Elissa Malespina, the former librarian at South Orange Middle School (SOMS), officially declared her candidacy for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education (BOE) Monday night.
Malespina is running on a ticket with Donna Smith.
The Village Green interviewed Malespina by email. Here are her responses, some of which were slightly edited for brevity.
If you are elected, how will your experience as an educator and a former district employee impact and affect the decisions you make as a board member?
I was in the district for nine years first as a librarian at CHS and then at SOMS for the last four years. During that time period, I have gained a great understanding of what’s going on under the hood of our district and have developed relationships with both the teachers and administration.
My time in the district gives me a great understanding of ways to best help support the students in the district. I always put students first as a teacher in the district, and plan to continue that once I am elected to the Board of Education.
You said the district should “slow down” implementation of the (International Baccalaureate) IB program. Can you be specific? Would you vote to continue the program as it is, to scale it back, to wait before implementing in other grades? What would successful implementation look like? Do you think it should eventually be brought to CHS, and at what point?
I think for too long this Board has taken on too much all at once and not done a great job really evaluating if what they have done is working. I, like Anthony Mazzocchi, believe it is time to slow things down a little and not start any new initiatives without really looking to see if what we have in place is working.
I am concerned about how the IB program has been implemented. A number of teachers have come before the Board of Education to voice their concerns about the program and after countless hours of IB training over the last few years, I like a lot of the middle school staff do not have a great understanding of the program.
My major concern with the IB program is the cost associated with it. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a full accounting given to the BOE on how much this program is costing us a year. Especially when we take into account all of the factors like professional development, IB coordinators, program fees, instructional material costs and other costs associated with it.
With a huge budget gap ahead of us we need to look at ways to trim the budget while minimizing the impact to student success. We keep cutting teachers and positions and we are reaching a point where we don’t have many more people left to cut. I am not sure we can financially support this program.
You believe the district should not rush the hiring of a new superintendent. What are the most important factors the BOE should look for in hiring a new super? How would you engage various stakeholders in the community in the search process?
I think we need to look for a superintendent who has experience working in a diverse setting like SOMSD. One that has numerous years of teaching experience and has held a variety of jobs in education from teacher, supervisor, principal, to superintendent so they understand all aspects of the job.
I would also like someone who is a digital leader who can help to break down the classroom walls and lead the 1:1 initiative [editor’s note: this means a computer for every student] we have in place. I would like someone who will move away from what has become an us against them mentality, and find a way for all groups to work together in the best interest of the students.
All stakeholders must be heard in this process, we need to have teachers, students, parents, and community members involved in the process. They all need to be part of the search committee.
As for not supporting a deadline…the search cannot go on forever, but expediting the process amid a changing of the guard at many levels throughout the district including current board members, who are not seeking reelection is shortsighted. This is a decision that will frame the future of our district. Let’s not rush to judgement just to get the position filled quickly.
There has been dissension between some SOMS staff and Principal Uglialoro. As a former SOMS staff member, what do you think is the root of the problems and how can they be addressed? What should a board member’s role be in responding to such concerns when they are raised by parents and staff at BOE meetings?
I did speak out at the renewal meeting about the fact that I did not feel that giving Mr. Uglilorio tenure was in the best interest of the students and teachers in the district. I still believe that. Since the BOE did not follow my advice or that of other teachers and parents who spoke against doing so, we have to find a way to make sure that concerns brought up by the staff and parents are addressed properly and changes are made so that it does not get to that point again.
You mention the “looming fiscal deficit.” Can you give example(s) of how you, as a BOE member, would work toward reducing the deficit?
The BOE can not solve this problem by itself. We can not continue to cut staff and resources without severely impacting the education of our students. Jeff Bennett has talked a lot about how unequally state aid is distributed and how we are not getting our fair share. SOMSD needs to lead the charge to change how state aid is given out.
Donna Smith has said the implementation of a Gifted & Talented program next year is one of her priorities. Do you agree? What do you think of the BOE’s current proposal, and what would a successful G&T program look like to you?
My son Matthew’s favorite class in 4th grade was the push-in [enrichment] class. He learned so much from Mrs. King and developed a love for Mythology that he would never have been exposed to in a traditional G&T program. Matthew’s standardized test scores, although respectable, were such that he would not have qualified for G&T and because of that he would not have gotten exposure to these enrichment opportunities that he still talks about today.
I believe that all children especially those in the elementary setting, should be exposed to enrichment opportunities. Our children are more than just a test score and multiple measurements should be looked at when choosing children to be in G&T classes.
I am not sure we should be rushing into any program without looking at all of the options. I commend the board for tabling the matter until they can be given more information.
Can you give examples of where your views and Donna Smith’s views diverge?
No one is going to agree with everyone on all issues but what I love about Donna is her willingness to work for what is best for the students. She is willing to listen to all sides of an issue and will work hard to build consensus.
The Board of Education is not in place so everyone can agree on everything. The board exists to promote discussion, promote the best education possible for our children, and to watch over how that education is administered. If all the Board does is rubber stamp everything the district proposes, it is not doing it’s duty as an elected body.
What are the biggest long term strategic planning priorities the district should focus on in the upcoming years?
I believe that we need to continue to invest in our quest to become 1:1 — not only do we need to invest in the hardware to make that happen but also in appropriate staff that can support it. Right now we are buying all these Chromebooks but we’re not investing in the staff training or technology support that will be necessary for this initiative to succeed.
We need to figure out how the district will deal with some of the issues we have with overcrowding in the schools.
We also need to make sure to continue to make upgrades to our facilities. For too long we did not do that and now we are faced with facility issues that would not be an issue had we done a better job with facility maintenance.
I am a fan of looking for ways to infuse STEAM into the curriculum and am very happy to see that Achieve Foundation is helping to move our district in that direction.
Can you explain what you mean when you say SOMSD is at a “crossroads”? Also, what do you mean when you say the BOE needs to move away from an “us against them mentality?” How should board members work more productively to build relationships with stakeholders?
In recent years the board of education and the teachers union have not worked well toward what should be a common goal of educating our children. Teachers must be given more of a voice in the process. They are the experts and are the ones that have the most direct contact with students and parents on a daily basis.
The board’s role, as well as my role as a supervisor in another district, is to foster and support best practices. By default board members and school administrators have far less daily contact with students and parents than an average teacher. I submit that it is foolhardy for administrators or board members to make decisions in a vacuum without utilizing and respecting the experience of teachers, parents, and students. I will make myself available to listen to parents and students and let them know that their concerns are being heard.