MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — This election season, South Orange and Maplewood have five challengers running for three open seats on the board of education. Candidates are the slate of Regina Eckert, William R. Gifford III and Nubia Wilson, running under the slogan “Students Come First,” and the slate of William M. Meyer and Ritu Pancholy, running under the slogan “Doing Better Together.” Current board members Thair Joshua, Erin Siders and Johanna Wright are not seeking reelection.
Eckert, who has lived in Maplewood for almost six years, has been active in the Tuscan School PTA, managing the website and volunteering at many school events. She has also been involved with her son’s preschool. Professionally, Eckert said she “spent the majority of (her) career in digital media in both strategy and client management functions.” She previously worked at an education technology company, working to foster an inclusive and empowering work environment. When asked what she believes the top issue in the district to be, Eckert laid out a game plan for improving student experiences.
“In order to address our district’s most fundamental need — providing our children with the educational and social-emotional experiences that they deserve — I believe we have to start by building a strong and stable foundation,” Eckert said, explaining that the district needs to focus on “governance that prioritizes student achievement and centers policy discussions around teaching and learning” while addressing the district’s various achievement gaps and optimizing curriculum; climate and culture to ensure everyone is physically and emotionally safe in school and to ensure teachers feel supported and valued, which will lead to teacher retention; “comprehensive data collection so that we can make informed decisions”; and “transparency, communication and accountability at all levels to ensure that the community and student needs are being met,” from budget to policy “and everything in between.”
Gifford, who recently moved back to Maplewood after having grown up here, is the senior director of origination at Dynamic Energy, a national renewable energy provider; he works with an array of public and private organizations to meet sustainability goals and reduce their cost of energy. Gifford previously ran for the BOE in 2004 and 2005, as a Columbia High School senior and again as a college freshman. The father of two is the co-founder of the Maroon Project, an activist incubator, based in Newark, that creates spaces for students, organizers and residents to have an impact on issues of social justice through political education, civic engagement and leadership development. According to Giford, the top issue in the school district is “the achievement gap concerning black and special education students.”
“We need to make closing the achievement gaps a district goal that is not bundled into student achievement and integration. This means having clear benchmarks and creating programs with real resources behind them to help us meet our goals. We need to intervene early in the elementary years with individualized instruction and robust after-school tutoring for families that need it,” Gifford said. “With that said, communication with the community is also an enormous issue right now. Many students and parents do not feel heard. Parents were shocked to learn about the district’s decision to completely outsource our transportation department, then equally surprised to learn courtesy busing was terminated. That is why I am proposing such measures as participatory budgeting and regular neighborhood Board of Education meetings. We need to be engaging constituents as we make these decisions, not after. We aim to be a board that goes to the people, not the other way around.”
Meyer, who has lived in South Orange since 2019, is a special education attorney in New York, where he represents the parents of students with disabilities who are not receiving the proper support. Meyer has two children, one at South Mountain Elementary School and the other at the Montrose Early Childhood Center; he has served as a class parent and volunteered during the 2021-22 school year as an almost weekly recess monitor when the district had difficulty hiring monitors. He currently serves as co-chairperson of programming for the South Mountain PTA.
“If forced to name a single issue I would say equity is our top concern, as many of the pressing issues we have ought to be viewed through that lens,” Meyer said. “We have an amply documented and yet seemingly intractable achievement gap that persists at Columbia High School and impacts our black, Hispanic, special education and ESL populations most heavily. The data secured by the board is important to assess this issue, and I would request additional reporting both to regularly track this issue over time as well as to break the statistics down further to understand the genesis and source of these gaps, so that we can best target these needs, beginning in earlier grades, before our students are in crisis. I would also prioritize adequate funding and resources to the numerous interventions the district has developed to support the students we have failed and monitor those programs for efficacy, and encourage developing a culture of teachers personally invested in the success of every child.”
Meyer also stressed the importance of protecting and strengthening the Intentional Integration Initiative, providing anti-bias training for staff, and working to hire and retain teachers.
“I do not agree with proposals to modify the III by use of a transfer marketplace or the institution of ranked choice,” he continued. “The initiative has barely entered its second year. The current plan was developed through a thoughtful and research-driven process and has been crafted with equity and placement in local schools as its two top priorities. I would remain open to reevaluations as the program continues forward, with an eye toward ensuring we best meet our goal of integration, but would disagree with changes that could lead to opportunity hoarding and dilute equity.”
Pancholy, a lifelong N.J. resident and 12-year South Orange resident, has two children at South Mountain Elementary School. Upon graduating from Duke Law, Pancholy served as an attorney for the New York City Department of Education, where she was tasked with responding to federal government investigations, reviewing and updating education policies, learning about educational policy initiatives, and supervising employment litigation related to the agency’s staff. Pancholy now owns the human resources consulting firm Culturupt, through which she helps organizations build a culture of ethics, compliance and respect. She is a past president of SOMA Action, has been a class captain in her children’s classes and is on the board of the nonprofit organization Build Up Boys.
