Five community members are running for three seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education this year.
The candidates are: 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.
As the Candidate Forums are taking place late in the election cycle (especially given early voting and vote-by-mail), Village Green put together four questions for candidates on different topics of interest in the South Orange-Maplewood School District. We know there can often be numerous questionnaires during the election cycle, but we hope these questions will provide voters with additional information on candidates, well before Election Day.
We asked each of the five candidates to respond individually to each question. We asked them to limit each answer to 500 words or less. We are publishing each response in full and unedited.
Read candidates’ responses to the question about busing and transportation here, to access & equity here and the performance of the superintendent of schools here.
The fourth and final question is about the governance and functionality of the Board of Education itself.
Read all of Village Green’s election coverage here.
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.