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 first question about busing and transportation here, and to access & equity here.
The third question is about evaluating the performance of the superintendent of schools.
Read all of Village Green’s election coverage here.
EVALUATING THE SUPERINTENDENT
One of the BOE’s main jobs is to set goals for and evaluate the Superintendent. As a BOE member, what are your expectations for the performance of the Superintendent? In what specific areas do you believe that Dr. Taylor has met or exceeded expectations, and in what specific areas do you believe he has not met expectations? What goals would you like to see put in place for the Supt. to reach or be evaluated on?
It’s impossible to properly evaluate the Superintendent since I’m not a current BOE member. And while I don’t see what goes on behind-the-scenes, I don’t see evidence that the Board is holding him accountable. What I can give is my perspective as a community member, and one that has been watching the Board and District very closely over the past few years.
I’ll start with our teachers and staff, the lifeline to our schools. One of the 2021-22 District Goals spoke to staff recruitment, retention and development. I’ve heard from teachers in the community that morale is extremely low, that they feel as if they don’t have a voice in any critical decisions being made. Let’s also not forget that students felt the repercussions of the stalled contract negotiations, contributing to low morale and leading to teachers leaving for nearby districts for better pay (source). We started off the current school year with almost 40 teacher/staff vacancies; I personally was disappointed to see that staff retention isn’t a 2022-23 District Goal. There’s still a lot of work to be done. We need to be doing a better job of ensuring our staff feels respected and valued by the central office.
Another District Goal included leading the Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP), which is a huge undertaking and the Superintendent should be recognized for getting that off the ground. While expected with any construction project, there have been delays and an increase in costs but the District needs to do a better job with communication and also needs to ensure they keep a close eye on the budget; earlier this year we were about $500K over budget and may possibly need $5M additional to cover unbudgeted and unexpected costs.
I was disappointed that the 2021-22 Kindergarten class, the first cohort of the Intentional Integration Initiative (III), were never surveyed about their experience. Two surveys are included in this year’s goals and I expect that they will be administered in a timely fashion and results shared with the community after the data has been analyzed. Perhaps we could have made changes to improve the transportation policy for the current year if we had received community feedback? It’s impossible to tell without the data so I can only hope that this year’s goals are followed through.
If elected, I will ensure that the Board as a whole is holding the Superintendent accountable and following through on all District goals. It almost seems as if a mid-year review is too late to be evaluating against goals so I would propose a more frequent cadence for tracking. An employee is only as good as their leadership and I believe in guiding and coaching the Superintendent in a constructive way that supports his growth and development.
As I am not a current BOE member who is behind the scenes with the Superintendent regularly, I cannot adequately evaluate him. As an outsider, I will say that I am very concerned that the Board self-evaluated itself a score of 1.8 out of 4.0 for overall functionality. Research shows that if a school board is not functional, the Superintendent cannot excel.
The 2021-22 District goals included leading the $160M multi-year construction project under the Long Range Facilities Plan, and I do commend the Superintendent for keeping us up to date with video recaps on the District website and for prioritizing opening school on time this fall. With that said, I am very concerned that we are over budget and still need millions of additional dollars to complete the project.
I am also concerned about the turnover among staff and teachers in the District. We started the 2022-23 school year with more than 30 teacher openings and a 2021-22 District goal was to increase retention and develop a welcoming and affirming environment for staff. Unlike this academic school year, the 2022-23 District goals do not include a staff recruitment/retention/development section, which is worrisome as we seem to be detracting teachers versus attracting them. We need ongoing goals in place for staff and teacher retention.
The District was supposed to distribute two parent surveys to the first cohort of the Intentional Integration Initiative (III), but failed to do so, which is disappointing and a huge red flag. I know the District has said III has been a success–and I am supportive of integrating our schools–but I question what they are using to evaluate that success. How are we delivering “a diverse curriculum to students” (as the plan states) and what are the benchmarks of student success? Those items have not been well communicated to parents, and I believe they should be in order for the III to be deemed a success overall.
