‘Students Come First’ slate wins SOMA BOE election

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MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — In the Nov. 8 election for South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education, the voters spoke and elected the “Students Come First” slate of challengers Nubia Wilson, Regina Eckert and William R. Gifford III. Current board members Thair Joshua, Erin Siders and Johanna Wright did not seek reelection.

County Clerk Christopher Durkin certified the election on Nov. 17; all Essex County results listed came from the clerk’s website on Nov. 17.

According to the county clerk, with all districts reporting ballot totals, Wilson received 9,672 votes, or 24.99 percent; Eckert received 8,705 votes, or 22.49 percent; and Gifford received 8,287 votes, or 21.41 percent. The other slate carried two candidates, William M. Meyer and Ritu Pancholy, running under the slogan “Doing Better Together.” Meyer received 6,141 votes, or 15.87 percent, and Pancholy received 5,896 votes, or 15.23 percent.

“It is an honor to be elected. Our entire South Orange/Maplewood community is important to me — it isn’t about who did or did not elect me, but rather how I can best serve for the next three years,” Wilson told the News-Record. “I consider every member of this community a ‘client,’ from the hard-working teachers who educate our star students to the amazing parents and residents who live in our two wonderful towns. I want everyone to know that my goal is to listen, learn and make informed decisions to support our schools, while governing our district ethically and empathetically.”

Wilson acknowledged that there will be a learning curve to serving on the board but said she is ready to absorb all that knowledge to best serve the district.

“Regina, Bill and I ran on a platform focused on redefining success for our students and putting them first, and that will be my priority for the next three years,” Wilson said, explaining that she is eager to continue work on the budget and on the Intentional Integration Initiative. “Our integration initiative needs to continue to roll out, while keeping in mind that transportation for students and working parents’ work-life situations need to be considered in order for children to get to school safely and on time. The first Intentional Integration Initiative experience survey is to go out in January, and I look forward to seeing it distributed so that we can review and evaluate the data in a timely manner. I am also eager to see where we stand with reviewing the financial implications of increasing transportation — there seemed to be some gaps in the budget presented in the Board of School Estimate meeting. Per the district’s goals, by March 2023 the superintendent will develop a ‘robust transportation plan to increase transportation districtwide for elementary students,’ so this is a major priority for me.”

Eckert said she is ready to serve but cautioned that real change takes time and effort.

“I am humbled and honored that I will be serving every community member for the next three years. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I am so hopeful about the future for our children, our schools and our community,” Eckert said. “Throughout our campaign, we talked a lot about change. While I cannot promise change overnight, here is the change I commit to bringing as a board member: I commit to leading with empathy and to working collaboratively alongside the other board members to do right by the students, staff and community. I will openly express my ideas and perspectives to shape critical votes and policy decisions. I will encourage open discussion and listen to all viewpoints. It is my goal to start to rebuild the trust of our community and 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 is looking forward to working on teacher retention and the III when she takes office.

“All issues and decisions should be viewed through the lens of, ‘How does this enrich learning and the lives of our students?’” Eckert said. “This will be an ongoing process that will require a steadfast commitment by all board members, but I look forward to giving this the effort and unrelenting focus it deserves during my time in office.”

Gifford is looking forward to implementing participatory budgeting and neighborhood board meetings.

“It’s clear from the results of the election, there is a resounding mandate to make the board more transparent and responsive to the community,” Gifford said. “The process of participatory budgeting builds a better understanding of school budgets and allows the community to have more say in where funds are directed. It also provides students and other community members the opportunity to learn democracy and active citizenship in a deeper way. Neighborhood board of education meetings would serve to widen the board’s reach beyond Academy Street. The next board should seize every opportunity to set a new standard in the way we communicate with the community. We can be a model not just for the state, but the nation in growing a truly grassroots democracy.”

And Gifford is thankful to be given the opportunity to work toward these changes.

“I want to thank everyone who supported the ‘Students Come First’ campaign,” he said. “Over the past few months friends, family and neighbors came together to forge a powerful coalition. I am honored that the voters of Maplewood and South Orange selected Regina, Nubia and myself to serve on the board of education. Now, the real work begins. It’s time to recycle all those lawn signs and put our differences aside. We face some incredible challenges as a district; I promise to hit the ground running to take on these issues.”

Additionally this election season, Maplewood voters elected Democratic challenger Deborah Engel to serve on the Maplewood Township Committee; Committeeman Frank McGehee did not seek reelection. Engel ran unopposed after winning the Democratic Primary on June 7. As of press time, with all districts reporting, Engel received 8,459 votes.

“After spending the past few months going door to door and talking with numerous residents, I have realized just how many members of our community, from young families to small business owners to seniors, want to be heard,” Engel said in a press release. “I have enjoyed our discussions and hearing your ideas and concerns, and I will continue to listen as I take my seat on the Maplewood Township Committee. Thank you to the voters of Maplewood for putting your trust in me. I am excited and proud to be your voice in local government.”

Engel’s priorities include making mental health care more accessible and affordable, expanding swim lessons and access to the community pool, creating more and affordable child care and camp options, and improving township communications, especially during emergencies. Engel also has spoken about the need to prioritize traffic calming and lighting for pedestrian safety, improve stormwater management, and focus on smart economic development to bring new revenue in and help offset taxes. Engel plans to focus on the Maplewood Master Plan that is currently underway, with an eye on the need for affordable housing, critical infrastructure and recreational spaces.