Getting to Know Interim South Orange-Maplewood BOE Member Kamal Zubieta

by Mary Mann
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Kamal Zubieta

Kamal Zubieta is the newest member of the nine-member South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education. She was  appointed in a 6-2 vote by the board on February 10, replacing Javier Farfan, who stepped down for personal reasons in January.

Zubieta was one of three candidates to apply for the interim position. She will serve through January 2021.

Per a request by Village Green, Zubieta provided the following biographical information:

Kamal Zubieta was born in Morgantown, WV and primarily raised in Northville, MI.  She received her MBA from the University of Chicago in 1999 and a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Michigan in 1995.  Kamal moved to Maplewood, NJ in 2003 and lives with her husband Ricardo Zubieta, CFO of QMC Telecom, and her three daughters, all students in the South Orange Maplewood school district.

Looking forward to serving as an interim member of the Board of Education, Kamal brings relevant skills to the position such as project management, financial planning, and process improvement.  In the life insurance industry, she managed multi-variable marketing campaigns, developed budgets, and conducted ex-post analyses. As a management consultant, two of her projects included leading a business process team for an aerospace company and identifying system requirements and software vendors for a healthcare provider.  Kamal has also worked in the non-profit sector.

She is currently a stay-at-home parent and volunteers at the reference desk of Maplewood Memorial Library.  In the past she has worked with the Achieve program as a math tutor at Columbia High School and with Girls on the Run as a coach at Jefferson Elementary School. While her children were in elementary school, Kamal visited classrooms to educate students about India and Sikhism. She and her husband prioritize raising their girls to honor their Chilean, Indian, and American heritage and to contribute positively to the academic environment and the diverse culture of the school district.

Zubieta also provided additional information on her background and her desire to serve at the Feb. 10 special board meeting at which she was appointed. Zubieta sat a table with the other two candidates, Susan Bergin and Sharon Tanenbaum Kraus; all three presented opening statements to the BOE, then answered questions.

Board President Annemarie Maini thanked all three, noting that each had a “breadth of skill that was very impressive.” Bergin noted her work in the district feeding students, working to cover fees for graduating students, writing a grant for wi-fi in the Seth Boyden School neighborhood, and more. Kraus, who ran for a position on the BOE last fall, touted her skills as a journalist and editor, managing teams; she noted her ability to work well with others. Watch both Bergin and Kraus present their qualifications on the video here.

Zubieta begins making her presentation at the 12:40 mark in the video:

“My husband I have lived in Maplewood for 16 years with our three daughters, all current students in the district,” says Zubieta. “We’ve absolutely loved it here.” She noted that Marshall, Jefferson, Maplewood Middle School and Columbia High School “have helped them grow in so many ways, intellectually, socially and emotionally. The ride has been mostly fantastic, but it hasn’t been without bumps.” Zubieta said she wanted “to smooth out those bumps using strategic planning, careful execution and necessary support of our superintendent Ronald Taylor.”

Zubieta noted that she had invested time and expertise in assisting the district in various ways: as a CHS math tutor through Achieve, acting as a Girls on the Run coach for students at Jefferson, interacting “positively” with students at Maplewood Memorial Library, and speaking in elementary school classrooms with students about India and Sikhism. She also noted that her husband is from Chile and has helped her children understand their unique experience as Chilean Indian Americans.

“Volunteering is surely satisfying,” said Zubieta. “Impacting students’ lives is satisfying. I know this community. I know the different fabrics that it is sown of, and I know the common threads that bind it. And I see and feel the complex issues the district faces. Our superintendent Ronald Taylor has clearly outlined the issues most in need of attention and resources: Access & Equity, security and mental health. To address these needs and to support our superintendent, I would bring the deeply balanced education I have received by volunteering in the district. I would bring my work experience in project management, financial planning and process improvement.”

She continued: “As a Chicago MBA and Michigan math and econ major, my modus operandi is always to systematically analyze facts, to research options and to thoughtfully and purposefully consider public and peer sentiments. But as with all decisions I would always bring my internal compass: what I believe to be good, inclusive and pragmatic decisions.”

“Some of those decisions are coming up soon, the first of which is the budget [which] needs to be dissected, adjusted and approved. I fully support the  priorities our superintendent has outlined. Still I would like to examine further how the district will fund an increased emphasis on its priorities with only a 2% increase in the local tax levy and an unknown percentage change in state, federal and debt service aid — especially when almost half of the currently project revenue increase of $5.5M is earmarked for preschool expansion, leaving just $2.8M.” Zubieta said other important priorities included “ensuring success for existing Access & Equity measures and to identify best practices for possible expansion. Decisions to deliver increased safety measures beyond security guards and ID cards. And decisions to effectively address mental health issues starting with the recognition of self medication and self harm as symptoms of anxiety and stress. Only then can we explore how best to identify and support students in need of mental health services.”

Zubieta concluded, “I’m the right person to help make these important decisions. … I prepare meticulously, analyze carefully, bring relevant community and business experience. [I] listen, listen, and consider diverse opinions with compassion. I represent the values of the South Orange-Maplewood community and I would like to serve as the interim member of the BOE.”

During questioning, Zubieta also said she had the ability to recognize and admit when she was wrong, saying she was initially skeptical about leveling up. “When classrooms were fist being opened to all students, I had deep fear that teachers would teach to the lowest levels. … After just six months into the first school year with Access & Equity, I began to change. My ability to self reflect and see results, what’s actually happening .. I can see facts. I can see how things actually work and I have the humility to say I was wrong.”

Zubieta also spoke about her experience teaching students about Sikhism and discussed the extraordinary, and sometimes overlooked, religious diversity in the district.

Candidates answered questions on board goals, special education and more.

Watch the full presentations and questions here.

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