Chris Sabin — Board of Education Candidate Profile and Q&A

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Village Green asked each of the nine candidates for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education to submit a short biography and answer at least 5 of 11 submitted questions, which candidates could respond to individually or as a team with their running mates. Below are Chris Sabin’s bio and answers, which he answered with his running mate Annemarie Maini.

Chris Sabin

Chris Sabin

A 40-year resident of Maplewood, Chris Sabin attended district schools from the 2nd grade until he graduated from Columbia High School in 1983. A volunteer parent for community sports activities, he has served as Team Commissioner for South Orange-Maplewood Packers football and in various roles for the Maplewood Lacrosse Club.

Sabin has a BS in Finance and Marketing from the University of Maryland. He is an award-winning senior marketing and promotions executive with expertise in health awareness campaigns. Past positions include Program Director for Novartis’ “Be Sickle Smart” campaign, Director of Marketing for TV Land/Nick@Nite, and Director of Events & Promotions for UniWorld Group. One of his most significant campaigns is for the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, an organization that improves the lives of underserved young people through individual attention and rigorous academic, social and cultural enrichment.

Sabin is the father of one daughter, a sixth grader, and eighth grade and tenth grade boys.


1. What should a board member’s role be in responding in public to concerns voiced at meetings by parents and staff? Currently, issues raised by public speakers are often not addressed. How should board members respond, both publicly and in private, to stakeholders voicing concerns at public meetings? 

The Board’s role is effective oversight to ensure the district is fixing many of the underlying and unresolved problems that often compel frustrated parents — as their only recourse — to escalate their concerns to public and private Board discussions. While dialog is important, it is not usually productive for individual board members to respond ad hoc to concerns raised at the Public Speaks portion of the meeting, as the structure and format doesn’t lend itself to organized or consistent responses or follow up. For example, board members may have widely differing views on the causes of, and solutions for, many of the concerns raised, which doesn’t result in resolution. Further, no individual member is authorized to speak for the entire Board in a way that results in responsiveness.

In order to ensure concerns are being tracked and addressed in an organized fashion, as well as represent the appropriate authority, the Superintendent should respond to speakers with a stated public commitment to address each speaker’s concerns and provide any needed clarifications. For accountability and transparency, the disposition of each issue should be reported during the subsequent Board meeting, while providing any additional information not in violation of the district’s confidentiality obligations. Reporting should not only include the list of concerns, but also who is assigned responsibility for follow up and the final resolution. This is what we suggested at the Community Forum on Communication that the Board led in the spring.

2. The new Access & Equity policy promises access and supports for all students to higher-level classes. Do you think this can be achieved? And if so how? How do you think it will impact the budget, and what programs/services would you be willing to cut to make funding available for the academic supports the policy calls for?

We are heartened by the Board’s adoption of this policy, while at the same time noting that it is long overdue. By itself, the policy means little – over many years there have been several policies and board goals on the books to address access and equity that have been ignored. The first thing that’s needed is full transparency on how placement decisions are currently made so that any unfairness or inconsistency can be addressed. Math is the most glaring example where the current practice seems designed to exclude students from upper level courses based on the outcome of a few tests, even when the student’s overall body of work would indicate they are capable of achieving more. Rather than focusing our efforts on pigeonholing students based on limited data, we should ask instead, “What do we need to do to enable and encourage students to succeed in taking on more challenging work?” Occasional academic stumbles are a natural part of the learning process, and we don’t want adults to discourage students as they learn by telling them to drop down a level based on limited assessment. We want to hear teachers asking students, “What can I do to help you succeed?” This is how we can truly raise academic excellence – across the board – in our district.

Some students may need more help to ensure their skills are where they should be. That might cost money. We are prepared to support additional resources, but don’t want to fall into the trap of speculating what else would have to change in the budget. First, we need a full and open discussion of the budget, with clearly described spending alternatives, to occur as part of the annual budget process. Before we speculate if we need to cut one program to pay for another, we believe the district can save significant money in operational costs for energy, transportation, technology, healthcare, maintenance and other areas that make up nearly a quarter of district spending.

In addition, we need to explore investment in earlier academic intervention at the elementary school level, versus more significant investments later.

At a policy level, we need to discuss not just “more help” for students in the form of extra dollars for academic intervention, but more effective instructional leadership that leads to more impactful instruction and engagement day in and day out in the classroom for all students. Success will begin with our teaching staff, who should be empowered with more flexibility to provide multiple intervention tactics that meet the needs of individual students, versus one-size-fits-all approaches.

