Elissa Malespina — 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 Elissa Malespina’s bio and answers. Malespina is running as part of the Team SOMA 2015 slate which also includes Marian Raab and Shannel Roberts.

Elissa Malespina

Elissa Malespina

Elissa Malespina is a lifelong educator, and for nine years was a school librarian in the SOMSD, first at CHS. and then at SOMS.  Elissa was the 2014 winner of the Bammy Award for School Librarian of the Year, given by the Academy of Arts and Education. She is formerly the Supervisor of Education Technology, 6-12 STEM and Professional Development for the Parsippany-Troy Hills School District. This year she followed her passion back to the library, Elissa is now the Librarian at Somerville Middle School.

A nationally-recognized educational speaker, trainer and presenter who has been featured on NPR and in numerous magazines and websites and on PBS. A resident of South Orange for more than two decades, Elissa has been active in the community as a volunteer.

Elissa is married to Joseph Malespina, a lifelong resident of South Orange and a 1994 graduate of CHS. Their son, Matthew, is a 7th grader at SOMS.

  1. What do you think of new Superintendent Dr. John Ramos’s ideas for improved communication including KIVA and Let’s Talk? Do you think the costs of the programs are justified? What do you think should be addressed at the district-wide summit on November 10?

Make no mistake — our district has been abysmal at communication. What’s frustrating is that our district does a poor job on all fronts, whether it’s fostering open dialog and transparency about district programs, returning phone calls and emails in a timely manner, or simply promoting the great things that happen every day in all of our schools.  We’ve been too focused on protecting the message rather than sharing it. We have been reactive instead of proactive.

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to fix everything. Although I’m usually very supportive of tech initiatives, I’m not convinced that the Let’s Talk software that Dr. Ramos supports, which would cost the district $19K per year, is the answer. Putting the cost aside (although this money could do wonders to support programs in our district which routinely get their funding slashed), the software is only as good as its implementation.  If Dr. Ramos wants to get back to the basics, let’s focus on them first before we go down the road of another expensive project. It’s not hard to return a phone call or e-mail within 48 hours. Let’s start there. The culture and climate in our district, especially at the administrative level needs to change.

The Education Summit is a good starting point, and I am happy to see the new administration starting to look for input from parents. But we must also have the voice of the students, educators and administrators represented. Our new vision must allow all voices to be heard and represented. Too many policies and programs that were put in place in recent years have failed, because all voices were not at the table from the start of the process.

I have coordinated professional development for the Parsippany – Troy Hills District. I attend and speak at many educational conferences. The conferences that produce the most meaningful discussion and results are the ones that are participant-driven. Known as the Edcamp Model, this is “organic learning that stems from a Participant-Driven format and provides opportunities for every attendee to share ideas or questions.” Every attendee, whether a teacher, parent, or student, is encouraged to participate by leading a conversation or sharing a question or an idea.” No one sets the agenda; the participants do. If some people want to discuss the achievement gap, and another group wants to discuss math placement, then both sessions happen. I believe this is how the summit should be set up, instead of the district dictating what will be addressed. In the end, the results are much more powerful and meaningful.

  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?

South Orange Village President Sheena Collum does an amazing job at making sure the residents walk away from a board meeting feeling as though their concerns were taken seriously and that steps will be taken to address the issues. During the public comment portion of the meeting, Ms. Collum take notes on everything that was addressed. At the end of the meeting, she spends time answering all the questions that she can and educating the public as to why she is answering the way she is. Yes, there are certain personnel matters which she can not address publicly, but she politely explains why. This is a far cry from how our BOE meetings are run.  We need to implement this model at our BOE meetings. We can no longer continue to ignore the concerns of the public. It is obviously not working, and by answering as many questions as we can the same evening, and by following up on those that we cannot immediately answer, people will feel heard and communication will improve. Other districts do it. We can as well.

