South Orange-Maplewood BOE Race Takes Negative Turn With 4-Page Flier

A four-page flier distributed this weekend by the SOMA Black Parents Workshop takes aim at the two incumbent candidates in the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education election.

Some local residents have taken to online forums to call the tactic to campaign negatively “not typical” and “disappointing.”

Walter Fields, the director of Black Parents Workshop stands by the flier and says it is within the bounds of the Black Parent Workshop’s rights as an advocacy organization: “We did not, nor have we, endorsed any candidates in the race. What we did do was critique the records of the two incumbent candidates and make clear our lack of confidence in their leadership. We also encouraged voters to go to the polls and support a new direction for the district on November 7. … We welcome anyone to challenge the facts we laid out in our critique of the incumbents.”

Fields is also campaign manager for two candidates, Felisha George and Avery Julien. Fields says that his work for BPW and for the campaign are not connected.

George and Julien declined to comment for this story.

The flier opens with a front page that resembles a newspaper with “Election Edition” stamped near the top. Photos of incumbent candidates Elizabeth Baker and Donna Smith appear above a list of bullet points criticizing their tenure on the Board of Education. (See the full flier below.) Though both incumbents, Elizabeth Baker, who is President of the Board, and Smith are not running mates; Elizabeth Baker is running with former South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Robin Johnson Baker.

When asked to comment, Elizabeth Baker forwarded the following statement (first reported in TAPintoSOMA.net):

“While I take issue with the statements made that intentionally misstate my record on the Board and ignore my decades long track record of fighting for racial, social and economic justice, I take very seriously the community’s frustration with decades of inequity and outdated practices that have held students back and undermined the climate in our schools.”

Baker continued, “I share that frustration and impatience. That is why I ran for the Board three years ago and why I am running again. And that is why i have spent the last two plus years fighting for change and driving the work forward on the Board and in the district.   Change cannot come fast enough but change does not come by accident. It takes intentional work and leadership – even when darts are thrown. It takes the courage and skill to work with others who disagree with you and forge a path forward. I am doing this work and am committed to doing the right thing by our students and community at every turn.”

Robin Johnson Baker sent the following statement to Village Green:

“It’s unfortunate that the tenor of this campaign has dipped this low.
“Much of the piece that has precipitated this response is misleading at best and in some instances just untrue. I hope that voters will take the time to evaluate each candidate on their actual records and what they say they intend to do if elected.
“I’ve taken the time to understand what’s happened in the district and what Elizabeth has accomplished in her first term. She shares my values and my deep concern about educational equity. Our platform at boe2017.com encompasses what we believe needs to happen in the coming years to move the district forward.  I’m proud to be running with Elizabeth Baker and urge voters to re-elect her to the Board of Education.”

Donna Smith also sent the statement that she also submitted to TAPintoSOMA:

“The Board of Education election is an opportunity to elect fellow community members who are willing to devote their personal time and efforts to our students and community. Increasingly, however, the election has been used to display a growing ugliness and divisiveness in our community through character assassination and deliberate mis-information.”

“We can do better as a community,” wrote Smith.

“I am proud of my record of service to the community and will continue to talk about the important issues that voters care about such as academic excellence, equitable opportunities toward college and career for all students, facilities planning, the search for a new superintendent, and managing our tax burden more wisely.  We have been discussing these issues for the past few months and I am happy to discuss them with any voter in the coming days. I look forward to the election on Tuesday.”

Smith wrote that she wished “Felisha and Julian good luck on Tuesday. I encourage them to use their own voices, to continue to advocate for students whether it be on the BOE or in partnership with the Board, and to not allow adults with malicious agendas to overtake their agenda and platform.”

Candidate Anthony Mazzocchi, who has been endorsed by George and Julien, responded online to commenters who asked whether or not he supported the flier (Mazzocchi approved that Village Green use those comment here):

“I’m proudly running a completely independent campaign again. Completely. Independent. That said, I had a meet and greet with Donna a few nights ago. We had a discussion which included items we agreed on and some other tense moments where I disagreed with many approaches to governance the past few years. ”

Mazzocchi noted, “I’m proud that Felisha and Avery support me. Really proud. I’ll spend time with them tomorrow to talk about our commonalities. Guess what? We will disagree on things, too. There are issues I’ve clearly agreed with all candidates on — and there are disagreements. While I am outspoken on issues I’m passionate about, I’m averse to mud slinging. To each their own.

“My message has been clear, honest, consistent, and well-documented,” wrote Mazzocchi, “We need common ground in this district now more than ever before. Good luck to all the candidates.”

South Orange Village President Sheena Collum later weighed in on the flier through a post on Facebook where she tagged Village Green. Collum wrote in part: “This is wrong and sometimes to remain silent is to consent. I don’t condone the divisive nature or statements made in this piece about our fellow community members Donna Shira Smith and Elizabeth Baker, two women whom I admire and respect…. they deserve better than that and their records of service shouldn’t be minimized to sound bites a couple days before an important election.”

Collum continued, “The challenges in our school district are big and I don’t want to minimize the shortcomings. There have been failures to achieve desired outcomes for all students but no two people alone are responsible. In fact, I could make a great argument that we’re all responsible.” Collum added that “there is more that unites us than divides us” and that “even the group that circulated this piece – they have dedicated people at the helm and are also working to improve the educational outcomes for all students.”

Steve Mershon, campaign manager for candidate Shannon Cuttle, responded that he would not be commenting for this story. Cuttle and candidate Sheila Shidnia had not yet responded to email requests for comment at the time of posting.

According to IRS.gov, “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

However, Fields says that BPW is operating within its legal rights: “The Black Parents Workshop is not currently a 501c3 organization. We will be filing for that designation in January. We are incorporated as a not for profit by the state of New Jersey. The newsletter is perfectly within the bounds of our role as an advocacy organization. We did not, nor have we, endorsed any candidates in the race. What we did do was critique the records of the two incumbent candidates and make clear our lack of confidence in their leadership. We also encouraged voters to go to the polls and support a new direction for the district on November 7. In fact, we included the official sample ballot with all the candidates on the last page, with no alterations to it or any display of preference for any candidate.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated with quotes from Robin Johnson Baker and Sheena Collum, who were contacted before publication for comment.

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