Election Day is Tuesday, November 8, 2022. If you’re still wondering whom to vote for, Village Green has put together a handy round-up of our Election coverage here.
Five community members are running for three seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education this year: Regina Eckert, Nubia Wilson, Bill Gifford, Ritu Pancholy and William Meyer. Eckert, Wilson and Gifford are running on the “Students Come First” ticket. Pancholy and Meyer are running on the “Doing Better, Together” ticket.
This year, after a long hiatus, Village Green put together an “Ask the Candidates” questionnaire in early October. We chose four questions on topics of concern in the South Orange-Maplewood School District and asked the five candidates to respond. All did.
The series included questions on busing/transportation, access & equity, the Superintendent and BOE functionality. We previously published the answers in four separate articles.
Read candidates’ responses to all four questions below.
Read all of Village Green’s election coverage here.
Most importantly, get out and vote!
1. BUSING AND TRANSPORTATION
The elimination of “courtesy busing” as part of the Intentional Integration Plan has led to a spirited discussion in the community. Do you believe the board should work with the towns on a plan to restore eliminated busing in the district? What solutions would you offer to provide safe and equitable transportation (by bus, car or on foot) for all students across the district? How soon do you think those solutions could be in place? How would they be paid for? See our coverage of the busing discussion here.
Yes, I believe the Board should work with the towns to restore eliminated busing as a near term solution. I sincerely appreciate the Board of Estimates being so responsive and plausibly providing a stop gap to this problem. Frankly, this situation was completely avoidable. The community was not genuinely engaged in the decision and no real explanation provided as to why busing was cut in the first place. Furthermore, I view the current Board’s decision to outsource the district’s transportation department, which fired bus drivers and sold our buses as a complete betrayal of the spirit of the Intentional Integration Initiative (III); our buses were the heartbeat of III.
With that said, I do not view subscription busing as a solution and should be considered an absolute last resort. To have families pay for busing services would serve as a double tax on already struggling households. In the long term, the district needs to find funds to provide inhouse transportation. If budgetary concerns are justification for not doing so, we propose a forensic audit so the community can clearly understand where our tax dollars are going.
I have been speaking with many parents in person, over email and on social media about the elimination of courtesy buses. The personal accounts are eye opening to the various family homelife situations that can negatively impact how a child who lives shy of 2 miles from school can get to school efficiently and safely without a bus. Many parents are stressed. I do believe that the Board should re-evaluate hazardous routes and its transportation policies with respect to hardships in policy 8600.
I do not think passing the financial burden on to families through subscription bussing is the answer–especially since those parents were not given the opportunity to say which schools accommodated their lifestyle needs in the first place. I commend the BOE for engaging in budget talks with the South Orange-Maplewood Board of School Estimate to potentially restore transportation for the 2023-2024 school year. In addition, outsourcing our buses has created a lack of control and ongoing dependency issues, such as extreme delays and dropping special needs children off too far from home (versus door-to-door service). If any parent has had an unfortunate transportation situation, please fill out our Community Survey to provide anonymous feedback–we want to hear your stories.
While I commend the BOE and Board of School Estimates for meeting to discuss transportation options for the 2023-24 school year, I am disappointed that these discussions did not occur before changing the policy and that there doesn’t seem to be any indication that there are any potential solutions for the current school year.
I believe integration is long overdue and absolutely necessary for our students and the greater community, when done right, and transportation is a key component in the overarching effort of integration. If elected, I will immediately support changes to the transportation policy for those in hardship and those who are closest to 2.0 miles. If you look at the Berkeley plan, which ours appears to be based on, they provide a bus to all elementary children 1.5 miles from home. In all of the times I’ve been watching Board meetings, I have not seen a utilization report or cost comparison report presented for discussion openly regarding this plan. From what I’ve been hearing from the community, they are seeing a lot of the buses at half capacity and it seems to me there’s an opportunity to help fill those empty seats. I would start with reevaluating hazardous routes, which is in fact a Board responsibility. If new hazardous routes are determined, this could be a starting point to filling some of the empty seats on buses.
I don’t believe that we, the taxpayers, should be expected to fork over more money without first gaining transparency into how the district’s budget was managed. $1.5 Million was added to the transportation budget in consideration of the III in the 2022 budget open meeting, yet transportation was cut back as of recently. We need an audit before we can reasonably ask the community to pay any more in taxes than we already do. Another solution that has been discussed is subscription bussing however I cannot support that either. It would produce situations of unequal treatment – a family could be paying hundreds or up to $1000 per student per year because of the number they were assigned.
