South Orange–Maplewood BOE candidates debate the issues

MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The five candidates running for seats on the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education debated one another in a forum hosted by the SOMSD Presidents Council on Oct. 10. Challengers Regina Eckert, William R. Gifford III, William M. Meyer, Ritu Pancholy and Nubia DuVall Wilson are all running for the three open seats on the board; incumbents Thair Joshua, Erin Siders and Johanna Wright are not seeking reelection. Moderated by the League of Women Voters, the debate included such topics as diversity, equity and inclusion; the district’s Intentional Integration Initiative; the annual budget; special education; and district goals.

“The pandemic has only brought more attention to the nationwide epidemic of students’ social-emotional and mental health struggles,” Pancholy said when discussing what mental health supports the district can improve for students. “Our district is not immune from those challenges. I believe in the power of the arts and sports. I believe that we need to build even more services to encourage that. As a soccer player in high school, that’s where I made my strongest connections. I also want to make sure that we’re working with our elected town leaders to use the statewide grant process to drive even more resources to our community. We need to build more environments where students can gather safely and talk about the issues.”

Eckert pointed out that social-emotional learning and restorative justice programs are already included in the district’s goals, but the district must progress further in these areas to make a difference for students.

“What conflict resolution training is happening?” she said when answering the question. “Do students have a place to work through their feelings? Remember that we did not handle COVID well; we were one of the last districts in New Jersey to get back in person. Students suffered and are still suffering. What we really need is to revamp staff training and accelerate action and accountability so this doesn’t continue on.”

Gifford, a Maplewood native and a graduate of Columbia High School, said the BOE should provide a framework for the superintendent and district administration to address mental health issues more effectively.

“Our responsibility is to provide a framework for the superintendent to solve these problems,” Gifford said. “From an aspirational standpoint, we should ask what is needed to solve this problem. Programs, resources, personnel? This is the board’s responsibility.”

Wilson is running on a slate with Gifford and Eckert, and agreed with them in her answer. She also brought up other concerns, such as state funding not being available for mental health resources and programming.

“One thing I am very concerned about is that mental health programs for youth are being defunded, and now Gov. Murphy’s administration is creating a central hub for students to receive mental health support outside of school,” Wilson said. “If I’m able to be on the board, I would make it a priority to understand what is being removed and how we are going to be able to keep some type of services when they need it most, which unfortunately is right now.”

A special education lawyer, Meyer said he has been dealing with student mental health issues since before the pandemic, but COVID-19 only exacerbated them.

“All children need to feel safe and nurtured at school before they can be available for instruction, and I’m talking pre-K all the way through 12th grade,” Meyer, who is running for the BOE on a slate with Pancholy, said when he answered the question. “We need to employ social-emotional learning both through the use of an emotionally aware curriculum and by pushing therapeutic supports right into the classroom. Access to counselors is key, and we can address this both through increased use of social work interns and exploring volunteer programs with therapists in our community.”

Teacher retention was another topic of conversation at the debate, with the candidates sharing their thoughts on how the district can better accommodate its staff so staff members do not leave for jobs in nearby districts. Eckert said too many people in the community see SOMSD as a “training district.”

“Teachers get trained here and then they leave,” she said, referring to recent negotiations with the South Orange–Maplewood Education Association that became acrimonious. “We have seen, especially during the pandemic, that teachers have left for neighboring districts for $20,000 to $30,000 more. I truly believe that we really need to start investing in our teachers. Yes, we got through negotiations and we got them the raises, but are we really paying competitive salaries?”

Eckert also wants to focus on recruiting and retention strategies if she is elected to the board. Gifford agreed, saying that several friends with whom he grew up in the district who became teachers wanted to come home and teach in SOMSD but ultimately left for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

“That is because they do not feel supported,” Gifford said. “The first thing we have to do is repair this broken bond. I believe that our budgets reflect our values, and if we have to pay the teachers more, I think we need to do that. We should pay them a wage that is in line with the state.”

In agreement with her running mates, Wilson said she wants to see improved communication between the staff, the district administration and the BOE.

“What we’ve learned is that teachers don’t feel like they’re valued; teachers don’t feel like they’re being communicated with,” Wilson said. “They feel like the district is out of touch. They want to be here, they want to teach our children, but we have to also make sure that they are feeling valued and feeling seen by the district. We need to be checking in with our teachers consistently to see what they need and how we can support them.”

In his answer, Meyer pointed out that 85 percent of the district’s budget goes to salaries and benefits for staff, and that SOMSD can’t compete with wealthier communities on pay alone. He does, however, want to improve teacher morale.

“I don’t know where exactly more money is coming from to pay our teachers,” Meyer said. “I think we need to look at how we are empowering our teachers and how we are respecting them. We do climate surveys at Columbia and the middle schools, and we need to keep doing this and add it to the elementary schools as well. We also need to make sure that things teachers are innovating and doing in their own classrooms are brought up districtwide. They are the experts in the classroom and need to feel empowered.”

Citing some less-than-favorable rhetoric that she has seen in the community about teachers, Pancholy said she wants to reevaluate how the profession is treated.

“I think that we need to as a community look internally to how we want to treat the very people who teach our kids,” she said. “It’s a demanding profession, and we know that, and I’m happy to see that they have received a fair contract. But I also think we need to support our teachers with ongoing professional development and continue to support their growth and show them the respect that they deserve.”

The full debate can be viewed at Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.