Eight candidates compete for 3 open seats on Board of Ed

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SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — There are three seats open on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, and eight candidates are vying to fill them in the Nov. 7 general election. Incumbent BOE President Elizabeth Baker is running for a second term, as is incumbent BOE member Donna Smith. Challengers are Anthony Mazzocchi, Robin Johnson Baker, Shannon Cuttle, Felisha George, Avery Julien and Sheila Shidnia.

Each candidate has ideas about how to address the problems the district faces, such as overcrowding, the achievement gap and what they want in a new superintendent. The candidates discussed what they would do if elected to the BOE in sit-down interviews with the News-Record.

The school district has had four different superintendents at the helm of the district in the last five years, and the BOE has to start the process of hiring a permanent superintendent while interim Superintendent of Schools Thomas Ficarra holds the position. Mazzocchi, a former supervisor of fine arts in the district and a Columbia High School graduate, sees the hiring of a permanent superintendent as the most important job for the BOE in the immediate future.

“We have to find someone with a managerial mind,” he said in an Oct. 12 interview. “They have to have a good balance and grasp of the issues. We need to hire a good fit for the district, who is a leader and is able to pick a few concerns to address. They also need to be able to form a well-balanced curriculum.”

Shidnia said the new superintendent should come from a district with similar demographics and issues, and also cited leadership qualities as being the most critical quality the BOE should look for in its search.

“They should come from a similar district so they are not coming in with a ton of changes all at once,” she said in an Oct. 12 interview, adding that she wants the superintendent to be active in the district and able to listen to those around them. “We need them to be able to implement the policies that we need.”

Working with principals in the district is instrumental for a superintendent, according to Smith, who said in an Oct. 13 interview: “We need a good leader who can work with the principals.”

Smith also wants to see the new superintendent modernize the district. She believes finding a younger candidate will likely help the school district to retain this superintendent, as they will have more motivation to stay for the longterm.

“I would like someone who is creative and resourceful, so we can stay under the 2-percent tax cap,” Smith said. “With the salary cap expiring this year there will be a better pool of candidates. I want them to be young enough that they want to stay.”

Elizabeth Baker thinks the district should wait approximately one year before it starts the formal search process, taking advantage of Ficarra’s experience as superintendent in the Morris School District for 12 years and, just prior to joining the SOMSD, as interim superintendent in Hamilton Township.

“The major building blocks are there,” she said in an Oct. 13 interview. “We should use Dr. Ficarra before we start the formal search process. My recommendation would be that we start in the middle of next year.”

Elizabeth Baker wants a permanent superintendent who has the experience and skills to work in a small to midsized district, and who can use management skills to work with all employees.

“They can’t just be a vision person, this requires hands-on management,” she said. “I want someone who is committed to moving forward and sees this as a student-centric district. They should really want to mentor leaders and develop the bench of future superintendents.”

Julien, a 2017 graduate of CHS and current freshman at Rutgers-Newark, agreed that students should be the primary focus of the new superintendent. When reviewing qualifications in the search for a new superintendent, Julien said in an Oct. 19 interview that an extensive background in education is necessary and a good track record in previous positions is a must.

“I want them to look at what the students need and want,” Julien said, adding that he likes what Ficarra has done thus far. “I don’t want a superintendent to look at numbers and what’s happening and say that ‘this is what it is.’”

Cuttle, the founder of Safe Schools Action Network, which works to eradicate bullying from schools, said a superintendent should have a good relationship with the BOE and district employees.

“I want a superintendent who has an invested interest in our students and in our community,” Cuttle, who has lived in Maplewood since 2013, said in an Oct. 20 interview. “Once we find a good match, they should have a good relationship and be transparent with the board. The super has to be a part of that change.”

Cuttle also wants a superintendent with a diverse skill set rather than a specialist. Cuttle wants them to be ready to hit the ground running and get to work upon arriving in the district.

George, also a product of this school district, having graduated CHS in 2012, said experience is the No. 1 requirement she would have for a new superintendent.

“I want someone who has a history of getting things done,” she said in an Oct. 26 interview. “They should know the towns and know how unique and diverse they are, understand all of that and be able to make that change.”

Robin Baker said the next superintendent should be a strong leader — someone who will understand that they may not always agree with the BOE but has the skills necessary to work through those differences, ensuring the towns’ have a functional district. She previously served on the board from 1998 to 2001.

“We need someone to set the tone and (who) is empowered to lead,” she said in an Oct. 26 interview. “Employees need to know that the superintendent has their back. They have to support people when they feel that they are not supported.”

She also emphasized the importance of hiring a superintendent who can offer support and keep promises.

“It can be hard in this district because people have very different agendas,” Robin Baker said. “We have to have someone who can work together and is given the opportunity to respond.”

Robin Baker also said an effort must be made to improve the physical state of the school buildings, which are aging and overcrowded. She thinks the racial divides that exist in the district could be improved by rezoning, eliminating the aging portables used at some elementary schools.

“The best way (eliminate racial divides) is to make sure every single school is strong,” she said. “To alleviate that, we have to work in a fair way to integrate the schools. It’s effective when it’s done early, and the economic and social divide that exists is confirmation that we need to do better.”

