On Monday, January 22, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education approved a new “opt-out” or choice resolution for in-zone Seth Boyden School families.
Although the Board had approved a similar resolution last June, that was done quickly, explained Board President Elizabeth Baker and this resolution was more thoughtful and detailed. The resolutions allow in-zone Seth Boyden families, for the first time since Seth Boyden Elementary became a demonstration school, to opt out of Seth Boyden, giving those families the same level of school choice as other families in the district.
However, before the resolution was approved on Monday, it was un-coupled from a batch of other resolutions and a long and thoughtful discussion took place, initiated by new Board member Robin Johnson Baker.
Robin Baker said that she had received “several calls from many people in the community who have legitimate concerns about gentrification in that [Seth Boyden zone] area and a concern that this policy may have actually inadvertently … actually speed it along.” She added, “I think that there are legitimate concerns and just to reiterate, we need to quickly get on top of the issue of integrating the schools and figure this out before we actually end up having a more gentrified area and less integration just because there are fewer people in the lower socio-economic brackets able to afford to live here.”
Robin Baker said that one person who expressed concerns had said that “one thing of the things that deterred people unfortunately — I’m just being real — from purchasing property in that [Seth Boyden] are was the requirement to go to the neighborhood school.”
“I understand the concerns for people on the other side of the issue as well but I’m feeling that maybe the cost is higher than the benefit,” said Robin Baker.
Board member Susie Adamson, who is a past president of the Seth Boyden PTA and an opt-in parent, said that gentrification of the Seth Boyden zone “was happening well before the resolution was passed last year.”
“Most people moving in have no idea what resolutions are being passed by the Board,” said Adamson. “To me that resolution speaks to the other side of the point. Every family in the district should have the choice of the same number of schools.” Adamson did, however, say that she acknowledged the point that Robin Baker was making and felt that the towns needed to address gentrification.
Robin Baker responded she was not “arguing one way or another,” but added, “Sometimes what looks logically like leveling the playing field may have unintended consequences. Before I received the calls and emails, I was, ‘Yes, this looks right.’ … Now I’m not certain of it myself. I haven’t looked into it deeply enough to actually have a very strong opinion. I just wanted to put it out there.”
Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad noted that last spring she had “made the statement that whatever we deal with to address the racial imbalance at Seth Boyden will ultimately, potentially lend itself to exactly what Ms. Baker is talking about — as far as gentrifying that area.” She said that, from the optics perspective and symbolically, the resolution was allowing choice. However, she noted that few families took advantage of the opportunity to opt out of Seth Boyden. “The rationale for my voting against [the resolution last year] was that it wasn’t fixing the issues. … I do not support it again this year.”
Board President Elizabeth Baker noted that the new resolution “differs from last year’s resolution in that it requires the administration to affirmatively promote Seth Boyden as a demonstration school and to actively communicate to all residents that Seth Boyden is an option.” Elizabeth Baker said that the lack of promotion was “an administrative failure of the district — at least the last 4.5 years that I’m aware of.” She noted that the Board has sought input of the Seth Boyden community — both opt-in and zoned families. “I don’t think zoned families showed up tonight because I don’t think they expected a controversy.” She noted that “zoned families reached out to us repeatedly” and she called the opt-out option “a civil rights issue.”
With regard to desegregating the school, Elizabeth Baker continued, “We shouldn’t sacrifice while we are doing the larger work. … I’m not comfortable saying to Seth Boyden families, ‘You don’t have the choices while we do the facilities work that will take 2 or 3 years.’ It was always an interim step. It’s not the families who are moving in, it’s the families that are there.”
Board 2nd Vice President Madhu Pai added, “I agree. It’s an equity issue.” She also said that she felt that the Board should be mindful of how it characterizes Seth Boyden School: “Every time we talk about the importance of the integration work, we talk about Seth Boyden as if there is something wrong with Seth Boyden. … They should have a sense of pride. I just don’t want to talk about Seth Boyden as a problem that has to be fixed because the problem is district-wide.”
Robin Baker noted, “Just to be clear, my comment was more about gentrification, not about Seth Boyden having something wrong” with it.
Board member Johanna Wright noted, “The families and the community of Seth Boyden love Seth Boyden. The people who opted out was minute.” She added, “We are going to have this discussion until we desegregate the schools in these towns. You’ve given me something to think about. But they should have a choice.”
Board 1st Vice President Chris Sabin agreed: “Ms. Baker gave us something to think about.” He added, “In five years that will be a different community.”
Wright added, “She dropped some nuggets on us.”
“I don’t disagree that that neighborhood is gentrifying,” said Adamson. “I just don’t see that it has to do with the resolution.”
Board member Annemarie Maini said that as the district moves forward with facilities plans and redistricting “we are no longer going to have neighborhood schools. [Ross] Haber showed us [last spring] there is no way to draw that line. … If people move into the district, understand you’re not necessarily going to know what school you are going to.”
Muhammad-Lawson noted how the pairing of Marshall-Jefferson helped to keep those schools integrated several years back. With regard to desegregating Seth Boyden, she said, “At the end of the day, once there is no longer a black school it will expedite and accelerate the movement of whites into that area … and homes are becoming out of reach for people of lower economic status.” She noted the growing need for affordable housing in South Orange and Maplewood and mentioned the use of PILOTS (tax incentives) to spur new housing developments in town that did not serve the needs of lower income families.
Adamson said that escalating costs in housing that were driving out minorities and seniors were “a conundrum for New Jersey. This is an issue the towns are facing not because of the schools.”
Elizabeth Baker noted that “we have to have a coordinated discussion with the towns about development.”
“It would be nice if both towns would get together with us to coordinate development,” said Sabin.
The Seth Boyden Opt-Out resolution was approved by a vote of 7-1-1, with Lawson-Muhammad voting against and Robin Baker abstaining.
Watch the discussion, which began 3 hours and 41 minutes into the meeting, here.)