Candidates discuss their reasons for running at HNA debate

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The seven candidates with their names on the ballot for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education continued campaigning Thursday, Oct. 17, participating in a debate at the DeHart Community Center hosted by the Hilton Neighborhood Association. They answered questions about how to make the South Orange-Maplewood School District better and asked for residents’ votes ahead of the Nov. 5 election. The seven candidates running for three open seats on the board include challengers Sharon Tanenbaum Kraus, Carey Smith, Narda Chisholm-Greene, Erin Siders and Thair Joshua, and incumbents Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and Johanna Wright.

Candidates were given two minutes to introduce themselves and five minutes to say why they are running for a seat on the board and detail their platform. They then took a few questions from the audience, although not every candidate answered every question, choosing only the issues they wanted to weigh in on.

Explaining why she is running, Siders mentioned former interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra.

“One of the things that I’m interested in is making sure that our district policies and procedures remain in compliance and up to date. With past administrations that did not happen,” Siders said, adding that Ficarra had worked to remedy this. “When Dr. Ficarra came on board, one of the first things he did was he hired all of his interim administrators and they went through all of our policies and had to do a correction, had to make sure that policies were in compliance and that policies that were needed were added or things that we didn’t need were deleted or altered. So we need to continue this, this oversight of these policies and procedures.”

Siders also said she wants to work with families and make a more proactive effort to help struggling students in the district.

“We have more of a reactive approach to that. We require people to let us know when they need help,” she said. “Teachers and administrators know the students that are struggling. I think we need to be proactive and give them a little bit of a push.”

She also touched on the integration plan that is in the district’s future, citing the benefits of students learning with people and teachers who don’t all come from the same background.

“Research shows that students learn best in environments that are socially, economically and racially integrated,” Siders said. “That test scores improve, that students learn from other students who are not like them. And most importantly it prepares them for their postsecondary life in our global society. It also helps dismantle barriers to opportunities.”

Lawson-Muhammad, who has been on the BOE for the last six years and is running for a third term, pointed to the recent hiring of Superintendent Ronald Taylor in explaining why she wants another three years on the board.

“I want to make sure that he gets set up for success,” she said at the debate. “It’s imperative that Dr. Taylor takes the reins, that his energy and experience are able to take root here in the district and that he gets the support necessary to do these very big impactful plans that are going to hit us over the next three years. And I want to be a part of the work that’s going to take place after that to see that he stays, that he stays in order to continue to grow in our district.”

Lawson-Muhammad also cited the plans put in place during the two years Ficarra helmed the district, as well as those put in place in the two years before that, when Superintendent John Ramos held the position. She reminded voters that the Access & Equity plan was implemented during that time and the district stopped leveling students at Columbia High School. She said similar initiatives can continue if Taylor is given the same opportunity.

Joshua is running a joint campaign with Siders, and said he is running for a seat on the board because there needs to be more support for staff in the district. In addition to teachers, other building staff should be receiving more professional development, he said.

“We want to make sure that our teachers, our paras and the ones who are in the classrooms where our students are every day are set up for success,” Joshua said. “The comprehensive equity plan that was released recently shows that only the teachers, the certificated staff, are the ones who are receiving anti-bias and anti-racist training. Our paras are not getting it, custodians are not getting it. Cafeteria workers aren’t getting it, and they’re with our children just as much as our teachers.”

The reason those staff members are not getting anti-bias training, Joshua said, is because they are not employees of the district. They are contracted from an outside company, something he would like to change, if elected.

“I’d like to see how we can change that either through bringing them in house, which I know costs money and means you have to cut something else. I get it,” Joshua said. “You can also hire vendors who we mandate that they do this training on their time before we bring them into our buildings with our children.”

He also touched on teacher achievement in the district, saying that evaluations should be more comprehensive.

“Another part of achievement is making sure that the evaluation that these teachers get are representative of the work they’re putting in,” Joshua said. “These evaluations should be open and we should know how teachers are performing because we want them to succeed. We don’t want to have a culture in our schools of teachers who feel that they cannot succeed. That’s not beneficial for the parents, for the students or for the community at large.”