3. Although the new Access & Equity policy would seem to do away with any need for de-leveling, some programs such as 8th & 9th grade Accelerated English currently have significant racial disparities. If the Administration asked the BOE to eliminate Accelerated English would you support the move? 

We first need to see the Administration’s specific proposal, the rationale for it, and how it comports with existing Board policy and obligations. The intent of the new Access & Equity policy is not to focus in holding some students back, but to concentrate our efforts on ways to push all students forward. We do not want to eliminate advanced coursework to accomplish the goals of the policy, as that would be no solution at all.

There are many students in our district – particularly students of color — who are fully capable of advanced work if given the opportunity and right encouragement. The same is true for girls in math and science classes and for students with disabilities, who may simply need extra supports.

One thing that needs to happen immediately is for all placement decisions, and the resulting aggregate data, to be subject to Superintendent-level scrutiny, with the Board holding Dr. Ramos accountable to overall progress.

Further, changing the structure of a program solely to change racial composition serves no one. We would not recommend the elimination of AP offerings at CHS because of their skewed racial composition. Rather, we need to more effectively address the root causes of that skewed composition. This is our general approach to other advanced offerings in the high school curriculum. That said, we must find fair and effective ways to address the unacceptable status quo in the short term, while we work on long-term solutions.

4. The SOMSD’s student population has increased by 800 students since 2006 and continues to grow by 80-100 students a year. Moreover, population pressure has been uneven at different elementary schools, resulting in persistent space problems for some schools. What kinds of rezoning would you propose/accept as a Board member? How can the district best accommodate student growth at CHS?  

We must face the realities that there will be a “new normal” of high enrollment. The Board must establish an effective, long-term planning process that lays the basis for additional operational efficiencies, takes into account the anticipated high enrollment, and manages facilities and capital spending over a 20-year horizon. All of the elementary schools are full. We have had nearly 25 portables in use for years across our elementary schools. MMS, SOMS and CHS are all crowded. We are not going to solve this problem by re-drawing boundary lines. In the shorter term, at CHS, we have called for greater use of online courses for appropriate classes (which would reduce the pressure for more and more physical classrooms). We will probably need to consider staggered attendance hours, which will require a lot of community discussion and buy-in, as well as agreement of the teachers union. The alternatives – building a new elementary school or doing more costly additions to existing schools – would appear to be cost-prohibitive.

5. The percentage of students at Seth Boyden who are Free & Reduced Lunch eligible exceeds 40%, triple the average of the other elementary schools. The district also cited a reduced number of families opting into the demonstration school last year. What do you think can be done — if you agree that something should be done — to balance SB’s FRL population with other schools? And what can be done to attract more families to opt into Seth Boyden? Do you think the school needs a new draw/magnet instead of multi-intelligence learning?

The Demonstration School approach at Seth Boyden was based on the use of “multiple intelligences,” not “multi-intelligence learning,” The approach is effective in getting teachers to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each child, engage students effectively and motivate them achieve more academically. In that sense, it is very much like the child-centered approach that we have been advocating during our campaign, and that Annemarie has used so effectively at South Orange Country Day School for several years. It’s called putting the needs of children first.

For a period of years, from 2004-2009, Seth Boyden flourished and provided the originally intended “demonstration school” model of effective best practices for other schools. That was an important aspect of its original purpose and is still needed to drive instructional improvement across our elementary schools.

Before the district considers adopting “a new draw/magnet” scheme, we think it is worth re-invigorating the original effort by providing stronger instructional leadership and more supports for teachers at Seth Boyden, including more teaching resources for what is a clearly demonstrated higher need. Doing so will also be the basis of a new district-led campaign to encourage more opt-in enrollment.

We also advocate a more effective long-term planning process to consider the range of sustainable alternatives for addressing concerns about socio-economic balance and the “new normal” of high enrollment across the district.

6. In a budget crisis, how much banked cap would you be willing to use or how much of a tax levy over the 2% cap would you be willing to vote for using exemptions and banked cap?

We are fully aware of the tax stress our community faces. Some of our opponents – namely, the Eastman/Pai/Freedson slate — have implied in their statements and print ads that they are the only candidates concerned about holding the line on taxes. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are committed to keeping annual tax increases for the operating budget at or under 2%. However, voting for 2% and then doing nothing else is not an option either.

Holding the line on taxes requires more than just adopting a tax target in September and then accepting with little question the Administration’s budget proposal in March. We need a collaborative and public budgeting process that is timely, fully informed and transparent. There are certainly millions of dollars in potential operational efficiencies to be had if the Board asks the right questions and requests better budget analyses from the Administration. That said, we are not going to cost-manage our way to fiscal stability. We need a Board of Education that is prepared to publicly debate alternatives and to recognize limits in what we can afford to do. In short, we must be ready to make hard choices and explain them to the community.

