Eight BOE candidates discuss special ed, redistricting

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The League of Women Voters of Maplewood and South Orange and the Presidents’ Council hosted a debate for Board of Education candidates at the South Orange-Maplewood School District administration building on Oct. 10, in which all eight remaining candidates discussed the issues facing the district ahead of Election Day, Nov. 6. Running for the three open seats are: incumbent Annemarie Maini, and challengers Narda Chisholm-Greene, Marian Cutler, Shannon Cuttle, Javier Farfan, Michael Laskowski, Bruno Navarro and Christopher Trzaska.

Former candidate Felisha George announced just prior to the debate that she had dropped out of the race due to health reasons.

“After last year’s election, I was diagnosed with borderline glaucoma and it is now strongly impacting my vision and day-to-day process. My body is demanding me to relax, take time for myself and tend to my eyes so that I never lose sight of the beautiful vision that has started this journey I am on,” George said in a statement. “With all the work our district needs, it is too much for me to take on at the moment. When I look at our brilliant, talented, over-achieving students, I believe they need someone who is mentally and physically up for the task to make this district everything that they deserve.”

The eight remaining candidates were split into two groups of four for the debate. Cutler, Cuttle, Farfan and Laskowski comprised the first group of candidates to answer questions from the moderator and the audience, while Maini, Trzaska, Chisholm-Greene and Navarro comprised the second group. Both groups answered the same questions.

Redistricting was the first major topic addressed at the debate. The proposed facilities plan introduced by interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra in May would rezone the elementary schools and end the Marshall-Jefferson configuration that sees students in kindergarten through second grade attend Marshall Elementary School before moving on to third, fourth and fifth grades at Jefferson Elementary School. If approved, all the district’s elementary schools would house kindergarten through fourth grade. Seth Boyden Elementary School’s broad enrollment would also end. The district’s two middle schools would be reconfigured, with all fifth- and sixth-graders attending Maplewood Middle School and seventh- and eighth-graders attending South Orange Middle School.

A goal of the redistricting plan is to diversify the schools, handle current overcrowding issues and make capital improvements to the buildings, as many of them have repairs that need to be made.

Farfan, who at the Oct. 3 debate said he would not support the current redistricting plan, said Oct. 10 that he is in favor of redistricting just the elementary schools, but that this should be done through magnet schools.

“My thinking is about choice,” Farfan said at the Oct. 10 debate. “One of the main reasons I came to Maplewood was so that my son and my family could have a diverse experience with a diverse student body. I think providing choice and giving everyone access through looking at what Seth Boyden has done in the past, trying to stay within that model” is the correct response.

Cutler agreed with Farfan, saying that creating magnet schools that families could opt into would be a good alternative to just redrawing the district lines.

“I agree with the idea that redistricting without putting something in place that allows choice amounts to simply reorganizing mediocrity, and that’s something we’re working so hard to get out from under,” Cutler said at the debate. “Maybe that’s about taking two of our schools and making one of them STEM and one of them arts. We’ve talked a lot about introducing choice to the district; now is the perfect time to really change the way our elementary schools are teaching, the way our elementary schools are structured and the way kids are being funneled into different schools.”

Laskowski said an option could be to create “sister schools,” similar to the Marshall-Jefferson configuration. He proposed doing the same with Tuscan Elementary School and Seth Boyden as well as with Clinton Elementary School and South Mountain Elementary School.

“If you’re going to make them K to two and three to five, I think it’s a great way to do it,” Laskowski said. “You automatically integrate schools, give resources and access to everyone; it’s a way to socially integrate students in this district. I do believe if we’re going to look at it that way, you should go to a magnet school system like the Montclair School District did years and years ago. It’s a very reputable program in terms of demographics.”

Cuttle said that integration needs to happen across the district and not just at the elementary level. Adding that families should have a choice in where their children attend school, Cuttle is also in favor of magnet schools, in addition to adjusting the curriculum to make it more inclusive.

“Part of making an integration plan is making sure that you’re making bridges across the curriculum and making sure that you’re doing professional development training,” Cuttle said. “I would like to see us move to a choice model. I’d like us to see three choices for people to be able to put a school choice and their second and third choice.”

Maini addressed the facilities plan in her response as well, saying that the redistricting would also allow elementary schools to stop using the portable classrooms, which have fallen into disrepair.

“That is where the elementary reconfiguration has its base,” she said at the event. “Do we add on to each elementary school and manage seven or eight construction projects plus the middle school expansion or do we limit the complexity of the construction, limit the potential costs and try to move the portables out of the elementary schools? I am in support of redistricting and a reconfiguring that has parents have some choice.”

Trzaska said he wants to look into where the money from a possible bond would be spent in the plan, and offered an alternative to the proposed plan. He has also said that he would not support the redistricting configuration.

“I don’t think that anyone can argue that a full integration plan is anything to not support wholeheartedly, so the issue is how we go about doing that,” Trzaska said. “We tried that many years ago in looking at Seth Boyden and I think that model is not necessarily a bad one, but we do need to look into that a little bit further in my opinion. Possibly a dual magnet type of setup, where you’re looking at an art school at the elementary level and a STEM school at the elementary level and seeing where that leads us.”

Chisholm-Greene said that in looking at the class demographics from last year, she saw that there are fewer black than white students in some schools. Redistricting would begin to solve that problem but, like other candidates, she does not support the middle school reconfiguration.