In addition, all candidates of Team SOMA2015 believe that if we are going to have a more open and transparent process, one meeting a month is simply not enough. Some of these meetings can last upwards of 4 hours. We can’t expect anyone to vote with a clear head on budget, policy or personnel matters at midnight after a full day’s work and over 4 hours on the dais. Increasing the frequency of board meetings to twice a month will allow for more sound decision-making, more timely action, and most importantly, a better means of addressing issues and concerns before they spiral into bigger problems.

I am also of the belief that if someone takes the time to send me an email,  the least I can do is send them an email back. Even if it is to say I don’t know that answer and I will look into it and get back to you. Anyone who knows me knows that I get back to people within 24 hours, and I will continue that policy of respect for all stakeholders when I am on the board.

  1. 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?

Team SOMA 2015 is very happy to see that the district’s new Access and Equity Policy. South Orange and Maplewood parents have been asking the Board of Education and school district to follow its current policies on placement and leveling for years. It’s important to understand the context of the new policy and that it is being put in place in large part because of the district’s settlement of a 2014 complaint of discriminatory placement from the Office of Civil Rights and ACLU. The complaint arose because we did not follow policy that exists.

A new policy such as Access and Equity will mean nothing, no matter how well-intentioned, if it is not implemented and enforced. From special education services, to math placement, to equal access for all, the district has not implemented the policies that are already in place to promote access and equity. For example, we already have a policy in existence that allows for greater access to higher level courses. It is called “Contract for Choice” and is one of many policies that have not been followed properly in recent years. Contract for choice allows a student to have mobility between levels, and it is something we will work hard to enforce. Our ultimate goal though is to get rid of tracking all together and allow any student who wants to the ability to take AP courses. Many other districts have been successful in reducing levels and stopping the process of tracking.  We believe we can do the same.  The other night during the Student Summit that TEAM 2015 had for students of the district we heard from some of the amazing MAC scholars at CHS who recently attended a conference with MAC Scholars from around the country. They developed an action plan to deal with the achieve gap. That plan talked about ways to reduce levels and tracking  and give everyone access to the all classes. We need to listen to the students as they have some great ideas!

We will make sure that the policy will be  properly implemented, and that the resources are available to make all aspects of it a reality. Until this new policy is more clearly defined, it is too soon to understand its full impact or to make any suggestions on what should be cut in order to make it happen. We will most likely need a thorough reexamination of scheduling and a reallocation of staff. We have Title 1 funding in some of our schools, which may be able to help fund some of the programs like after-school tutoring.  What I do know is that we must achieve access and equity for all students, and we can not continue to tolerate what has been occurring.

  1. 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?

No. Team SOMA 2015 and I would not support the idea of eliminating Accelerated English, but there must be better access to the program. Students should have the ability to opt-in to the class using the idea of Contract for Choice.

  1. The QSAC report/rating has faulted the district for a lack of differentiation in instruction for Gifted & Talented programming. What do you think of the BOE’s current proposal for Gifted & Talented students, and, specifically, what would a successful G&T program Include?

The Board of Education’s current proposal for Gifted and Talented students is good in theory, but I worry about how it is going to be implemented. Right now, there does not seem to be a clear plan for implementation, and as we know, the district’s track record of implementation is not stellar. The Gifted and Talented program that I have found to be the most successful is one that is no longer being used by the district. My son was exposed to it in 4th grade, and he still talks about Ms. King and the Greek Mythology he learned in the program. My son’s test scores would not have qualified him for our current G&T program. He is not a good test-taker.  The system in place when he had access to it gave G&T programing to all students, which exposed him to material that he would not have otherwise experienced.. He developed a love of mythology that he still has to this day.  I feel a good G&T program gives everyone the opportunity to be exposed to challenging materials. Just because someone does not succeed in math in second grade does not mean he might not develop a passion for it, and go onto succeed in high school. If that person is not exposed to the material at a young age, because some standardized test says he is not G&T material, then he/she will be missing out. I have seen so often that students rise to the challenges presented to them.  We need to encourage that.