Ritu and I have heard the concerns from many in the community regarding struggles getting kids to school. This is an issue that has especially impacted those families whose courtesy transportation ended this year on short notice, and has highlighted a struggle that has existed for years, as that program was not available to many students in the 1-2 mile range, long leaving those parents to their own devices. I support the efforts underway by the district to comprehensively increase transportation. This must be done in an equitable and fiscally responsible manner.
The board tasked the district with creating a plan for a significant increase in transportation to support the Intentional Integration Initiative, which is expected to be presented on March 31, 2023. The big question will be how we pay for it.
The three options available are: 1) find money in our budget by cutting existing expenditures, 2) increase our property taxes, or 3) pass costs along directly to families through a subscription model. None of these are easy or painless proposals.
Despite the high taxes we pay toward our schools, our budget is tight due to our small commercial tax base and our meager state aid. Our school budget rests largely on our own backs, and it is stretched thin already, especially after our overdue pay increase to teachers.
Raising taxes is the “easy” way to pay for increased transportation. But upping our already substantial property tax burden must be balanced against the impact on our towns’ cost of living, which increases pressure on all families. And we must be cognizant of our district’s many programs in need of more funds. Committing to any new recurring expenditure through a tax increase now will impact our budget for years to come, and limit our ability to expand other worthy instructional programs.
Subscription busing would be a welcome model for many families and would limit the budgetary impact on the district, but should only be offered in a manner that is equitable and reasonable, especially on middle income and working class families.
I look forward to reviewing the district’s proposal, and as a board member I will advocate for a thoughtful and balanced plan that accommodates families while ensuring we don’t sacrifice educational services, place undue burdens on our taxpayers, or do anything to impede our critical work to integrate our schools.
I also welcome a holistic approach to managing getting kids to school. Part of the concern parents have raised is dropoff and pickup times. I support the district taking steps with our contractual partners to increase the availability of additional before- and after-care options for our students to ease this pressure.
Lastly, I have heard many concerns by parents regarding hazardous walking routes, as well as safety of dropoff spaces around our schools. These are serious concerns that require the assistance of our town governments to address. I support ongoing discussions between the board, district, and towns to make travel to school safer for all our students.
I empathize with the families and students in our town who have been impacted by recurring and new transportation issues. My running mate Will Meyer and I have heard concerns related to delayed notification of bus routes, concern about bus arrival timings, and students placed on the wrong bus. Many of these experiences happen to our most vulnerable children who may have special needs.
We also heard from families impacted by the elimination of their courtesy busing on short notice. This has highlighted the inequity of the former courtesy busing policy as well as brought an overall focus on student transportation issues in our broader community. I support the current Board’s goal to review the district’s transportation policy and examine the options for increased transportation for our students. This review is necessary to ensure that transportation is provided to families and students in an equitable and fiscally responsible manner. We also need to change the way in which we respond to families’ concerns about transportation in our district by adopting a customer focused experience.
The board is currently tasked with examining how to create a plan (by March 31, 2023) for increasing transportation that supports our Intentional Integration Initiative. Although approximately sixty percent of our local property taxes are dedicated to our schools, historically our budget has been constrained by the fact that we do not have a large commercial tax base and our state aid is limited. It is difficult for our community to continue to shoulder the increasing tax burden in our community. I look forward to learning from the Thursday (Oct, 6th) Board of School Estimate meeting the different options the district may consider including: (1) cutting expenditures in the future to cover the increased cost of transportation; (2) increasing our property taxes over the cap to cover the cost of increased transportation; or (3) considering a subscription model that allows for families who need transportation to opt into the service. There are no easy solutions and I anticipate that the Board will have to reach a compromise that equitably serves our students.
At the same time I believe we must ask more from our towns’ elected leaders in terms of addressing our increasing traffic and pedestrian safety issues, because these issues impact our students’ ability to safely walk or bike to and from school. For example, we need to ask our towns to fund and increase the presence of crossing guards at congested throughways throughout our district. We should also ask for more creativity around how to increase the efficiency around drop off and pick up at each of our schools by working together with our elected leaders at the town level and at the police level to create traffic patterns that are safe for all. Everyone in the community should be working together to address pedestrian safety, especially as it relates to student safety.
2. ACCESS & EQUITY
“A Tale of Two Schools.”: A recent presentation at the BOE showed that more Black students failed fourth marking period classes at Columbia High School than did students from any other ethnic group, and data provided by school officials suggest that interventions in place are not providing enough support to reverse that direction. Do you support the current interventions? Would you tweak or supplement them in any way? Would you offer other solutions? See our coverage of the presentation here.
