Three vie for just two open seats on WO Board of Education

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Residents will be voting in two new members to the West Orange Board of Education on Nov. 6, casting their ballots for two of the three challengers running for election. Cheryl Merklinger, Jeremias Salinas and Terry Trigg-Scales all shared the direction they want to see the school district head in the future and what they would do if elected, in sit-down interviews with the West Orange Chronicle.

Merklinger is employed at Prudential, where she works closely with the company’s human relations department; Salinas is a high school teacher in Woodbridge; and Trigg-Scales had a 38-year career in Montclair Public Schools, where she has been a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, among other roles.

With the recent departure of Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky, the district is about to launch a search for a new person to helm the West Orange school system. The three candidates shared what they are looking for in a candidate and the vision they have for the leader they want.

“I think we need to look at a new law firm and a new search firm because we need something different,” Merklinger said in an interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 26. “I want someone who has experience at all levels — elementary school, middle school and high school. It’s definitely a plus if they are coming from a large district and we need someone who is personable and willing to work with teachers. They have to have goals and a vision and be consistent. They also have to involve the community and the faculty.”

In an Oct. 26 interview with the Chronicle, Salinas said he wants a superintendent who will involve parents and the rest of the community in as much of the district decision making as they can. He also wants a candidate who has done their research on West Orange.

“What do you know about our district?” Salinas said he plans to ask superintendent candidates. “Our population and challenges are different, so how are you going to approach it? I’d like to see someone who has ties to West Orange. I also want to know what they bring that we don’t already have. We have teachers and administrators and supervisors in place, what are you going to do to move us forward? We have a district that we need to repair, and maybe looking for an outsider would help.”

Trigg-Scales agreed with Salinas about casting a wide net in the search for a new superintendent, and discussed what she would look for in a superintendent if elected at the candidates’ debate at Liberty Middle School hosted by West Orange Cares About Schools and the West Orange Special Education Parent Advisory Council on Oct. 25,

“We need to look far and wide to find the most qualified, most creative, most innovative superintendent that’s out there,” Trigg-Scales said at the debate. “We need a people person. We need someone who knows they’re in the people business. You’re working with parents, you’re working with the teachers, and you’re working with the community. We need someone who has very, very strong communication skills and interpersonal skills. We have excellent administrators and we have wonderful parents and students, but we’re kind of fractured and what we need is a leader who knows how to come in, assess where we are, what it is that we need and pull this together.”

The relationship between teachers and the administration is also a forefront issue, with teachers in the West Orange School District expressing that they often feel like they are not heard or respected. Merklinger wants to find a way to bridge the gap felt between the teachers and the BOE members, and open up better lines of communication.

“I feel like there is a lack of respect,” she told the Chronicle. “My role would be to mend that. You can listen to someone without only listening to respond. I’d like to have something like coffee chats where teachers can drop in and talk with the superintendent and administrators about anything they want to address. I’d also like to set up Board of Education office hours and change the agenda of the meetings so that they have a little bit more substance and the community feels more heard.”

Salinas wants to examine how insurance and benefit costs figure into contract negotiations with the teachers’ union the next time they begin.

“The cost of living continues to rise but our salaries don’t match,” he told the Chronicle. “We need to look at those areas first. Someone has to talk to and be receptive to what their needs are. Only teachers know what’s going on in the classroom and when you don’t have effective communication we can’t have effective communication with them.”

Trigg-Scales said that she wants to do everything possible to make the district’s teachers feel they are being heard, because it will affect the way students learn and will improve relationships across the board.

“Happy teachers make happy kids,” she said in an interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 12. “I would do everything within my power to find out what they need to feel appreciated. No one needs to work in a hostile environment. We need to open up the lines of communication and meet them halfway. If we value children, how can we not value teachers?”

The district has a large special education program, and all three candidates discussed what can be improved at both the debate and in interviews with the Chronicle.

“The board shouldn’t have to look for updates about special education,” Merklinger told the Chronicle. “We should get quarterly reports about where we are and told what that progress means. Professional development is ongoing, and we need to work with teachers so that teachers with a special education background can work with all students.”

At the debate, Merklinger said the board is not responsible for micromanaging, but should hold those in the special education department accountable to ensure policies are being adhered to. She also said she would like to see more communication between the district and parents of special education students.

Salinas agreed that accountability and responsibility should be a priority when it comes to special education in West Orange.

“There was an audit that was completed,” Salinas said at the debate. “We know that there’s many, many, many different things that the district is not in compliance with. We need to hold people responsible. We have a special education director, we have a superintendent. But when you don’t hold them responsible then you continue to find that noncompliance.”

Trigg-Scales wants to have a board liaison to work with parent groups and families of students with special needs. If elected, she said, she would be happy to fill that role.

“If I’m able to be a liaison to the board and work with the parent groups, I would be more than willing to do that so that I am able to take the information from the parent groups and share it directly with the board so that there is no misunderstanding,” she said at the debate. “We need to be in compliance. It costs taxpayers money when you’re in noncompliance. You end up in court. We need not end up in court.”

On the technology front, Merklinger thinks the district is on the cutting edge with the technology used, but wants to look into having more online classes available for students, as well as having online classes available in the event of a snow day.

“Everyone is always trying to look for the next big thing,” she said to the Chronicle. “I’ve heard of schools that have virtual classes on snow days. That’s something that we could look into and consider so students aren’t missing out on the class time that they need.”

Salinas wants to focus more on teacher training so that technology can be effectively used in the classroom. He said some educators may not be as familiar with technology as others, and because technology changes so quickly it can be hard to keep up with it in the classroom.

“I think we need to look to teacher training,” he told the Chronicle. “If they can’t use it, it’s not going to be effective. I think we could also look into upgrading for more Wi-Fi and look into providing it for kids who maybe can’t afford it.”

He also wants to make sure that students are beginning to use technology at an earlier age, so there is not as big of a learning curve later. In addition, he thinks allowing students who have their own cell phones and devices to bring and use them in school would be helpful.

“I think eventually, we can phase out the responsibility that the district has to provide it for everyone,” he said.

For Trigg-Scales, more important than teaching children how to use technology, is teaching them how to be critical thinkers who can adapt to learning new things.

“It’s a double edged sword,” she told the Chronicle about technology. “There’s certainly a question that relates to the digital divide that you have to be keenly aware of. Coding is what everyone seems to be doing now and that’s something that we can look into. It changes so fast and we don’t even know what the jobs will be in the future. I think if we teach our children to be problem solvers and critical thinkers and communicate teamwork, and to be a part of a team and work collaboratively, that’s the way to go.”

Debate photo by Amanda Valentovic