South Orange–Maplewood BOE candidates debate the issues

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The five candidates running for the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education debated one another in a forum hosted by the SOMSD President’s Council and moderated by the League of Women Voters on Oct. 11, answering questions about issues facing the school system ahead of Election Day on Nov. 2. Three seats are open on the BOE; only one incumbent, Shannon Cuttle, is running for reelection. The other candidates are challengers Qawi Telesford, Kaitlin Wittleder, Arun Vadlamani and William Rodriguez.

One of the topics discussed was communication, with each candidate explaining how they would provide clear and timely communications to all families in the district. Cuttle said the district has struggled with communicating since before their time on the board. In their answer, Cuttle used the district’s statement about an investigation into a teacher forcibly removing a student’s hijab at Seth Boyden Elementary School as an example.

“That communication was not clear and concise, and lacked perhaps some additional empathy and care and understanding,” Cuttle said at the debate. “Our district needs to also have a different focus on ensuring that all of our district families have access to communication.”

Cuttle said more needs to be done to make sure that families who speak languages other than English can read communications in their languages and that those who do not have cell phones can still be contacted. Some people don’t have devices that are compatible with the district’s technology, which needs to be addressed.

Wittleder said the district needs to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to communicating with families.

“We need to adopt more equitable methods of communication,” she said at the debate. “It gives parents choices that are convenient to them and would afford each and every family, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, an opportunity to receive information, address their concerns and make the best decisions for their children.”

Rodriguez said that, since moving to Maplewood last year, he has been inundated with information being sent to him from the district. He wants to give parents the option of choosing the mode of communication that is best for them and communicate to them at the right time.

“We need to have an app so that people can have settings for their preferred mode of communication,” he said at the debate, also saying the options available now need improvement. “The text messages that I receive from the district require a second click. We need to deliver short bites of communication in the body of the same text message. That means, if the school is going to close, just tell me it’s going to close.”

Vadlamani wants the same message to be sent through multiple media. In some cases, he thinks using paper notices in student backpacks can be more effective than anything else.

“There truly is, in some cases, information overload,” Vadlamani said at the debate. “Are we getting too much information? Or, am I going to find information specific to what I’m looking for? Sometimes I feel that all the answers are there, but I don’t know which question to ask. We need to make sure all the information is archived and searchable.”

Telesford agreed with Vadlamani, his running mate, when he answered the question, saying that too much information can be overwhelming.

“One of the things I can advocate for is providing ways that we can strategically provide relevant information to parents,” Telesford said. “We have to also make sure that we are communicating to all parents. We have to make sure that the district has the tools and the ability to communicate with all families so their kids can also be served by this district.”

The candidates also discussed diversity, equity and inclusion at the forum. Telesford said he supports the district’s intentional integration initiative, especially as a person who grew up in the district and graduated from Columbia High School.

“I think a great thing about growing up in this district is it gave me an appreciation for people from diverse backgrounds,” Telesford said. “That’s one of the reasons I support the intentional integration initiative, because it facilitates the type of environment that I encountered when I was here. One of the ways we can ensure underrepresented groups have their needs met is making sure they see themselves in the curriculum.”

Telesford suggested incorporating art, literature and history about the Asian American Pacific Islander community, Latinx community, religious minorities, LGBTQ community and disabled community into school curricula.

“I think we (need to) demonstrate inclusion where people can see themselves,” Telesford said.

Cuttle, who is running for their second term on the BOE, said that in their time on the board, they have been a part of adjusting district policies to make sure the policies are inclusive for everyone. The student handbook and human resources manual have also expanded to include more groups.

“We are recruiting and retaining staff to know that we are a welcoming school environment for them to join us here,” Cuttle said. “I’ve also been instrumental in bringing in outside resources to ensure that my fellow board colleagues and our central administration staff are also trained in cultural competency. This year all district staff will receive LGBTQ competency training, suicide prevention training and crisis prevention training. That has not happened before. We have more work to do, but our district has evolved by leaps and bounds in the last two and a half years in its commitment to being on that path.”

Vadlamani wants to simplify the process of getting educational resources and help immigrant parents navigate what might be an unfamiliar education system.

“We want to make sure that the Amistad curriculum is implemented correctly,” he said in his answer. “I’m also a big supporter of getting AAPI curriculum into our schools.”

Wittleder talked about the achievement gap in her answer, saying the district needs to narrow the achievement gap in elementary school to prevent it from widening in middle and high school.

“We can’t continue to repeat the same behaviors and expect to achieve different outcomes,” she said. “I want to do the work to support the superintendent in making this a priority and holding him accountable for student outcomes. We don’t have enough conversations about teaching and learning in this district, and I want to make those conversations a priority.”

As South Orange and Maplewood become more affluent and less neurodiverse, Rodriguez said, the district needs to create a more inclusive environment. He wants more parents to be involved.

“We need to listen to our parents,” Rodriguez said. “We need to invite more people to get involved. We need more diverse voices at the table. In addition to that, we need to make sure that everyone’s identity is respected, and we need to begin to incorporate no-tolerance policies for hate in our schools. On top of that, we need to institute antibias training for all teachers. I think increasing the awareness of our teachers from a cultural and socioeconomic perspective is going to help us as we implement these programs to close the achievement gap.”

Voters in South Orange and Maplewood will have the opportunity to vote for three BOE candidates on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2.