People stop and ask me questions about what is happening in our school district. They say they ask me because I tell them the truth. And I do.
People even ask me if we’ll ever have quiet Board of Education meetings again. I can tell you, yes; we absolutely can.
It will happen when there is full transparency, and residents receive the truth about the state of our school district directly from members of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education.
Just last week, the New Jersey School Boards Association exposed the SOMSD as an example of what not to do in regards to the achievement gap and implicit bias, quoting several agencies in their presentation. We are being singled out on statewide platforms but continue to tell parents that everything is okay. (See attached document.)
Other federal agencies, such as the Office of Civil Rights as reported at our last BOE meeting, are reporting that we have definitely not been doing enough, while the community is told differently. However, individuals on their own, can reach that conclusion if, in 2017 we had both swastikas and slave posters and auctions in the schools as well as a worsening achievement gap. The international press even covered this story and reported it back to us, since they didn’t think we knew what was going on in our district. By the way, they reported it to the world community as well.
Quiet will happen when the community is told that we do have strong policies against bullying at both the school district and State level. Policies and practices don’t have to be developed. The problem with bullying in the district is that attorneys, whether sitting on the Board or appointed by the Board, are not implementing them. One can’t have people who say they listen, but vote differently to what they heard. This is true of current as well as former board members. Many parents and residents have commented about the poor implementation of several policies in the school district, such as Special Education’s 504’s, and Access and Equity. We are still in critical need of a “sanctuary school” implementation policy — a safe plan for our DACA students, should their parents/guardians be apprehended.
Quiet will happen in BOE meetings when the community votes for candidates who have hands on knowledge of what is truly happening in our district. Candidates who will act, with integrity, courage, honesty and always in the best interest of our children.
This is why I endorse three candidates who have that experience, credentials and a well-earned reputation for making a difference in our district. All three are alumni of our school district, who have returned to help during this critical period.
Felisha George: I am impressed with her knowledge of our Special Education policies and Focus Schools. She understands the value of hard work and commitment, and while there are many personal challenges she faced that could have thwarted her own school and career trajectory, she has excelled both personally and professionally. She is a strong ally to students and their parents in maneuvering our school system to get the courses and correct Guidance information to do well in the district.
Avery Julien: Avery knew we needed librarians and actively opposed their elimination. He understands, firsthand, the injustices and micro-aggressions that affect some of our students daily and he believes these challenges can be remedied if we approach them from a place of knowledge and compassion. He’s focused on Finance in college, to expand his knowledge on what we can do with our school budgets, grants and programs, open to our district, which have not been investigated by our district.
Anthony Mazzocchi: As an educator/administrator, Anthony recognizes that, when it comes to cultivating creativity in our children, there is a misguided mindset in the district that there are the “haves” and the “have-nots” in regards to talent. He is disturbed by our district’s tendency to treat differences like deficits. He believes that it is our school’s responsibility to help children discover and cultivate their strengths, instead of “fixing’ their deficits. Recently he secured a Performing Arts Grant for our district, when other candidates just said, “…[W]e are not made of money.”
This debate highlighted some school budget issues. The candidates above stated where school funds were being applied and where they could be applied better. These three don’t give answers to problems which don’t exist, while keeping the real problems still in the schools. People with hands on knowledge can fight to get the budget funds properly applied. They don’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of our budget dollars hiring outside consultants, to tell them how to spend the district’s budget dollars. This though, is the current practice of the BOE.
You see, several years ago, our BOE lobbied to have a special law passed giving them, and only the nine members sitting on our BOE, control of 60% of the property taxes of our towns. They got the law passed. It is law A2310. It had to be a specially passed law, otherwise our BOE would not have this control. We are the only Board of School Estimate (BOSE) school district in NJ, in which a BOE has this control. How did this happen? A2310 uses a loophole to be sure neither residents, nor elected town officials in our BOSE district can overrule the BOE in budget decisions. In other BOSE districts, elected municipal officials work in conjunction with BOE to set a budget. This is a Type I BOSE. Our BOSE is an elected BOE, not an appointed BOE, this means we are a Type II BOSE. (Edited to add: The towns’ BOSE representatives are allowed to vote on the operating budget only if the BOE goes over cap. In the past, our BOSE could question expense items and block lines if necessary. This was all before A2310. That ability has been taken from them and is not with our residents, since we are a BOSE school district.)
(Please read A2310 to get a deeper understanding; it is attached below.)
But let’s get back to having quiet BOE meetings.
This can be, if the Liaison Meetings, which use to be in the district, are reestablished as they were. The resolution has been written, but not implemented. The Liaison Meeting was a bi-monthly meeting between the school district and the towns. They worked in conjunction with each other. The Superintendent, several South Orange Board of Trustee members, several Maplewood Town Council members, etc, would meet to discuss and resolve substantive issues affecting the community. Currently, this does not happen. This is the meeting in which the option to implement a health insurance plan to reduce property taxes for both towns and the school district would have been introduced into our community. But it wasn’t. There was no Liaison Meeting to do it. Same is true for the BOSE voting for millions in capital improvements to fix our school facilities, which were not done. No Liaison meeting to ask why they weren’t done. These are some examples of unresolved issues which emotionally spill into our BOE meetings, making the noise.
As a community, we must speak up when things go awry. I have faith in these candidates and their capacity to be accountable to parents, students and taxpayers. Most significantly, Felisha, Avery, and Anthony have already exhibited the know-how and the heart to act in our children’s and our community’s best interest.
Lets go back to having quiet BOE meetings, because as a community we are doing the right things for our children. Let’s put in place candidates, with hands on true knowledge of the district, and insist as a community our towns’ elected officials and school officials meet to help us in this quest.
We all could use the quiet.
SOMA Board of Education Member
This letter is Johanna Wright’s opinion and is not meant to represent the opinion of the Board of Education.