MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education saw some big changes at its first meeting of 2016. Not only were new board members Annemarie Maini and Chris Sabin sworn in at the Jan. 4 meeting, but Elizabeth Baker was unanimously chosen as the board’s new president.
Baker, who is in the second year of her first board term, took over the position from Wayne Eastman, who lost his bid for re-election in November 2015.
“The privilege of being able to serve as board president, the responsibility that it entails and the challenges of the work that lies ahead are humbling,” Baker told the News-Record in an email. “At the same time, I am hopeful about the coming year. As a board, we are already functioning with greater cohesiveness, which will allow us to work more effectively with our new superintendent, Dr. John Ramos, and the larger school community. I am also very excited about the energy and perspectives that our new members, Annemarie Maini and Chris Sabin, bring to the board.”
And the 2016 board certainly seems more cohesive than last year’s: the vote to make Baker president was unanimous as were the two votes for vice presidents. Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, who is entering the third and final year of her first term, was chosen as the first vice president; Madhu Pai, who was re-elected in November and served last year as first vice president, was elected second vice president.
Baker sees the synchronicity of this year’s board, even with its eclectic views, as being positive.
“I think the range of views represented in our executive officers and committee leadership will result in a more cohesive approach with the board and better results for our school community,” Baker said. “We will be focused on finding common ground and getting the work done.”
Lawson-Muhammad is eager to begin her work as first vice president.
“I’m pleased to be recognized by my fellow board members and to be able to serve on the board’s executive committee,” Lawson-Muhammad told the News-Record via email. “More importantly, in my third year on the board, I look forward to leveraging the experience I’ve gained to help shape the direction of the district, mentor our two new board members and work especially on building a productive relationship between the board and the superintendent.”
Pai, who is entering her second term, is excited by what lies ahead and is ready to get started.
“I feel very honored to have been elected second vice president by my colleagues,” Pai told the News-Record via email. “With three working parents on the new executive committee, I believe there is an opportunity to modify the work and responsibilities of the board officers so that we are working more as a team working toward common goals. We started that under the leadership of Mr. Eastman and I believe we’ll continue to improve upon the process under the leadership of Ms. Baker.”
When asked what she thinks the district’s greatest challenge in 2016 will be, Pai pointed to successfully implementing the recently passed Access and Equity Policy, which is meant to remove barriers keeping students from higher classes.
“The policy was written to be purposely broad so that the implementation would not be directed, but informed and crafted through a collaborative process with stakeholders,” Pai said. “I’m excited to see how (the) administration brings that to life, and of course for the final output.”
For Lawson-Muhammad, the biggest challenge will be maintaining the district’s forward momentum by working with Ramos to form a new strategic plan.
“The biggest challenge will be making sure we work with Dr. Ramos to decide how to prioritize and what to focus on first,” Lawson-Muhammad said. “I am hopeful that the strategic planning process now under way will help us as a community achieve broader consensus on where we need to focus the district’s limited financial resources and human capacity, as well as identifying creative approaches to extend our means.”
Baker agrees with both vice presidents, though she sees both challenges as one and the same.
“I think the greatest challenge and opportunity this year will be the development of the strategic plan that will guide our district in both the short and longer term,” Baker said. “As a district, we need to ensure that each of our schools is a learning community in which every child is welcomed, respected and nurtured. Towards that end, we must be both timely and intentional in the implementation of the Access and Equity Policy that was adopted in November, and we need a strategic plan that will ensure that this policy and all the goals we set for our schools move out of Academy Street and into every classroom.”
Baker cautioned, however, that such changes will not happen overnight. They require conversation, collaboration, respect and community input.
Despite these challenges, the executive board members feel the district has many strengths that will assist the board and administration in effecting positive change in the coming year.
Without missing a beat, Pai told the News-Record that the district’s greatest strength is the addition of Ramos as superintendent.
“A strong leader at the helm of the district who knows how to balance input with experience and thoughtful decision-making is exactly what we need during this important time in our history,” Pai said. “I also believe a strong board that respects policy governance, which is the board I believe we will be, will be a net positive to the work that needs to be done.”
Lawson-Muhammad agreed that Ramos is a vital component of the district’s anticipated future successes in 2016.
“We have an experienced and energetic superintendent who had demonstrated that he knows how to get the community’s attention on major issues facing the district,” Lawson-Muhammad said. “We have a board in unanimous support of an Access and Equity Policy passed last November that provides clear direction for where we want the district to go. The challenge will of course be in implementation, but I am optimistic that Dr. Ramos is prepared to drive the level of focus necessary while encouraging and incorporating feedback across the board, throughout the process.”
Just as Lawson-Muhammad praised Ramos for engaging the community, Baker feels the district’s greatest asset is the caring residents of South Orange and Maplewood.
“While the past year and a half have been incredibly challenging for our district, this period of transition has resulted in a high level of engagement that — when combined with thoughtfulness and goodwill — will allow us to come together and work through the difficult issues and inequities that have bogged us down,” Baker said.“I think the Education Summit in November embodied that engagement, not to mention the wealth of expertise and generosity that make our towns so unique. We need to harness and maintain that energy, talent and civic engagement in our schools.”