“I believe that for too long our school district has been plagued by inconsistent leadership and a revolving door of superintendents, principals and other administrators. This administrative instability has left the district in disarray on a number of critical items that impact our teachers and kids,” Pancholy said. “The lack of consistency in leadership has perpetuated a lack of trust in the operations of our schools. It’s made it difficult to ensure that our schools serve all of our students, including our students with special needs, students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and students from all different backgrounds in a meaningful manner. Our school district is likely out of compliance on a number of issues, and the leadership challenges mean that we cannot address these compliance issues fully. We need to act quickly to restore trust in our school district, and I believe that if I am elected I can work with my colleagues to start to rebuild our community’s trust in our schools.”
Wilson, who has lived in South Orange for 11 years and has two children at South Mountain School, runs the public relations and marketing agency Cielo Consulting. Before entering public relations, she taught English to children and adults in Taipei, Taiwan, helping the school there to restructure admissions, enhance the curriculum and raise its profile. She has been active in the South Mountain School community as a volunteer at PTA events and during the school day as a recess and lunch monitor.
“The ‘Students Come First’ slate created a community survey for parents and neighbors to express their concerns — and success stories — in the district. What resulted was a wide range of feedback that revealed this: Our school system’s infrastructure and operations are broken. A lack of critical focus on transportation, teacher retention/morale, curriculum communications, achievement gaps and responsible budgeting has created the dysfunction that we are in today,” Wilson said, adding that she supports reinstituting courtesy busing; improving teacher morale and retention, which requires including teachers in mental health discussions; addressing the achievement gaps; and addressing learning loss resulting from the pandemic, including delayed speech in the district’s youngest students.
In recent years, the SOMA school board has received a lot of attention for its members having difficulty working together.
“The board evaluated itself a 1.8 out of 4 during their retreat this summer. A dysfunctional board equates to a dysfunctional school district and a weak superintendent. Lack of respect is a major issue. As a mental health advocate, I know a lot about triggers and trauma, and the current board members know how to trigger one another. Without healing, it is a toxic situation,” Wilson said, pledging to build relationships with board members to facilitate trust and collaboration. “We also need to create our own internal value system. I would advocate for dedicating ourselves to creating a safe space for internal discussions to reach consensus, such as agreeing to listen to all members’ voices, committing to admitting when you are wrong, apologizing for disrespecting someone, and creating a no-judgment zone while debating topics. The board needs to heal, and this community needs to heal, because we have all been traumatized from it.”
Pancholy said she has been disheartened and disappointed to see how BOE members have communicated with one another.
“The acrimony between the current BOE members serves no one — it does not advance our district, it does not improve the operations of our district and most importantly it does not serve our students,” Pancholy said. “As an HR consultant I am hired to address those issues and help repair organizations that are dysfunctional. If elected, I pledge to act in an ethical and respectful manner. I will never engage in personal attacks when I disagree with others. I might not always agree with everyone on the BOE, but we must all agree on the process we will use to engage in policy-making and oversight of the superintendent.”
Meyer said the board needs to learn to “agree to disagree amicably,” a skill he has honed from his years as an attorney.
“As board members, we need to be modeling the teamwork and conflict resolution skills we would like to instill in our students, which requires each person to demonstrate respect for their fellow members and for the established ground rules for our meetings. As a litigator who goes toe to toe with the same pool of opposing counsel on a regular basis, I know the value of advocating zealously for my client but not burning bridges,” Meyer said. “Regardless of what anyone else does, I will engage ethically and in good faith and with a commitment to public discussion respecting the established rules of order.”
According to Gifford, this issue is one of the reasons he is running for the board.
“One of the issues that motivated me to run was that, while our teachers were marching in the streets demanding fair pay, we had board members bullying colleagues in public meetings. Just a few weeks ago board members were shouted down,” Gifford said. “The first thing any board member can do is acknowledge this behavior is unacceptable and call it out. That is not happening right now, which allows it to continue. It starts with accountability from the board, and I plan to provide that (from) Day 1.”
Eckert acknowledged that correcting the board’s poor teamwork will not happen overnight and requires consistent effort.
“As a board member, I will encourage open discussion and listen to all viewpoints. I commit to strengthening the trust of our community — the students, the teachers, our district families and other SOMA residents. I will ask questions and be open to discussions. I will openly express my ideas and perspectives to shape critical votes and policy decisions. I want to make our schools a place where students feel safe and inspired to learn, teachers/staff feel respected and appreciated, and the families of our community know that we are listening,” Eckert said, adding that her slate values diversity. “My family represents two cultures and minority groups not often ‘seen’ in SOMA: Asian and Hispanic. Bill and Nubia both have mixed-race families, and Nubia is a strong woman of color. We hope our presence on the board will allow for a range of experiences and ideas to be considered in what our work is and how we approach it.”
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.