LETTER: Eckert, Wilson and Gifford Will Ensure an Equitable Integration Plan

by Jeff Bennett
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Five community members are running for three seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education this year: Regina EckertNubia WilsonBill GiffordRitu 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.

Read more about the candidates in Village Green’s “Ask the Candidates” series on busing/transportationaccess & equity, the Superintendent and BOE functionality.

Bill Gifford, Nubia Wilson, Regina Eckert
(credit: Lisa White Photo)

To the Editors:

South Orange-Maplewood’s school system has great strengths, like a high school of limitless opportunity for some, amazing parent volunteerism, multitalented students, and excellent teachers. Yet, it is also a district with chronic inequity in achievement, missed opportunities, and lack of trust. Last year the district embarked on an ambitious integration plan whose concept almost everyone supports, but which has suffered from some design and implementation decisions which are negatively impacting families.

With us at this crossroads, I think the choice for the Board of Education is crystal clear: Regina Eckert, Nubia Wilson, and Bill Gifford.

All three candidates are proud K-12 graduates of public schools; Bill Gifford, in fact, is a native of Maplewood, who went to Tuscan, Maplewood Middle School, and Columbia High School and received special education support. Regina Eckert is an active Tuscan PTA volunteer. Nubia Wilson has also been a PTA volunteer, and the author of a perceptive (and predictive) 2021 essay on the district’s lack of sensitivity in communication.

Yet I do not think biographical facts alone are a rationale to vote for Bill, Regina, and Nubia, so much as their values and policy positions. I wish I had unlimited space to praise all their policy and governance ideas, but with only so many words allotted to me, I want to concentrate on the reforms they will bring to the Intentional Integration Initiative.

Nubia Wilson, Regina Eckert, and Bill Gifford want to have an integration system that works for everyone, with supports for all, but inspired by the need to support working families, as Nubia said in the CCR forum, “If we don’t rectify our transportation issues, it will deter working families from living in this district.” What Bill, Regina, and Nubia want is an effective integration plan, but without winners and losers.

Nubia, Regina, and Bill have always been strong supporters of the integration plan, but from the beginning of their campaign they have recognized the lack of transportation as a critical problem. As Regina said in her first statement, “the recent decisions around transportation and transfers have made it clear that the Board continues to set forth policies without any thought to the impact on our community.”

Bill, Regina, and Nubia are not satisfied by the Board of Education’s March 31st “Slow-Walk” plan and want to allow children to ride as soon as January, since we have hundreds of empty bus seats and we will be in the darkness and cold of winter then. “We support immediate changes to the transportation policy for those in hardship and those who are closest to 2.0 miles.” They have also pushed back against the narrative that only white families are angry about the lack of bussing, as Nubia Wilson counter-argued at the Presidents’ Council and Community Coalition on Race forums.

Nubia, Bill, and Regina believe that social solidarity requires that bussing be a basic service of the district, which should be collectively funded, since the integration plan benefits everyone. They thus don’t see subscription (ie, parent-fee) bussing for families with distant placements as a fair solution, because, as Bill Gifford said “To have families pay for busing services would serve as a double tax on already struggling households.” As Regina said “[Subscription bussing] would produce situations of unequal treatment – a family could be paying hundreds or up to $1000 per student per year because of the number they were assigned.”

Regina, Nubia, and Bill go beyond transportation to help families such as ending the district’s unconditional prohibition on transfers placed by the Intentional Integration Initiative, which literally blocks a transfer no matter what someone’s hardship is. “We should review the data to re-evaluate the permissible ‘hardships’ for transfers.” A hardship transfer process would offer relief to children who lack an adult to drive them and to parents whose work schedule makes a distant school assignment very difficult.

Also, since the integration plan involves a lot of “criss-cross” placements of kids of the same demographic tier going to each other’s proximate school, Wilson, Eckert, and Gifford support ordinary transfers of families who do not claim hardship per se. “Opportunities for improvement include expanding transportation for students and post-assignment, SES-based transfer portal, which would allow students to transfer between schools on a like-for-like, diversity-neutral basis.”

This effort to have an equitable integration plan comes from knowing that the existing implementation has had a disparate impact, with minority and low-SES children being assigned the greatest distance. They know that distant school assignments are the most difficult for lower-income people and those who work in-person. As Nubia Wilson said at the CCR debate, “We’ve spoken to kindergarten Black families who are working less now” and “We’re hearing about parents needing to buy a second car, when that wasn’t in their financial plan.”

There are reasons other than transportation and transfers to support Regina Eckert, Bill Gifford, and Nubia Wilson, such as their desire to connect with all constituencies, their position on improved reading instruction, their focus on special education vacancies, and their opposition to the marginalization of vo-tech. I hope, for whatever your reason, you join me in deciding “students come first” and supporting these three committed community members.

Jeff Bennett
South Orange, NJ



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