  1. 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?  

I think this is an important issue that has been ignored for way too long by our current board of education. It is at the point that we cannot ignore the problem any longer. There seems to be two ways to solve this problem that I can see, but I am very open to suggestions from parents, educators and administration on the best solutions. It is such an important issue that I do not feel the BOE should make it on its own without hearing from all the stakeholders. Without their input and buy-in, it is doomed to fail. One of the suggestions that I have heard floated around is the idea of rethinking how our elementary schools are currently structured. We could move to one elementary school being K-2 and it feeding into another that is 3-5 in the same way Marshall and Jefferson have worked for some time.  This  could eliminate some of the overcrowding, but would mean we would have to consider rezoning our schools so that say Tuscan & Seth Boyden are paired, and one would serve as a K-2 School and the other would serve the 3-5 population. While not ideal, I was interested in the concept when I heard it, and I would be interested in learning more about it from a logistical standpoint. The second option, and one I lean toward, is looking for ways to revitalize the Seth Boyden demonstration school with a Music and Arts or STEM magnet program, which would attract students from around the district and free up spaces in the other elementary schools.

Population growth is harder at CHS because we are dealing with more limited spaces. A simple fix to the some of the problem is to move the CHILA program back to Montrose School. That space is now renovated, and we are not even close to filling the school with special education preschool students. I believe the space can accommodate both student populations and will be beneficial for both populations to be housed together on different floors. The CHILA students really thrived when they were moved out of CHS. Bringing the students back to Montrose can help them continue on their way to a HS diploma, without so many of  the distractions that are now occurring being back at the HS. It also frees up much sought after classroom space. The preschool students would benefit from having the “older” kids in the school, because we can set up programs where the CHILA students mentor and help the preschool students through being reading buddies, classroom helpers etc. Another fix can be to really look at what classes we are able to offer our students at CHS. We should not be running electives that have under 10 students in them. We just don’t have the space and resources to make that happen.

  1. 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?

We have a serious issue right now at Seth Boyden, and it is something we can no longer ignore. When the BOE was told this year that the number of free and reduced lunch students is almost double than any other school in the district, they chose to give them a little more money and possibly another social worker. But this did not address the real issues. Throwing money at the problem will not fix it. It is time to rethink the curriculum at Seth Boyden and look at ways to attract more families to it. Recently I was speaking with Anthony Mazzocchi who used to be the Supervisor of Arts and Music in the district, and he told me that he developed a plan to make Montrose an Arts and Music Magnet School. He even had gotten so far as getting a commitment from NJPAC to help make it a reality. The plan was scrapped by Dr. Osborne, but it is really something we should think about reconsidering, especially since a lot of the groundwork has already been done.

I have also heard the idea of a STEM magnet school floated around, and as a former STEM coordinator for the Parsippany -Troy Hills School District, it is something that I am passionate about.  I would love to use my knowledge and expertise to help make it happen. As I stated earlier, I am very open to suggestions from parents, educators and administration on the best way to deal with this problem. It is an important issue that the BOE should not decide on its own, without engaging all stakeholders. We must have  community support to make it work.


  1. In the past year several local Boards of Education and Administrations, such as Montclair’s and Livingston’s, came out against testing and more or less encouraged students to opt-out of the PARCC exams. Is opposition to standardized tests a statewide cause our Board of Education should take on?

Marian and I, along with a few other parents who were against the reliance on standardized testing, came together and formed South Orange-Maplewood Parents for a Quality Education group, to help inform parents about the PARCC exam and the opt-out movement.  What started as a group focused on PARCC has grown to over 600 members and expanded to discuss and advocate for the students in the district.  Our organization led the charge to get the South Orange-Maplewood school district to take a stand against the PARCC exam.  While the district agreed not to use test scores for academic placement and to allow students to not be placed in “sit and stare” situations during testing, the current Board of Education chose to not come up with a formal policy. In reality, nearly 40% of our high school students opted out of PARCC during the 2015-16 school year which is a pretty good indicator of widespread support.  Parents are making a statement, and the board needs to listen.  All three of SOMA 2015’s candidates opted their children out of the tests and have every intention of continuing to do so.  We support the BOE taking a more public stance against PARCC.