Being committed to 2% doesn’t mean we wouldn’t consider occasional exceptions, just as Eastman and Pai did in the budget vote last spring, where they supported a 2.41% increase in the General Fund tax levy!

Most importantly, we need to work harder at finding alternative sources of revenue. If we’re elected, you can expect to see a lot more engagement with municipal officials about broadening our local tax base and curtailing the use of tax abatements for developers. You can expect to see our Board stop its hand-wringing over state aid and instead help to mobilize an effective statewide campaign with school leaders across the state to force the next governor and legislature to fully fund the state aid formula. If we’re elected, be on notice as we will be mobilizing all in our community to lobby Trenton!

7. In what specific ways does your platform and your philosophy differ from those of your opponents? Regarding the incumbents, give a specific example of something you would have voted differently on had you been on the board. If you are an incumbent, give an example of a specific vote that clarifies the difference between you and your challengers. What is the board’s single most important responsibility and priority going forward?

In the context of the campaign, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish one set of candidates – and their positions — from another.

We think we are different in our belief that most children are capable of great things – academically, artistically and athletically – if adults give them the right support and encouragement as the foundation for success. This is based on Annemarie’s experience at her South Orange Country Day preschool and Chris’s experience in youth athletics. We think the well-known achievement gap for students of color is an indicator of a deeper district-wide problem of ineffective engagement that transcends race and impacts all students. We know that underachievement begins when adults underestimate or give up on some students, be they students of color, girls in math and science or children with disabilities. Underachievement and disengagement harden into ongoing failure when students give up on themselves. That is the cycle that we need to break, not just for struggling students, but also for all students.

We need to enable, encourage and empower teachers to look at each student as an individual, to see each student’s hidden potential and persist in encouraging them to reach it. Many teachers do this already. We must insist that it become the norm for all teachers K-12.

Sometimes, the pressure of the campaign leads candidates to make unfounded claims about their opponents in an attempt to differentiate themselves. This question provides us the opportunity to set the record straight on a few things:

  • Contrary to what appeared in the Pai-Eastman-Freedson ad in the News-Record, we are strongly in favor of school budgets that stay at or under the state-mandated 2% tax cap. What differentiates us from them is that we would insist on knowing in detail from the Superintendent in public how his proposed budget really ensures that the most important priorities and goals will be addressed and insist on changes in proposed spending – staying under cap – where necessary. For last spring’s budget – we would have joined Wayne and Madhu in their support for a 2.4% increase in the General Fund tax levy (using a portion of the “banked cap” taxing authority our district has been granted). But we would have done more – in the face of clearly demonstrated extra need at Seth Boyden, we would have insisted that the Superintendent explain how he was going to meet that need and what else might have to be cut to do so. In the face of many opt-in parents deciding to leave Seth Boyden, it is incumbent on the Board to ask why and what needs to be done. We would have asked a lot of other questions about alignment of spending and priorities as well rather than just rolling over last year’s spending into this year’s budget.
  • Also contrary to the Pai-Eastman-Freedson print ad, we are NOT in favor of major de-leveling in the high school. There is too wide a disparity in the preparation levels from the bottom to the top. That doesn’t mean that we support leaving everything as is. The quality of curriculum and instruction in the lower levels fails to meet our district’s obligation to students in those levels. That has to change, as we know many of the students in lower levels are fully capable of advanced work if given the right encouragement, a bit of extra academic support and fewer barriers to moving ahead.

What distinguishes us? We recognize and celebrate all the wonderful accomplishments in our district and the role that many dedicated teachers and administrators play, but we also don’t think that everything is wonderful. We call for a child-centered approach as the foundation for creating a school system that fosters an inclusive culture, where every family feels welcomed, embraced and respected.

Further, we believe the Board has a legal obligation to do effective oversight of what happens in the district and if elected, we intend to see that obligation is satisfied. That may mean demanding the details on several subjects. To name a few:

  • Making sure that effective security procedures are defined, being doubly sure those procedures are being consistently followed;
  • Making sure that every child is reading on grade level by third grade, which probably means increasing academic intervention resources to give all students the foundation to take advantage of the newly-recognized access and equity in the later grades
  • Making sure that every individual child is being challenged and making progress from year to year, rather than the current nearly-meaningless test score reports that rely on averages of grade groups
  • Ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of the district’s teacher recruitment, mentoring and evaluation.

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