If I were a BOE member, I would dedicate myself to supporting the Superintendent’s leadership through advice and counsel (but not coddle), referencing the NJ School Boards Association ethics regulations for guidance. Holding the Superintendent and administration accountable for implementing the goals properly is also very important. Lastly, leadership today looks very different from years past, and research shows that it is Emotional Intelligence (EI)–the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions–that predicts success in collaborative/work environments, not solely Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Although some have EI naturally, it can be learned. When leaders are able to have empathy and take into consideration the emotional and mental effects their decisions will have on constituents, better outcomes typically result.
While I understand that the press and the community may want to hold this conversation publicly, as an employment attorney, I would caution that this discussion be reframed in an aspirational manner. A public referendum on an employee is at best, arbitrary and imprudent and at worst could lead to legal risk. Board members have one main responsibility – to supervise the Superintendent and hold him responsible. If elected, I look forward to having appropriate access to the information that would allow me to objectively evaluate Dr Taylor’s work and I will bring the skills I honed as an employment attorney with deep expertise in personnel management to help craft ambitious, pragmatic goals for the Superintendent, just as I do for my clients every day.
We do know this; Dr Taylor has entered the fourth year of a five year contract with SOMSD and research shows that the bottom line is that superintendent turnover destabilizes an entire school system. An unstable school system inevitably leads to a decline in teacher morale, which in turn creates substandard teaching and learning. The impact that a school leader has on other areas of school administration, community relationships and partnerships also cannot be overstated. Our students deserve to have a stable and productive school ecosystem, while also holding our Superintendent responsible for meeting the Board’s goals.
The relationship between a superintendent and a Board of Education is incredibly complex. The Board of Education provides essential oversight and control of the school system and its funding, but may not operate the school system itself. Its sole employee is the Superintendent, and the management of that person determines the degree to which the schools are well run.
Our district has had more than its fair share of superintendent turnover, and we are worse off for it. Dr. Taylor has just started the beginning of his fourth year at our district out of his five year contract, a tenure which, remarkably, puts us slightly above average among K-12 districts in New Jersey. I believe it is very important to continue nurturing a productive relationship with Dr. Taylor and use effective management to guide him, and with him our school system, to the successes we want to see.
With all due respect to the Village Green, I don’t believe it’s appropriate or prudent for a BOE candidate to proffer an armchair evaluation of Dr. Taylor’s performance on past goals, especially given the legal ramifications, the need to work productively with him and the board in the future, and the unavailability of the confidential information and dealings that take place within his relationship with the board.
If elected, however, I intend to closely scrutinize the Superintendent’s adherence to the annual district goals, his responsiveness to Board resolutions and requests, and the district’s fidelity in implementing and abiding by policy set by the Board. I intend to work closely with Ritu and my other colleagues on the Board to craft annual goals for the Superintendent that will move the district forward, in line with ideas in our platform and ideals and the educational needs of our children and families.
The main job of the Board is to hold the Superintendent accountable. The district goals we have in place right now are good, but we must focus on implementation of those goals. The Board could design the best goals imaginable, but unless they are implemented properly, they are doomed to fail. We will work with the administration to make sure that the Board goals are implemented correctly and hold the Superintendent accountable if they are not. Something which the current board has failed to do. With that said, we applaud the Superintendent for keeping the long-range facilities plan on course with substantial construction taking place around the district. However, there is a lot of work to do. In many areas, such as communication, implementation, and procedure; the Superintendent has fallen flat. From the air-filters debacle during COVID, to the current busing issues, and the fact that the district has not complied with the Black Parents Workshop settlement agreement; we have many issues that need to be addressed. More troubling, is the fact that he is not present; in the most physical sense. While teachers are held accountable every day to come into the classroom, Superintendent Taylor is not visible in our schools.