Collum Gives Kudos to — and a Recap of — All 8 South Orange-Maplewood BOE Candidates

The following was posted by South Orange Village President Sheena Collum on Facebook and is published here with her permission. Read or see more about the candidates by clicking on the links to reach their candidate statements: Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker and running mate Robin Johnson BakerShannon CuttleFelisha George and Avery Julien (running mates), Anthony MazzocchiSheila Shidnia, and incumbent Donna Smith. The eight candidates are vying for three seats. Election day is November 7.

Today’s #SOKudos goes to all the candidates for the SOMSD Board of Education. Disclaimer – I’m not officially endorsing anyone but would like to share my personal perspective on people I know, people I’ve met and what I’ve observed throughout this campaign season. I type this as I listen to the last debate I wasn’t able to attend.

Before I begin, I believe every candidate on the ballot has the best interest of students and the district as a whole in their hearts. I won’t be convinced otherwise and I’m embarrassed for us as two towns having watched and read some of the vitriol that has brought out some of the worst in people. So to the candidates – keep doing what you’re doing, keep focus on what you can bring to the Board of Education, and don’t let any voices diminish you, rise above it.

In alphabetical order of last name:

Elizabeth Baker – Didn’t know you before you were first elected, but I’m glad we were able to form a partnership and friendship during your term. Municipalities and Board of Educations typically don’t coordinate very well. Many folks probably don’t know that you led the effort to bring the towns and BOE closer together and as a result, we’ve worked together on many issues of joint interest including: the strategic planning process for the schools, budget, land use, health, and public safety. Thank you for thinking holistically about the schools and not being afraid to reach out to folks for help and guidance.

Robin Baker – Met you for the first time at the Newstead Block Party this year. I have a great deal of admiration for someone who served previously and is putting themselves forward (again) for the betterment of all children. “Bridging divides and building consensus” isn’t easy but you’ve made it the bedrock of so much that you’ve shared about your vision for the BOE moving forward. Thank you for understanding the value of collaboration.

Shannon SafeSchools Cuttle – Met you at a SOMA Dems event and knew right away you were a great asset for our towns. You speak frequently about “climate and culture”, particularly as it relates to students having a safe place to learn and thrive – especially marginalized youth. You’ve raised issues about the schools that has led me to rethink certain things we do as a municipality as well. I’ve already learned a lot from listening to you and learning from you. Thank you for bringing and putting forth your national, state and local expertise to the district (and beyond).

Felisha George – I see a lot of myself in you. I met you when you were leading a BLM march. I was riding in a police vehicle and you were at the front of the line. I got out to march with you and you impressed me so much. You made me feel like the world could be conquered. I didn’t have the courage to run for office at your age – but you do. Not only have you put yourself out there, you’ve shared your very personal stories with all of us of feeling inadequate and not supported to be the best you could be – so you had to find another way. You’ve parlayed your experiences into directly wanting to make sure other students don’t feel inadequate. Thank you for sending the message the “sky is the limit” for all students and being a role model to them.

Avery Julien – I got to shake your hand for the first time while moderating a debate. You are incredibly passionate to say the least and by being a recent graduate, you’ve been able to share with the community boots on the ground knowledge of the real student experience. I’ve witnessed you at rallies and debates and you exude strength and student empowerment. You’ve continuously advocated the role students need to play in policy decisions made by the board. Adults often speak to themselves and I recall you at one of the debates asking “where have you been?” drawing attention to the various events where students speak and adults are noticeably absent. Thank you for being a voice by students for students.

Anthony J. Mazzocchi – Met you a few times and have followed you since your candidacy last year. Some people lose an election, feel defeated and move on. You, have not – and I think that’s a testament to your character and sets a great example to kids. I like hearing about your innovation platform, particularly as it relates to budget constraints. We don’t have to throw more of the same resources at a problem, we need to rethink the tools and measure their effectiveness. I also agree that “one-dimensional” curriculum doesn’t define student success as students should have vast opportunities to excel and define success in different ways. Thank you for thinking outside the box.

Sheila Shidnia – Met you for the first time at the Academy Heights NA Block Party and have followed your candidacy through the debates. You are very much a parent advocate and with each answer you provide you bring light to the challenges faced by parents or guardians navigating a complex system. You’ve advocated for greater transparency and communication so that parents aren’t just given information but understand the information that is being provided to them so that they and their children are making the best choices for his/her/their educational experience. Thank you for advocating various ways the district can better inform and involve parents and guardians along with their children.

Donna Shira Smith – Met you over a decade ago and have considered you a close friend ever since. You had no problem being friends with someone as young as I was when we first met. I learned from you and hopefully you learned some things from me. You put no limitations on who you associate with – you always welcome everyone to the conversation and can be found virtually everywhere. You are a budget hawk (which I relate with) and what I admire most about you is your listening skills and accessibility. Often you may go under the radar because you process information and then speak and don’t every try to speak over others. Your work ethic is tremendous and isn’t grounded in sound bites but rather analysis and balancing different viewpoints. Thank you for being measured in your approach to difficult issues, diplomatic and accessible.

So those are my Saturday morning thoughts and in closing, I think we’re very fortunate to have eight dedicated, smart and passionate people willing to volunteer their time to all of us. Good luck to everyone. Election day is Tuesday, November 7 and I encourage all voters to read platforms, attend events, watch debates and reach out to the candidates themselves.

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