  1. How do you feel about the district’s current arts and music education offerings? If cuts are needed to the budget to cover, for example, extra support programs related to the Access & Equity policy, would you vote for cuts to the arts? What specifically would you cut?

No, I would not be in support of cutting arts and music. We are doing a disservice to our students by not exposing them to arts and music on a daily basis. Right now, our elementary students only get art and music once a week. Additionally, students who struggle most in their core academic subjects are often pulled out of music and art to provide academic support in core subjects. Unfortunately, studies show that these are the very students that benefit most from more exposure to art and music education, not less. If implemented correctly, the extra support programs for the new access and equity policy could be accomplished without significant added cost to the district. Programs that support the development of the whole child should not be pushed aside in deference to tested subjects.


  1. 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?

Anyone who says going over the 2% cap is unequivocally out of the question isn’t thinking their answer through. Do I believe that we should be more hawkish about all areas of the budget? Yes. Cutting waste from our budget is imperative considering that such a high percentage of our tax levy goes to schools. I would absolutely work hard to keep the tax levy under the 2% cap, and I have a proven track record of questioning costs that I see as unnecessary, or exorbitant.  In a district with aging infrastructure and numerous deficiencies that need to be addressed, it is up to the board to make the right decisions to support our students, their safety and their future.  Sometimes that will mean making tough choices, and if the right choice is to go over the 2% cap, I will seek to be transparent about the reasons why and will work to make sure the overage doesn’t become an ongoing expense.


  1. 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?

My SOMA 2015 teammates and I have spoken on the campaign trail about the need for better communication, more common sense and the courage to make tough choices. We believe in being transparent and listening to all stakeholders especially the students. Student voice is something we feel so strongly about that we held a student summit event during our campaign to hear from the students. We heard about what was working well and what they feel needs to be changed. This is something that we hope to make a yearly event when we are on the board and something none of the other slates has done.

Over the past few years our Board and our administration have lost touch with reality. We’ve become so focused on metrics and data analysis that we’re not observing or addressing what’s actually happening in our schools. If you only look at data, it’s easy to make surgical, quick-fix decisions that end up costing the district money and are detrimental to the continued success of our students. One glaring example of this was the implementation of the International Baccalaureate program at our middle schools. The IB program was presented as a cure-all to solve the issues of leveling, the achievement gap, and a perception that the SOMSD curriculum lacked rigor. In reality, the program, which is implemented in less than 4% of public schools nationwide and less than .5% of New Jersey’s public schools, was exorbitantly expensive to implement and maintain. It didn’t align well with common core standards and was put in place without substantive input from parents or teachers. For three years, teachers and parents, including myself, spoke out about the implementation of the program and rather than listen to these concerns, the board continued to push on and cheerlead for the program. By the time the board and the district finally realized the program was doing more harm than good, hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent. I applaud the board’s eventual move to abandon and move past IB, but the fiscal and educational fallout it caused could have been completely avoided, if the majority of voices speaking out had been taken seriously. Yes, data analysis plays a vital role in decisions the board and district make, but it shouldn’t inform the entirety of those decisions. Board members need to get into the schools and observe what’s really happening so they’re not completely reliant on the administration’s data.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am very passionate about education. I’m excited to have the opportunity to bring my passion and drive and expertise to the board.  I have chosen to run with two equally passionate women who share my love for and my concerns about our district. We are honored to have the endorsement of our teacher union something that they have not done for almost a decade.  If elected, Marian Raab, Shannel Roberts and I will work hard to build our schools back to their former glory and to provide a safe, challenging environment for ALL students.


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