On October 20, the Hilton Neighborhood Association hosted the five candidates vying for three positions on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education for its annual candidates forum. Election day is November 2, 2021. The candidates are Shannon Cuttle (incumbent), William Rodriguez, Qawi Telesford, Arun Vadlamani and Kaitlin Wittleder. Terms are for three years.
Moderated by former SOMSD teacher Suzanne Ryan, the forum featured opening statements, closing statements and answers to eight questions on topics ranging from the recently passed moratorium on suspensions, the resignation of a BOE member, the superintendent’s new contract, classroom ventilations, teacher retention and more.
Here are the eight questions with time stamps:
- Last year, with COVID starts, stops, misinformation, miscommunication, no communication and lack of transparency between the Board of Education and the community how would propose and plan to rebuild trust between staff, central office, the citizens in the community and the Board of Education? (Answers begin at 14:50 with Will Rodriguez.)
- One BOE member [Kamal Zubieta] resigned a few months ago citing lack of respect and professionalism from her fellow board members. Published emails corroborated her concerns. How will you improve civility and respect to create a stable, better functioning and respectful school board? And candidate Cuttle, as the only incumbent, with your answer could you please speak specifically to what you have done to address these concerns. For all other candidates, please specify what you would to address this issue. (Answers begin at 24:37 with Kaitlin Wittleder.)
- The BOE recently extended the superintendent contract and provided an increase in salary while giving the public only a few hours to review and comment. This was also done at the end of the meeting. [Editor’s note: The superintendent contract hearing and vote took place at the beginning of the September BOE meeting; the contract was never publicly released by the district but was posted by Village Green after being obtained through an Open Public Records Act request.] In your estimation is this good policy? (Answers begin at 34:00 with Arun Vadlamani.)
- On Monday night the BOE voted to make a sweeping policy change to eliminate student suspensions for a year without putting the resolution on the agenda or giving the public any opportunity to see the resolution let alone comment on it, and then without any consideration for input of teachers or building administrators. Do you agree or disagree with this type of leadership practice? (Answers begin at 42:30 with Shannon Cuttle.)
- Last year, 2020-2021, the Board communicated to the community that HEPA filters were installed throughout district classrooms. This was not the case as our current antiquated ventilations systems are not or were not able to support them. In this same safety vein, the district purchased thousands of dollars of N95 masks and only the nurses have been supplied with them. Teachers and support staff have not. In light of these aberrations how do you propose to build trust between staff, community and the board of education? (Answers begin at 52:08 with Qawi Telesford.)
- Do you think the elementary school integration plan should be revised in any way to support an appeal process for families who find the plan difficult to manage in terms of family life issues such as child care concerns, before and after school care, the ability to support transport across town before and after school, or conflict for parents who are working? (Answers start at 1:02:12 with Kaitlin Wittleder.)
- South Orange-Maplewood School District has a teacher retention crisis. Every year for the past several years between 60 and 80 teachers leave their positions to include teachers who are tenured. Job satisfaction, low morale, and compensation are significant factors that influence this attrition. Additionally looking at neighboring districts, SOMSD significantly lags behind West Orange, Montclair and Millburn. In fact, an SOSMD educator with a MA plus 30 additional credit is currently paid less than what a MA plus 30 credit teacher was paid in Millburn 11 years ago. Specifically how will you (1) increase job satisfaction for our teachers, (2) raise morale, (3) raise salaries to be commensurate with neighboring districts? (Answers begin at 1:13:35 with Qawi Telesford.)
- Positivity is great and wanting to run on all positive ideas is laudable. But what about our school district’s failure or failures that spurred you to run for this position? What spec will you do to remediate the issue or issues you have addressed or identified? (Answers begin at 1:24:18 with Arun Vadlamani.)