Her running mate, Elizabeth Baker, said the BOE should look at existing options, especially in the elementary schools.

“We have to replace the portables and turn them into classrooms,” she said. “And we also have to look at where the middle schools have capacity.”

Elizabeth Baker also thinks acquiring land to build a school is worth looking into, though she acknowledged that this would be a slow solution to the problem and would not necessarily be cost-effective. “This is important because if you don’t have a vision, it won’t happen. People have to see that it’s not just brick and mortar, it’s the whole experience.”

Shidnia said obtaining outside money should be considered when considering projects that will improve school facilities.

“There is such a financial need when it comes to schools,” she said. “Have we approached Columbia alumni? Have we gone to technology companies to see what they can help with? There are ways to reach out for funding and it is so well worth it to have basic quality spaces.”

Looking for outside funding for facilities improvements is also on Cuttle’s to-do list, if elected.

“We need to identify what our needs are and what we need now and what we need later, to make a wish list,” Cuttle said. “There are alternative sources that could meet our needs. There are grant resources that we wouldn’t have to go out of pocket for.”

Cuttle also said that bonding could be another way to fund projects to improve the school’s facilities.

George’s plan for improving the school buildings in the district ties into the hiring of the new superintendent.

“I want to find a superintendent who can plan,” she said. “If we can find someone who knows how to manage, maybe we can take out a bond. If the facilities are better, the learning experience will be better.”

Mazzocchi has several proposals for solving overcrowding issues in the district. One is to create magnet schools instead of using the zoning method, citing nearby Montclair as an example of a district where this approach works. Another is to change the structure of the middle schools.

“Changing the middle school so that one is for fifth and sixth grade and one is for seventh and eighth would solve some overcrowding issues,” Mazzocchi said. “Students would be united before they got to high school. This has to happen now; we can’t kick this down the road.”

Smith said she is open to exploring the possibilities of magnet schools and reorganizing the middle schools to improve the district’s facilities.

“The portables are not sustainable,” she said. “They have a shelf life. If we can get a bond to expand, we can move forward despite having an interim superintendent.”

Smith also thinks redistricting is an option that shouldn’t be dismissed, though this isn’t usually popular among the families of students.

Julien, who is running a joint campaign with George, agrees with Smith that the BOE should consider redistricting to alleviate the overcrowding in elementary schools, and that the issue also ties into the achievement gap that the district is struggling to close. Minority students are often in lower class levels than white students, and some schools are not as diverse as others, based on the current zoning.

“We should look at zoning,” Julien said. “One of the ways to do that is look at how each student is being taught. It starts younger, and everyone is taught differently.”

He believes that redistricting will begin to fix some of the facilities issues as well as address the achievement gap.

To address that gap, Robin Baker thinks it’s best to begin in the elementary schools.

“The effect is felt when it’s done early,” she said. “We need to look at the economic and social standings of the towns and find what we can do better. The best way is to make sure every single school is strong.”

Robin Baker cited Mazzocchi’s idea of changing the structure of the middle school so that students are united before high school as one way to alleviate the gap, as well as working in a better plan for better integrating the schools.

According to Shidnia, inequities in education and discipline in the district are closely linked.

“There seems to be these middle pieces that are missing,” Shidnia said, referring to the achievement gap and difference in discipline that has become an issue in the district. “We are not who we say we are, and it sends a mixed message. There must be action taken.”

Smith said she would like to work with the Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity Project, which offers professional development to educators on how to work with a more diverse curriculum.

“We need to take a more holistic approach to it,” she said. “We don’t want to blame teachers or students; we want to get them to understand better. We shouldn’t be lowering expectations because of the color of their skin.”

Elizabeth Baker cited an expansion of support for CHS students, such as keeping the library open for longer hours to assist students who may not have access to computers at home. She also believes tutoring services can  be expanded at the middle school level, and more can be done to address the language barrier that many families in the district face.

“There shouldn’t be these disparities,” Elizabeth Baker said. “We need to be transparent about the data and report it to the community.”

According to Mazzocchi, a major problem at CHS is that students can immediately drop down a level upon the start of a new school year, but must wait approximately one month to move up a level, which places them at a disadvantage because they enter a more rigorous class a month behind the other students. He also said that minority students are often put into lower level classes unfairly, and don’t have the opportunity to do well because they aren’t given the chance.

“We have this authoritarian model of school culture and climate,” Mazzocchi said. “And there are children from all walks of life. We have to explore why this is happening.”

Just as there are students from all walks of life, Cuttle said that the district needs teachers who reflect that.

“We need to acknowledge that we have bias in our system,” Cuttle said about the achievement gap. “We need to implement leadership so that we have an idea of our checks and balances to ensure student success.”

Cuttle said that the district should recruit educators who can work with all types of students from many different backgrounds.

“We have a mission and vision, but we’ve lost sight of that,” Cuttle said.

George, who said that she was in all Level 2 classes at CHS and unable to move up until she was in one Level 3 writing class, wants the BOE to hear more from the students.

“There should be a survey to hear from students, and parents could do it for younger kids,” she said. “We need to provide the resources to help students feel like they’re safe enough to level up.”

These eight candidates are each seeking one of three open seats on the Board of Education. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.