“Hiring a new superintendent is one of the most important responsibilities of a school board,” wrote then-Board President Elizabeth Baker in July 2018, when the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education was set to hire a consultant to help with the superintendent search.
It’s a point that’s been repeated through the years as the Board of Education and its individual members have stressed the importance of the choice of superintendent and the limits of their own power in administering the school district.
As former Board member Madhu Pai pointed out in her essay, “What Does a Board of Education Member Do (and Why Should You Care)?,” the number one key responsibility of the BOE is “[t]o hire and oversee the Superintendent.” The four others are: 2.To set a vision for the district and write policy, 3. To set District Goals, 4. To set the Operating Budget tax cap for budget development, and 5. To negotiate contracts with the Teachers and Administrators Union.
A year-long search for a new superintendent for the South Orange-Maplewood School District culminated on Thursday night, April 18, with the appointment of Dr. Ronald Taylor, who most recently has served as the Superintendent of Willingboro [NJ] Township.
Six Board of Education members — BOE President Annemarie Maini, 1st Vice President Susie Adamson, 2nd Vice President Tony Mazzocchi, Robin Baker, Elizabeth Baker and Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad — voted “yes” to appoint Dr. Taylor.
Javier Farfan was not able to attend but sent a letter strenuously voicing his approval of the choice.
Johanna Wright and Shannon Cuttle abstained.
Village Green followed up to ask both, “Why?”
Cuttle offered a brief comment: “We must continue to evolve and push forward in our commitment for all students and families. I look forward to this new chapter with Dr Taylor, as we continue to move our district forward together.”
In an exchange of emails, Cuttle declined to comment any further or offer a reason for abstaining.
Johanna Wright, conversely, supplied a lengthy and detailed response to the question.
“It was not only the matter that I didn’t get enough information,” Wright wrote in response to Village Green’s request for comment. “It was the way the final vetting process was handled; plus, the community itself did not get enough information during the process.”
Wright said that the superintendent search “process was consciously done in a non transparent and incomplete manner” — including “not allow[ing] enough time for the Board to make a site visit to the new Superintendent’s district” and not giving parents and residents “an opportunity to observe or weigh in on the Superintendent or any candidates as other residents were able to do in other districts Superintendents searches, such as Teaneck, Montclair, and Newark.” Wright noted that Dr. Taylor himself had “participated in public forums in two Superintendent searches.”
Wright tied the lack of site visits in more recent South Orange-Maplewood School District superintendent searches to what she characterized as a series of substandard superintendents and the district’s fall from Blue Ribbon school status.
See Wright’s full statement below.
In a phone conversation, BOE President Annemarie Maini noted that BOE members are not required to explain their reasons for abstaining from a vote — nor are they constrained from doing so. However, Maini stressed that, once a vote is made, the role of Board of Education members is to support the decision of the Board. She voiced her hope that the Board would now move forward as one body to support the work of Dr. Taylor.
[Note: South Orange-Maplewood Board bylaws (section 146) stipulate “Board members are entitled to express themselves publicly on any matter, including issues involving the Board and the school district. Individual Board members cannot, however, express the position of the Board except as expressly authorized, in accordance with Board Policy No. 9120.”]