Five candidates vie for three open seats on Bloomfield BOE

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BLOOMFIELD, NJ — This election season, Bloomfield has five candidates running for three open seats on the Board of Education. They are incumbents Jill Fischman and Benjamin Morse, running on the “Together Is Better” slate with challenger Phyllis Gerber; and the “Strong for Kids” team of Josefina Rosario-Simone and Joshua Trojak. BOE member Daniel Anderson is not seeking reelection. 

Each candidate was given the opportunity to answer several questions set by The Independent Press; Gerber did not participate.

Fischman, who has been a Bloomfield resident for 42 years, has been an educator for 24 years, teaching at every grade level, all the way from kindergarten through college courses. She has also coached multiple sports, both at the high school and collegiate level. She has served on the board for three terms and is currently board president.

When asked what she believes to be the top issue facing the school district, Fischman responded, “ensuring our district is funded properly from our state and federal dollars.”

“Being in a good fiscal place allows us as a Board of Education to properly fund the necessary initiatives in order for our students to be successful,” Fischman told The Independent Press. “Responsibly, along with our administration, we vet the best products, initiatives, manipulatives, textbooks, etc., for students.”

Morse, who has lived in Bloomfield for 18 years, was a reporter and now primarily edits energy news for S&P Global. His daughter went to Watsessing School, graduated from Bloomfield High School two years ago and is now in college. His community involvement started with joining the Watsessing HSA, which led to his initial position on the school board in 2014. 

“The top issue in the schools is managing through COVID recovery. It’s not an understatement to emphasize how much the pandemic changed education. For students’ academic needs, we have implemented a Backstop afterschool and summer school program and other support programs to help them get back into school mode. Aside from academic support, but equally important, we have added staff to help with students’ social-emotional learning challenges brought on by the last two years of the pandemic.”

Morse advocates for developing more learning opportunities and programs for students, taking advantage of state and federal funding for facilities improvements, and focusing on the teacher shortage. Morse has served on the finance and facility, personnel, and curriculum committees.

Rosario-Simone, who moved to Bloomfield with her family in 2017, is an architectural designer who focuses mainly on residential projects in New York and New Jersey. She is a frequent fixture at township events and looks forward to her daughter starting school in the district in the next couple of years.

“Currently we have an imbalance in students vs. classrooms in the township. Some schools are overcrowded; others are underpopulated,” Rosario-Simone told The Independent Press. “We need to develop a strategy to create a magnetic school system, that can take off the load from some of the schools and redistribute the kids better among the entire town. We know it is feasible and it is a model that brings many benefits to the school district and the kids. We need to determine the best ways to scale this model into our district by determining a drawing system to assign kids to schools, establish the various bus routes as required, etc.”

Trojak, who has lived in Bloomfield for 13 years, is a lawyer with previous experience directing the former New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. Along with his wife, Trojak has taken an active role in implementing and supporting Start With Hello, a districtwide program that provides resources and techniques to help combat social isolation. He has been involved in a number of school food drives and helped to establish personal care product closets at schools throughout the district.

“Teacher and substitute recruitment and retention need to be at the forefront of the needs that the Board of Education needs to address,” Trojak told The Independent Press. “We lose too many quality educators and miss out on others who can bring the much-needed diversity, experience and ability to our classrooms. Ensuring that our schools have teachers who have the capability to reach and teach our kids is how we make Bloomfield strong for the years ahead. To this end, we need to be more creative in the ways we attract talent. We also need to find and implement innovative ways to retain those who best educate our kids.”

When it comes to school safety, candidates discussed the need for students and staff to have social-emotional safety as well as physical safety. Trojak emphasized that Start With Hello is a good first step, but that more can be done.

“The Bloomfield School District has been successfully using the Start With Hello program from Sandy Hook Promise as well as other programs from Sandy Hook Promise over the past few years to combat issues surrounding social isolation. My family has worked hard to help implement and support these programs,” Trojak said. “The district would be well served to look to implement (Sandy Hook Promise’s) Say Something Anonymous Reporting System as a useful upgrade to our existing platform. Moreover, a comprehensive focus on mental health for students and staff should be undertaken to ensure that problems are met before they can metastasize. By providing these resources, our kids will have the support system that would help to alleviate many potential concerns in the classroom and hallways. This is especially true in the middle grades, where resources are lacking.”

