BOE Candidates Debate Overcrowding, Achievement Gap, Bullying at Forum

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On Wednesday night, October 21, the nine candidates running for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education took part in a forum held at Maplewood Middle School hosted by The League of Women Voters. The LWV’s Diane Gallo moderated.

Candidates each presented opening and closing statements, and answered three prepared questions, as well as audience questions.

The forum was videotaped courtesy of SOMAtv. The video is attached here:

The first question was: “The district’s elementary schools are overcrowded, as well as racially and socio-economically unbalanced. How would you propose to solve these problems?”

On overcrowding, Marian Raab pointed to the need to hire new demographers, saying that prior ones have consistently underestimated enrollment. Madhu Pai said the district’s demographer correctly predicted the demographic bubble currently making its way through the elementary schools, but said that bubble is projected to shrink in upcoming years.

Dorcas Lind said the new board needs to guide the administration to develop a clear plan to deal with overcrowding. She mentioned adding more portable classrooms and possibly changing maximum class size.

All of the candidates spoke to issues being faced by Seth Boyden School, the district’s demonstration school, which has seen a decreasing number of students opting in in recent years. All of the candidates expressed an interest in exploring the option of turning Seth Boyden into an arts or STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) magnet school.

Shannel Roberts, a former Seth Boyden parent, recalled classrooms divided by race and of being spoken down to as a parent because of her zoned address.

“This is not an easy question,” said Chris Sabin, who added that it would not be solved “overnight.” He suggested buying new portables, and giving families a better reason to opt into Seth Boyden. Wayne Eastman, whose two children are Seth Boyden graduates, said it was important to have racial balance in the district. “We’ve got to listen to people…and draw in people who live in the Seth Boyden neighborhood.”

Peggy Freedson said she was open to many possible solutions for Seth Boyden, as long as parents were “in the driver’s seat.”

Annemarie Maini said, “Our former superintendent took his eye off the ball” on the issues at Seth Boyden and asked, “Where was the board?”

Elissa Malespina said the the problem had been continuing for “far too long” and suggested exploring a plan developed by the district’s former fine arts and music supervisor, Anthony Mazzocchi, to turn Montrose School into an arts magnet school — but reapply that plan to Seth Boyden.

The second question asked was: “Which specific areas of the district budget would you reduce? In which areas would you expand allocation? What other creative solutions would you recommend to identify new sources of funding or more efficient use of what we have?

Lind proposed cutting the use of consultants, communications specialists, and inefficient professional development; she expressed concern about staying within the state-mandated 2% tax levy cap and suggested partnering with local organizations on STEM and arts programming.

Sabin said he wants to pressure the state to “fully fund the state formula.” He also said he wants to increase early-child programming with a grade-level reading standard by third grade which he believes will reduce spending at the middle and high school levels. Freedson said she would use her experience as an educator to find solutions that are “cost-neutral,” working with teachers throughout the district on creative solutions.

Roberts said that the district needs to look at finances as “a budget to save our children,” but Eastman reminded the audience that “the fundamental role of the Board of Education is to determine the tax levy” and that it does not have line-by-line budget powers. Raab said she was “dismayed” by some of the cuts made by the board in recent years, including the outsourcing of paraprofessionals.

Maini said holding the line on taxes is “more than just setting a target and then accepting with little question the administration’s budget proposal…this hand wringing has got to stop.” Malespina called for full transparency and bringing in an outside auditor for the budget.

The third question was, “The new Access & Equity policy promises that all students shall be provided with age-appropriate academic supports for access to advanced-level courses. Do you think this can be achieved, and if so, how? What trade-offs would you support in order to achieve this goal, in terms of funding, programs, and services?”

Maini said many students entering the school district are not provided with enough resources to make up for learning deficits, and also that students who enter the district in kindergarten become disengaged over time. The new policy itself will not change this, she said. She said that she and Sabin would make sure the policy is “actually” implemented.

Malespina said that the policy was put in place because of pressure from the Office of Civil Rights and the ACLU complaints, and that the district needs to get to a point where there are “no more levels.” Pai said teachers should have a big role in implementing the new policy. She also said the district was “heavy on skills and light on content” and that content should be interesting enough to engage all students.

Raab said she feared “the devil will be in the details” and the policy’s language was vague. Roberts said the new policy was just “Contract for Choice 2.0.” and said the policy had to be substantial and specific. Sabin agreed that there needed to be concrete board management to make the policy happen.

Eastman said the district had to focus more on educating students in the early years, to make the policy effective. Lind said current “systemic and community wide issues of unconscious bias” wherein teachers make judgments and assumptions of students, will not suddenly disappear with the new policy.

Freedson said she sees more direct means such as early reading and writing intervention as critical to dealing with inequality.

Audience Questions

How should the district ensure that promised and legally required services are provided to students with IEP and 504 designation? 

Lind spoke of many families who have resorted to lawsuits to attain resources which are promised to them by the law. She said that everyone who has an IEP or a 504 should be on a checklist of services and that as parents “we should not be hiring lawyers to make our district respond.”

Malespina talked about her own issues getting her child the services he is entitled to under his 504 plan. “It’s really simple: follow the law,” she said. “Fight, fight and more fight,” said Roberts, describing what she has heard from parents on the campaign trail.

One audience question was specifically directed at Eastman: Address the lack of communications at board meetings, and the air of hostility expressed by the board and frustration expressed by parents; how will that change?

Eastman defended the meetings and the public speaks component as a highly democratic process and pointed to the board’s cooperative successes in unanimously voting in a new superintendent, drawing new teacher contracts, and passing the Access and Equity Policy.

Lind said there should be clear information from board members about how they will follow up community questions. “I think parents leave feeling listened to but not necessarily heard,” she said.

Malespina, who worked as a librarian in the district for nine years, testified to retaliation after speaking at board meetings. She suggested modeling South Orange Board of Trustee meetings, wherein Village President Sheena Collum briefly responds to every speaker. Pai cautioned that public speaks is not an opportunity for any meaningful interaction with board members.

Raab found issue with the lateness of board meetings, which have sometimes run until 1:30 am. She said her slate would propose twice-a-month meetings which would shorten the duration of each meeting, allowing for more parents to attend.

On the question of sports and “making sure our best athletes don’t leave the district,” Malespina was adamant about accountability and re-training of staff in response to ten confirmed Harassment-Intimidation-Bullying cases, some of which have taken place in the context of sports. Raab said the district had serious issues with bullying and harassment on some sports teams and that the board has to address those issues.

Pai said that the recent issues have given the board a chance to fully reevaluate athletics and the athletic department in the district. Maini and Lind both noted how pivotal it was for coaches to model appropriate behavior in how they interact with student-athletes.

The final question dealt with how the current board has addressed the achievement gap.

Pai said the new Access & Equity policy would be extremely effective in addressing the gap by providing students with choices. The district has not implemented the policies that are already in place, countered Malespina. Her slate’s ultimate goal is to “get rid of all the levels.”

Roberts asked, “How do you go from being a blue-ribbon district to three out of nine schools failing?” She said students realized that levels were discriminatory and we should listen to them. Sabin reiterated the need to talk about preparing students in elementary school.

Raab was more direct in her accusation that the Board of Education was at fault for the “focus school” classification of South Orange Middle School, Maplewood Middle School, and Clinton School, meaning that the state finds them to have an unacceptable achievement gap.


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