As the question aptly points out, Columbia High School (CHS) has long produced different outcomes for different students. The data presented at the August 2022 Board meeting in regards to Black students at CHS was alarming, but also not unforeseeable as previous NJ School Performance Reports have demonstrated that a disproportionate number of Black students have struggled at CHS. The Board, and the community should receive annual reports with this level of specificity from the administration because without this data we cannot assess our progress. We need to apply an intersectional lens to student outcomes, collecting similar data for other vulnerable groups at CHS, such as neurodivergent and special needs students. It is critical that we continue to ask for data to be segmented and presented in this manner.
I support innovative approaches in education because a modernized school district should be able to implement and test strategies for student growth as part of a continuous feedback loop that allows us to fine tune solutions. An example of this innovation was presented in August by Dr. Jane Bean-Folkes, the K-12 ELA Supervisor. Dr. Bean-Folkes presented the STAR Renaissance Reading data and the risk levels across demographics, and used that data to highlight the development of a freshman humanities pilot program.
The humanities cohort was created to support students with the goal of preparing students for higher level courses. The teachers were committed to the expectation that no student would fail. By creating a micro community within a big school, teachers were able to deepen their relationships with students and better support them as individuals. Student input into book selection, as well as the extra support available during free periods, were key aspects of the program. Research shows that student success is often dependent on the culture and climate in a school and when a student builds a strong and positive relationship with an adult in the school that relationship ultimately results in markedly improved outcomes for that student.
Early indicators suggest this pilot is working. If elected I would work with the Board to support the expansion of this type of pilot across the curriculum. The work of closing the gaps in student outcomes at CHS, is in part in the cultivation of culture and programs where students are uniquely seen and individually supported and teachers are supported with the pedagogical training they need to support a diverse student population to thrive.
The pass/fail data from Columbia High School that was disclosed by the district in August was alarming and unacceptable. This trend has been in place for decades, as a review of years of NJ School Performance Reports (https://rc.doe.state.nj.us/2020-2021/school/detail/13/4900/030/overview) will confirm. The data also surely reflected the severe educational trauma that our students, especially the historically underserved, faced as a result of Covid. And we cannot forget the many heartbreaking student stories shared just two years ago by the Black at SOMSD project. (https://www.instagram.com/blackatsomsd/)
It is abundantly clear that much more needs to be done to break us out of these entrenched patterns of low expectations and disparate academic outcomes for our Black students.
One glimmer of hope is the fact that this presentation of specific data from CHS came at the request of the BOE. This is an example of the kind of supervision of the superintendent and district that is most necessary: precise requests for data, which prompt transparency and responsive solutions. As we target the education debt among Black students, regular reporting on statistics will be essential to monitor progress.
The district has put numerous academic interventions in place to support at-risk CHS students, including Cougar Academy, SLAM Lab, a trial of honors humanities cohorts for at-risk 9th graders, after school interventions, and tutoring services (in addition to the supports available through special education and I&RS).
Several of these interventions have been introduced just in the past few years and their rollouts were impacted by the pandemic. We need to encourage and foster innovation in our schools and, importantly, give these programs the resources needed to prove themselves, including through adequate teacher staffing. One of the greatest tools we have to foster student success is the forging of meaningful connections between a student and a teacher they know has their back. The ability to create small class groupings for increased intensive academic supports during the school day will facilitate these connections and ensure the level of attention necessary to nurture academic success.
Just as important as academic interventions are continued efforts to support our Black students’ emotional wellbeing. This includes having adequate and culturally-competent counseling services available and looking at innovative ways to merge this social-emotional support with academics during the school day, rather than structuring it as a separate entity, which can be stigmatizing and reduce engagement.
Finally, while it is imperative to address the critical needs of students in CHS right now, we must also be preparing younger cohorts of Black students for success at CHS by improving their experience in lower grades. The lopsided demographic disparities that persist in the elementary and middle schools likely contribute to the strained and inequitable outcomes we see at CHS now. We must ensure the Intentional Integration Initiative continues forward and is successful in its goal of creating inclusive classrooms and strong student expectations in all our schools.
I’ve heard that the “Tale of Two Schools” has existed for a while now but it was pretty sobering to see the presentation during the August 25th BOE meeting. Across all cohorts, outcomes have declined – but the impact has been especially harmful to Black and Hispanic students. It’s unclear when interventions start for a student and I wonder if we’re not catching it early enough? Are we engaging with the teachers and staff to get their input and ideas around potential solutions? They are on the front lines with our students and I imagine would have valuable feedback to share.