“What I don’t support is transitioning kids into multiple schools,” Chisholm-Greene said at the debate. “The transition for children, especially children of color, is going to be impactful to their experience. But overall I want integration. I, too, like the idea of Seth Boyden and the idea of making it into a magnet. Giving parents a choice is critical. Seth Boyden needed an anchor school and didn’t have one, and potentially having a second school that you could anchor it with could make it more successful.”

Navarro does support the current redistricting plan, saying at the debate that the district should give as much support as possible to the middle school students who will have to make an additional transition if the plan is approved.

“I think every parent and every student has an equal stake in each of the schools in the district and that helps with all of the experiences of the students,” he said. “I think we definitely need to do a better job of helping students transition. Students who need support should have access to it. Right now Marshall transitions to Jefferson and then transitions to the middle school and that’s the same number of transitions. I don’t hear a lot of complaining about how difficult that transition is. I think the plan does make sense; it helps to achieve several goals.”

Special education was also a topic of discussion in the debate, with candidates asked to share what they think are the most pressing issues in the district. Trzaska said that the district has been inconsistent in how it approaches each child’s needs; he said he wants to create an assessment that is used universally.

“One of the things that became clear was that there doesn’t seem to be a standardized assessment or a standardized approach employed by all case managers across the board,” he said. “One of the other issues that is in the crosshairs is, when we look at the budget, there are out-of-district placements that take up 60 percent of the overall special ed budget. I think we need to look at how we can bring some of these kids back into the district.”

Chisholm-Greene praised Laura Morana, the interim executive director of special services and youth services, for the work she has done since being hired in February. She added that she’d like to see the district do more to support the students with special needs who could also be in the gifted and talented program.

“As the parent of a child with special needs, I understand the frustration of not having the support that I need,” Chisholm-Greene said. “I had to go outside the district, in a sense, for an evaluation to get what my child needed. We have children that have special needs but are also gifted and talented. What are we doing for them?”

Navarro said data should be used to evaluate special education students, but should not be the only method used.

“Data is a great place to start,” he said. “But data can’t be the be all and end all when you’re evaluating children. Children are not machines that can be tested and audited to measure their whole beings. We need to take that into account very seriously.”

He also wants to see greater accountability on the district’s part when working with special education families.

“The more I talk to parents, the more I am shocked that they have to fight for some of the resources to get their children educated,” Navarro said. “So I want to see greater accountability for how that process works. When you hear stories about lawsuits to get children educated in the schools, that’s a clear sign that something is wrong and something is lacking. I want to see the district do a better job of addressing that.”

Maini also said there should be more accountability in the district, adding that there are no clearly defined roles between in each school between its leaders and the special education department, which causes conflicts that she would like to see resolved.

“Part of keeping children in district is making sure that we treat all children with respect and all families so that we don’t create a culture of us against them,” Maini said. “That must be a collaborative effort. We had no data and that was really very frustrating. So looking at moving this data warehouse into our district, being able to track what interventions work and look at student performance because our achievement gap for our special ed students is also significant. I believe that data doesn’t define the child but we do need to look at the data to support children and inform that instruction.”

Cutler agreed with Navarro about doing a better job of helping families access special education services.

“Paramount, in terms of the issues of special ed, has to be access,” she said. “It’s about not needing parents or guardians to jump through hoops to get the services their kids need. We make it unnecessarily cumbersome. We make it so parents are discouraged. We make it so parents think, ‘I’m not going to get what I need here,’ and maybe the district relies on the affluence in this town that parents will just go find the services they want. We need to do a better job of reaching out to identify kids who are in need of special services and we need to do it in a way that is partnering. We need to do it in a way that is lasting. Addressing it is about advocacy, whether it is about better engagement between the district and the parents, making sure there is a performance based group looking school by school. Really it’s about making sure we are not discouraging those who need services from getting them.”

Laskowski also wants to create an assessment system so that students can have an easier time in school and parents of special needs students don’t have to fight for the services they need.

“School should be set up so we have the ability of assessing students a little bit easier than we’re doing today,” he said. “We shouldn’t be requiring the parents to be stepping up and yelling and screaming for help. It should be the district’s responsibility to do that. We are currently sending 114 students to private schools and 68 to other school districts. Parents chose to move to this district for a reason. They wanted their children to go to school in this district so we could provide those services.”

He wants to find a way for special education students in private and out-of-district schools to attend their own neighborhood schools and be educated where they live.

“I would like to see what services we can bring in-house to provide better services than we’re sending students out to right now,” Laskowski said. “If we can do that for about 15 percent of the students over the next three years, it’ll be a very strong win for this district and will help us separate ourselves from the other districts out there.”

Cuttle wants to have better communication with the parents of special education students. According to the candidate, some parents feel they are not being heard and students feel they are not being served.

“We need better communication not just about setting up services, but also doing an intervention service and also making sure they’re plugged in and they have the resources that they need,” Cuttle said. “One of the other glaring things that we need is making sure that our schools are ADA compliant at the most basic level. Having something that is ADA compliant and making sure that our classrooms can use adaptive technology would be really key.”

In addition, Cuttle said that space for teams that work with special education students and for occupational therapy is needed inside school buildings.

Farfan said that he also wants to see a standardized assessment process for evaluating special education students, in addition to bettering the communication between the district and parents.

“We should focus on the assessment process and making sure that assessment process is standardized and works for the community, and we also need better communication back to the community on what the needs are,” he said. “Then we can go to the idea of making sure that we have the right functions and support system within our district that’s needed. That goes back to communication and making sure that we have the right type of staff and support system.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic