board members and Dr. Taylor about what goals should be set for him this coming year and in the next two years, and how that will affect his performance,” he said at the debate. “Those retreats, if you do want to see information about how the board is run, could be wonderful opportunities to do so.”

Tanenbaum Kraus said, if elected, she wants to make sure the superintendent is doing his job.

“He is our employee,” she said at the debate. “When I’m at work and I have employees, I hold them accountable if they’re doing their job. If they’re not doing their job, I micromanage them. I set goals and I make sure that I track those goals and make sure they’re achieved. We need to do the same thing for our employee.”

Also discussed was the achievement gap, especially at Columbia High School. The candidates were asked how they would support the students who need extra help and how the district could avoid tracking students into lower-level classes where they don’t belong.

“I think Dr. Taylor and the administration leaders need to ensure that all students and parents are aware of what opportunities are available to them in order to get the help that they need,” Joshua said. “That comes from the administration, from the top down. Maybe this is an area that the district can do a better job of communicating those to parents and students on a regular basis.”

Chisholm-Greene said that students who are in honors classes need support as well as the rest of the student body; she suggested having more than one teacher in those classes.

“We de-leveled our classes, which is fantastic,” she said at the event. “But we need to make sure our students have the full support they need. I don’t know if that happened, and I can tell you that as a parent of a child who was in honors who didn’t do that well there. There were a lot of things that I felt, based on my experience, we could have done better. One of the things is having additional support in those classrooms. We need to make sure that the kids who are doing very well continue to do well.”

Tanenbaum Kraus said she agreed with Chisholm-Greene on most points, emphasizing that students should have more support at school whether they are in honors classes or not.

“The teachers should be evaluated,” she said. “The fact is a lot of these teachers are not getting regular evaluations. We need to make sure that the teachers have evaluations that are happening and if they are ineffective, we’ve got to replace them and put better support in the classroom for our kids. Ultimately, the board’s responsibility is the students. So if the students are failing or not feeling supported then it falls on us to make sure that they are.”

Lawson-Muhammad also spoke about teacher evaluations in her response to the question.

“We have increased the application of those evaluations year over year and demanded that it actually happen and they are consistent,” she said. “What’s happening now is that we are expanding and making sure they are evaluated against all the principles. That will go a long way in ensuring the teachers are being fully evaluated.”

Siders suggested that, in addition to teacher evaluations and more support in the school buildings, the district should work harder to get families involved. She wants to help parents monitor how their children are doing in school more closely.

“I also think we need to empower families,” she said at the event. “Once you get out of elementary school and you’re in the middle school and you’re in the high school, it’s really on families to be monitoring how their students are doing. It’s not like elementary school where you have progress reports and you have progress meetings with teachers. I would like us to be able to identify struggling students, be able to have more of a proactive push to let people know, ‘Hey, we’re looking at your students and we see your students struggling today.’”

Siders also suggested using PowerSchool more effectively.

“One tool is you can set up a notification and get a weekly email of your student’s grades. I don’t know how many parents use that, but that’s a way of being a little more proactive in terms of monitoring what’s going on with your students,” she said.

Wright suggested new programs for students who are behind in school or who need extra help, including a Saturday program that could provide more classroom time.

“We have had a huge fail when it comes to supporting our kids,” she said. “But we’ve supported a lot of consultants. When I think about all the money we spend on consultants, you have a private school education right there.”

Wright also answered a question about lockdown drills and the effect they have on students and how they learn. She made it clear that drills are necessary, but they have become too frequent and are negatively affecting student learning.

“There’s nothing wrong with drills, nothing,” Wright said. “The problem is how you do your drills. It’s the way we should do it, without fear. Children become afraid, and that’s not good. So we need to change what we’re doing to make it right.”

At a recent BOE meeting, three fifth-grade students in the district spoke and asked board members to lessen the number of code red drills and make them less realistic, saying the drills frightened them and impacted their school day too much. Joshua referred to these students in his response to the question, and took a suggestion from someone else at the BOE meeting.

“We should videotape what to do in these cases,” he said. “When you’re flying on an airplane, they don’t do fake crashes to see how you would respond. They don’t simulate dropping 10,000 feet to see what happens. Your job as a passenger is to sit down and follow the instructions of the flight attendants. In this analogy, teachers are the flight attendants. They need drills and they need action, but I don’t think we should be putting 9-year-old students through that.”

Smith is an EMT and said that, as a first responder, he is familiar with drills and emergency responses. He thinks that while the drills are necessary, they are not always preparing the right people for if something happens at a school.

“I don’t think there’s enough training for teachers and the administrators. Do they know how to handle these procedures?” Smith asked at the debate. “I think they’re going into these procedures blind and they’re leading the kids blindly. They need to know what to do with these drills and pass that down to the kids so the kids know what to do. On safety issues, our administrators are lacking on many different levels.” 

Photos by Amanda Valentovic