What is clear to me is that the current interventions are not working and I’m not seeing the Superintendent putting forth solutions and a budget in place to reverse the direction. It’s very concerning to me that we’ve had 3 different Asst. Superintendents of Curriculum and Instruction in the short time that my 2nd grader has been in elementary school.
It’s also evident that we’re not paying enough attention at the K-5 level when we continually see the issues at the high school level persist. Logic will tell you that the gap increases as time goes on and I’m not seeing enough curricular attention given to the earliest years. While this isn’t necessarily relevant when discussing the above CHS outcomes, it certainly plays a role in the larger conversations around integration and the missing supports to ensure its success.
It is great that the District is tracking Pass/Fail rates for Columbia High School students to track the achievement gap, but I was disappointed that the presentation lacked a sense of urgency to address this issue before students enter high school. We need to receive more feedback from the students and teachers. For example, one of the interventions is 9th period teacher conference hour, which is not mandatory for those who are failing. How many students are actually attending regularly? Some students go and some do not. Do students who attend find them helpful? Are they getting enough 1:1 attention in 9th period? If they are skipping them, why? Do students feel their individual needs and learning styles are not being supported? If we do not have these answers for the solutions we are providing, then we need to dig deeper into the problem by asking students for their feedback. From there, we can develop a more personalized intervention plan that meets the unique needs of the student, which will then offer a roadmap for students to follow and teachers to support. We also believe vocational and technical education and training should be brought back to Columbia.
We pulled out the Pass/Fail data on our website, so that people could conveniently see that Hispanic and Mixed Race students had some high fail rates, as well. The data also failed to pull out which students have IEPs, which should be mandatory to include, so that we can track their progress in high school, as well.
Unfortunately, “A Tale of Two Schools” has been a reality in our district for many years. In my time at Columbia, a rigid tracking system was literally segregating the school with Black students making up over 90% of lowest level classes. Today, the data shows we are continuing to underserve our Black students as is clear with the high fail rates we see across classes and grades. Clearly, current interventions are not working.
At the High School, we need to provide students with more choices. We must bring back a 21st century vo-tech program that speaks to the burgeoning green economy. An alternative program is necessary to better serve our under credited, over-age students. Beyond that we need to start finding solutions early at the elementary level. This means guaranteeing universal Pre-K for all our children and supporting our young students that are struggling with interventions like individualized instruction and tutoring. Many of the current interventions do not have enough support or lack teeth to be effective. We need to look at the data, and construct a blueprint that will finally give students and families the resources they need to succeed.
4. BOARD OF EDUCATION GOVERNANCE AND FUNCTION/PERFORMANCE
At its last retreat, the BOE called its own performance “less than adequate” on measures including how it communicates with each other and the community. What do you believe is the biggest issue with how the current board operates, and how do you believe that issue might be addressed? See Village Green’s coverage of the retreat here.
A dysfunctional board equates to a dysfunctional school district. When watching the BOE meetings, it is apparent that there is a lack of respect. There is no camaraderie between all members, so how can they cultivate trust? Without trust, there is no foundation to build upon for a strong team. Relationship building is necessary inside and outside of the District Meeting Room. If I were on the Board, I would go out of my way to have face time with my fellow members regularly, and get to know them better to understand their values, their ideas and their motivation for sacrificing hours of their lives to this volunteer position. The BOE members are more than just a group of people who state “Yes” or “No” votes. They are concerned neighbors and parents who want to impact positive change–but that alone cannot cultivate trust or create a functional board. We need BOE members who are going to make collaboration a priority, no matter which slate they were running on when they campaigned. We also need members who are open to hearing one another’s opinions. When you bring your own biases to the table and fail to truly listen to (and consider) your fellow members’ perspectives, you are doing the entire community a disservice.
Our Board of Education is currently hamstrung by the dual problems of culture and perception, and we must work on both for the health of our community.
At times it has felt like we can’t get through a single BOE meeting without a conflagration between members igniting and dominating the headlines and social media the next day. This absolutely needs to stop. As board members we need to be modeling the teamwork and conflict resolution skills we would like to instill in our students, which requires each person to demonstrate respect for their fellow members and for the established ground rules for our meetings. We will not always agree on every decision but we must agree to the decision-making process.
These headlines are regrettable as well because they overshadow the legitimate, important work of the board, and the productive collaboration that all nine members engage in most of the time, at public meetings and in committee. We must always keep in mind that the board is composed of unpaid community members who have devoted countless hours to the often thankless task of ensuring the well running of our school system and addressing problems as they arise.
