Election Maplewood Opinion Schools / Kids South Orange

Navarro: Challenges and Opportunities in Current South Orange-Maplewood Superintendent Search

The following is from South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education candidate Bruno J. Navarro, one of 8 candidates running for one of three seats up for election on November 6.

At the second of two updates on the superintendent search for the South Orange-Maplewood School District earlier this month, Dr. William Librera highlighted some of the critical characteristics the community needs in its next educational leader.

“When you have a community with a growing pop — and it’s got going to stop — and you have a community where there is a very active increases [in property values], that’s telling you something,” said Librera, the executive director of West Hudson Associates and former state education commissioner, who was hired by the district as a search consultant.

Librera said called the work that the district has done over the past year — including the long-term facilities plan to address maintenance and overcrowding issues — “pretty impressive,” adding that such an initiative would likely be viewed positively by an incoming superintendent.

“The decision, I think, was if we’re going to try to do this one school at a time, we’re going to do this in a perpetual cycle,” he said. “You’ve got to get rid of these trailers, and part of the infrastructure plan is to add space to eliminate that. Those are things that are valuable.”

A look at the district’s facilities plan makes it clear that critical maintenance has been put off for far too long — and the report itself contains pictures of a caved-in ceiling, rotting window frames, crumbling concrete steps and a boiler that looks like it’s from the 1800s.

During a recent candidates forum, I made the point that we don’t put up with such problems in our own homes. Just as we don’t wait to repair a leaky house roof until the ceiling caves in, nor should we put it off when our children’s classrooms fail basic standards of usability.

Librera also spoke of desirable leadership characteristics for our next superintendent.

“This has got to be a person who can lead and work with teachers, principals and administrators,” he said, adding that the next person in the role would have to prioritize, as well. “The important things have to be not so huge in number that they can’t get to them all.”

Top candidates for the position should also have a track record of success, and those “who have done great work, who have shown what you can do with your people, doing things that other places can’t or won’t do,” Librera said.

The SOMSD superintendent position is “not going to work for someone who thinks they can keep the status quo. They need to have a track record of doing really important work.”

Yet the other component is eliciting community buy-in for the district’s initiatives.

“The first and most important role of a superintendent is the development of children,” Librera said. “But you can’t have a successful community when you’re only going to be concerned about that population.”

Librara noted that the average population percentage of any community without school-age children is 80 percent, making it critical that a superintendent needs to work with the broader community than just parents. Otherwise, he added, “That’s an unhealthy place.”

The SOMSD survey on the superintendent search received about 220 responses the first week, from which he will write a report summarizing the findings, Librera said. And it could easily surpass 40 pages.

Lastly, Librera called out one issue with district: “The communication here is not very good.” The measure of whether a district has good communication, he added, was whether parents felt they were well informed, and here he found SOMSD lacking.

As a journalist for the better part of two decades, I came to this conclusion as well after less than one year with a child in the district. The measure of any well-run organization lies in part with its transparency and its communications strategy, an issue that led me to run for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education. I’ve written about some of the considerations SOMSD must take into account with regard to transparency.

While our school district is at a crossroads, it is also an opportunity to move our educational system with an eye toward the 21st century and to achieve a broad-based approach to the development of all children to help them reach their potential to succeed and to thrive.

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