Rosario-Simone stressed the importance of addressing mental health issues early and effectively.

“We should have more mental health (resources) available to our kids and staff. We (must) train our educators to look for key emotional language to inform them of any situations. We are a better functioning society when our mental health and life is in balance,” Rosario-Simone said, adding that the district should be “establishing a curriculum that includes more mental health and gives kids time to focus on themselves in the afternoons. Home assignments should be limited; I believe they take a large space of quality family time. Instead, we should provide our kids with programs (when) they can participate or afternoon activities that allow them to connect with nature, art and sports.”

On the social-emotional front, Morse believes the district is already serving students and staff well.

“We have hired staff and signed an agreement with Rutgers for even more support in improving the social-emotional learning aspect of school safety. This is on top of our successful Start With Hello and Wingman programs,” Morse said. Wingman is a social-emotional learning program that instills compassion, leadership and inclusion qualities in students through experiential education; it was developed by Dylan’s Wings of Change, a foundation created by Ian Hockley in memory of his son, Dylan, one of the first-grade victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. “In terms of physical changes, we have installed new cameras, hired a new security team at the high school and tightened who can get into schools. We constantly review what we’re doing with regards to safety and will continue to do so as security needs change.”

Fischman similarly touted the district’s current efforts to promote student and staff safety and well-being.

“As a district, we are currently running many levels of security measures,” Fischman said. “Some can be made public; some, for safety reasons, cannot be shared. In terms of social-emotional learning, we have implemented districtwide initiatives to focus on the whole child. We have worked with the Sandy Hook Promise organization, as well as Dylan’s Wings of Change.”

Many area school districts are working to boost diversity, equity and inclusion to ensure that every student has access to the same opportunities and knows that they belong. As Fischman pointed out, the district is currently working with two DEI consultants, Penelope Lattimer and Adele Macula. 

“We are engaged in Year 2 with a DEI consultant. Our two consultants are known statewide for their efforts in the area of DEI,” Fischman said. “They continue to work with all Bloomfield stakeholders to provide them with the necessary knowledge to effectively teach our children in a diverse environment.”

Morse explained that DEI can mean quite a few things in different contexts.

“For purposes of the Board of Education, I look at DEI through the lens of how it can inform our main goals around curriculum, instruction and assessment. Bloomfield has an achievement gap that breaks down along race, ethnic and class lines. In order to understand why that is and help us put in practices to make sure every child succeeds, ideas around DEI have been helpful in seeing how we relate, work and teach in Bloomfield’s diverse community,” Morse said, also praising the district’s work with the two DEI consultants, who are working “to guide us through the process by holding training sessions across the district for all personnel. … They’ve even given two presentations so far to the public to let people know what we’re doing and ask questions.

“In order to improve our DEI, we should evaluate what we’re already doing and whether it’s effective, and keep what’s successful and change what isn’t,” Morse continued. “The board has also made a commitment to diversity among its staff, and we have a plan in place to do that, but it will take time.”

To further DEI in the district, Rosario-Simone wants to focus on three areas: language, accessibility and inclusive bathrooms.

Rosario-Simone feels the district should be “translating as much information into Spanish as necessary or required to keep all families engaged and empowered”; that all buildings should be accessible for all students and their families; and that the district needs to provide unisex bathrooms in future renovation plans and should work in the meantime to provide at least two per school building.

Before we can do the work to increase DEI, Trojak said the district needs to gather information about what is not working. 

“Our district needs to create and use more robust metrics on the recruitment and retention of a diverse teacher pool and implement steps to meet these metrics,” Trojak said. “Moreover, we need to make sure we have more resources dedicated to supporting students new to our community, including those who are English language learners. Bloomfield prides itself on its diversity, and this pride needs to be reflected in the actions of our school board.”

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.