As three new members join the Board, addressing these dual concerns of culture and perception must be a focus this year. And both come down to trust. Board members must feel confident that everyone is prepared to engage in good faith discussions. We should create opportunities for building camaraderie off the dias as well, much as our town governments have been able to do. We must also commit to better communication and disclosure, becoming more intentional as a board, in collaboration with district administration and legal counsel, to “show our work“ to the greatest degree possible. This is necessary to instill greater public confidence in the board’s actions.
In my legal career I go head to head with the same small group of opponents on a daily basis over the course of hundreds of cases, and it is crucial that I advocate forcefully while also maintaining productive relationships for the future. I’m proud to have built lasting collegial relationships and even friendships across the aisle as a result. Ritu likewise is steeped in the practice of fostering constructive engagement between colleagues even in strained environments. Our skill sets will pay dividends on the board in facilitating productive discourse.
Ritu and I are also similar in that we are devoted to consensus-building but are not easily led. We are running for the BOE together because we have complementary skills to bring to the board, and many years of insight and professional experience in education. We are each committed to independently voting our conscience and collaborating with all of our colleagues to reach the right decisions.
The current Board is defined by dysfunction. It has been reported that the Board President has publicly bullied fellow Board members, using intimidation to govern rather than collaboration. Just as troubling is the lack of transparency, as information seems to be withheld from Board members that do not fall in line with the majority. We’ve seen these problems come to a head with one Board member resigning, and others filing ethic charges against one another for harassment.
The biggest issue we see is the degradation of discourse. Our primary job as Board members is to make informed decisions that best serve our students. We cannot do that if information is siloed and Board members are afraid to speak honestly.
Like all organizations and institutions, from time to time people struggle with conflict and expressing themselves in a productive manner. As school board members and community members, we have the added responsibility to model for our children how to resolve conflict and work toward our common goals.
My company, Culturupt, is actually hired frequently to train on this very topic; we conduct trainings on conflict in the workplace and building a respectful culture of inclusion. In general, when I am coaching on this subject for organizations and companies, I remind people that effective communication is 80% listening and 20% talking or speaking. Our communication styles are derived from our parents and community, our mentors and teachers, negative and positive reinforcement we have received in work relationships, and because of the intrinsic personalities we have as individuals. It is important for us to be aware of our own style, but also respect and make room for other people’s communication styles. For example, I am a very direct person, but others are not, and I need to be aware of that.
As an attorney I know how useful it is to be presented with the other side, to look at an issue from multiple angles, to open my eyes to new ideas, to promote growth and learning on issues. “Listen to learn, not listen so that I can speak again.” I commit to continuing to be an independent thinker, to listen to others, to learn from our history, to research and listen to experts, and to work with my colleagues to ensure we develop a consensus on the questions we are asking the administration to answer.
To honor that commitment, I would work with my colleagues to review the Board Bylaws on Committees and define communication expectations between committee chairs and the rest of the board. I would also work toward revising the Annual Agenda Planning policy to include a clear process to allow board members to recommend additions to the annual agenda, which drives the monthly agendas. I would also want to work with my colleagues to ensure we take time to review the Code of Governance Best Practices document the board adopted on the recommendation of NJSBA and define a common understanding of exemplars of those best practices. With that work I would feel very comfortable and I think there would be agreement among board colleagues that these frameworks would encourage spirited debate about the issues to drive positive change and iteration for the benefit of our students.
The biggest issues that I see with our current board is the lack of transparency, lack of respect and lack of consensus building. As a community member, it has been extremely disappointing that there doesn’t seem to be a willingness for open discussion and different perspectives, that members of our governing body have filed a number of ethics charges against each other in recent years, that a Board member resigned because she felt her voice was marginalized by other members. While I find it encouraging that the Board members were honest in their self-evaluations, actions speak louder than words and I have yet to see anything change since then. Perhaps there’s been an improvement behind closed doors in committee meetings, in fact, I hope that is the case. However, the most recent Board meeting held on September 29, 2022 led to a caustic shouting match and it’s obvious to me that there’s still so much work to be done. As a community member, a parent in the District, that’s not what I want to see, that’s not who I am.
Collaboration and a greater degree of transparency is essential to help build consensus and trust. We need Board members to come to meetings prepared to ensure productive conversations. And while I appreciate that some Board members ask the right questions during presentations, many of these questions can be asked in advance of the meeting, presuming the reports are shared with Board members prior to. If we expect the communication from the Board to our community to improve, it first needs to start from within.