With her time, Chisholm-Greene discussed the integration plan that has yet to be presented to the community, and how the district will redraw lines to better represent its diversity in all the schools, especially at the elementary level.

“We’re going to integrate our schools, but what are our classrooms going to look like when they get that integration?” Chisholm-Greene said at the event. “Are the classrooms going to be integrated, and have we looked at that? Once you step into a classroom and you have majority students that are either black or majority students that are white, have you successfully integrated your school? Yes. But how do you successfully integrate your classroom? I want to make sure we look at that.”

To better integrate the staff, Chisholm-Greene suggested building relationships with historically black colleges and universities to make connections with potential teachers. She also said that, in order to retain teachers for a longer period of time, the district should celebrate their successes.

“We have to make sure we’re recognizing their success and sharing that with our community and sharing that amongst all the other schools in our district,” Chisholm-Greene said.

Smith gave audience members a list of what he would like to accomplish if he is elected to the board, ranging from communication improvements to school safety. He said his time on the South Orange Rescue Squad and as a business owner proves he is committed to the community.

“I would like to improve accountability in the school district, improve communication at all levels of the school district, increase transparency in school district decisions, improve school safety and encourage community involvement in our schools,” Smith said at the debate. “I want to establish equity in our schools, support our teachers, improve the quality of education with modern approaches, technologies and equipment, and encourage independent and innovative thinking. I am a leader. I will listen. And most importantly I’m connected to and actively entrenched in this community. I have the experience, expertise and the time of service.”

Smith wasn’t the only candidate to mention communication. Tanenbaum Kraus did as well, saying in the time she spoke that communication needs to be improved across the board in the district.

“It’s not just the communication between the teachers and families,” Tanenbaum Kraus said. “It’s between the admin and families, between the super and families, even between the board and families. I think Dr. Taylor has done an awesome job so far of establishing that communication. He’s talking back to parents who speak during the public speaks portion of the meetings, he emails, he sends out newsletters. I think all of that is amazing, but I think the same should apply to the board.”

She said that, although it is not the board’s job to micromanage what is happening in the district, more transparency could help to solve other issues and put community members in the two towns on the same page.

“I know that some may not think that it’s our job to communicate with the families, but right now we’re at such a tender point and there are so many mixed messages going out in our community that it’s our job as elected officials, and more importantly as community members, that we should make sure that we’re all on the same page so that we can set ourselves up for success.”

Tanenbaum Kraus said she also wants to make sure Taylor is held accountable during his first year in the district.

“It’s important that we hold ourselves accountable. I will show up, I will do the work, but we need to make sure our superintendent is held accountable,” she said. “It’s our job to make sure that he succeeds. We need to set him up on a path that succeeds and if he falters, we need to put a plan in place so he can course correct. That’s our job. And I think it will benefit all students, all families now and in the future to succeed in that condition.”

Wright, who like Lawson-Muhammad is running for a third term on the board, criticized the process the BOE used to hire Taylor, but said she supports him as the district head. She also critiqued certain policies, like the Access & Equity policy, which was put in place before Taylor was hired.

“We have a strategic plan still sitting on a shelf, dusty, someplace,” Wright said. “We have Access & Equity just sitting there doing nothing. And so when we talk about doing the things that we need to do, we need to do it.”

Wright, who was an educator and coach in the district for more than 30 years, said her experience in education, and in SOMSD specifically, makes her a good candidate for another term on the board.

“When you talk about teamwork, I don’t think anybody in this room knows more about teamwork than I do,” she said. “I know how to build a team, a winning team, but people have to be willing to work and to listen to experience. I know about children, I know what children mean. We don’t have an achievement gap. We have an expectations gap, and absolutely need to do a lot more than what we’ve been doing.”

These seven candidates will all appear on the ballot on Tuesday, Nov. 5; voters in South Orange and Maplewood are urged to pick the three they decide will best serve the district.