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 Madhu Pai’s bio and answers, which she answered with her running mates Margaret (Peggy) Freedson and Wayne Eastman.
Madhu Pai is currently the 1st Vice President of the Board of Education. She was elected to the BOE in 2012. Madhu and her husband, Nikhil, moved to SOMA ten years ago from Brooklyn. They are the proud parents of a 6th grader at SOMS and a 3rd grader at Jefferson.
As a Senior Vice President for Publicis, a global communications company, Madhu has 20 years experience in communications. Madhu’s success has been enabled by public education in both K-12 and higher education. She holds a bachelors degree in Economics from the State University of New York. Madhu’s passion for volunteerism in education started in NYC, where she mentored at-risk students in the city’s public schools.
More recently, she led the Parent Advisory Group at the South Mountain YMCA and served on the Marshall PTA Executive Board. She remains a volunteer in her children’s schools, in addition to her board work.
- 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?
To start with the Education Summit: The board needs to be careful to avoid dictating the agenda. More than anything else, the summit should be about listening to people’s concerns and hopes. In that regard, the KIVA technique for sympathetic listening circles that Dr. Ramos has already employed successfully with Wayne, Madhu, and other members of the board and the community, including Peggy, has great potential to make the upcoming summit very different from, and much more valuable than, a standard community forum.
As President and First Vice President of the board, Wayne and Madhu have been central in working with Dr. Ramos in developing a strategy under which we will move from the listening process now underway with open houses and the summit to the development of a strategic plan, with associated action plans. As that process moves forward in 2016, Peggy, Wayne, and Madhu will work to ensure that as a district we have a laser-like focus on connecting the strategic plan and action plans to our district’s compelling new vision of access and choice, which Wayne and Madhu played a central role in advancing.
A central reason why Wayne and Madhu as the two top leaders of the board strongly supported the hiring of Dr. Ramos was his personal skill as a communicator who can blend empathy and firmness not only in his self-presentation, but also in his communication strategy for the district. The important empathy side of the communications coin is well illustrated in the KIVA listening circles technique. The important accountability side is a cornerstone of the Let’s Talk initiative we are now piloting with district administrators. Let’s Talk provides for clear measures of the promptness and quality of how we respond to our stakeholders in a way that has not been the case in the past. We strongly support accountability by district employees and board members, most certainly including ourselves, to the people we serve, and we believe that Let’s Talk is a very good vehicle to help achieve it.
- 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?
Public Speaks ebbs and flows depending on whether there are ‘contentious’ policies or issues in the district. We’ve had several of those in the recent past. It’s a hallmark of a good board when community members/staff feel empowered to speak. If so many teachers had not come before the board about IB, we would not have realized how much pressure an additional (and complicated) ‘to do’ was causing in the midst of de-leveling the middle school, implementing common core standards and the PARCC.
However, Public Speaks is not a meaningful opportunity for members of the public to have a dialogue with the Board of Education. The monthly board meeting is the Board’s opportunity to conduct its ‘business meeting’ in public. Board members are provided an extensive packet of information to review, including dense financial documents. There are sometimes important policies up for vote where language must be scrutinized and discussed. There are also presentations from the Administration, which must be given attention and scrutiny from Board members. Often, the Board’s mind is focused on the business at hand.
When parents come before the Board, they have likely (hopefully) exhausted every avenue in the district to address their issue and, sometimes, there is understandable frustration and a desire for immediate action and answers. Sometimes the Board is hearing about issues for the first time (though this is changing under Dr. Ramos). Without discussion among board members, and with Administration, it would not be responsible governance for individual board members to provide answers and speak for the Board at large.
As Board officers since January, Wayne and Madhu do capture the Public Speaks comments and raise them with Administration during our own exchanges with Dr. Ramos, in Executive Session or during Committee meetings. In some cases, we do refer issues to Administration right at the Board meetings. The Board needs to hold Administration accountable for management of the district, and in turn, provide the Administration with the opportunity to properly resolve issues that are raised. I do not believe it is fair to say that issues raised are not addressed – often they are, just not at the board meeting.
In Madhu’s first year as a Board member, she piloted Board Office Hours. These were held monthly in rotating branches of our local libraries. It was her belief, one that remains constant and is shared by Wayne and Peggy, that a separate meeting, not in public (some people may not be as bold as others in speaking out on sensitive and personal issues involving themselves/their children) and not during the Board’s business meeting, would be much more meaningful in its ability to foster interaction and dialogue. If elected, Madhu, Wayne and Peggy would welcome the opportunity to bring back Board Office Hours.
- 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?
The Access & Equity policy represents a sweeping vision for our district that was put forward initially by Mr. Eastman and adopted unanimously by the Board under Wayne and Madhu’s leadership. Ensuring its successful implementation will be a primary focus for us as Board members. We believe it is not only possible to achieve the promised “access” and “support,” but that our focus on implementing this policy will drive improvements in everything from curriculum, teaching and guidance services, to communications and community engagement.
To make good on the promise of access, we must first make clear for all students and families what the new policy means in terms of choice. This should be communicated using every available means – district and school websites, social media, email blasts, community forums, guidance meetings with individual students, and mail. We can make better use of our district, high school and middle school websites as information clearinghouses, with information about course options, extracurricular opportunities, and academic and social supports, is readily available. With access to core subject course syllabi at every level, students and their parents will able to differentiate among available options, including courses recommended by the district, and make informed choices about which classes are right for them.
The primary tool of access and support, however, will be improvement in the quality of our everyday curriculum and teaching. To that end, we hope that our administration will call upon our highly skilled and committed teachers – those who best understand the everyday challenges this new policy will present – to guide and inform decision-making and ensure the policy is a success. The vigorous support of teachers is absolutely critical. It is our belief that by empowering our teachers with a strong voice in this process, we will begin to improve the overall climate for teaching in our district – making our school district a magnet for the most promising young teachers and allowing our many talented veteran teachers to work here with renewed commitment and excitement.
To push improvements in curriculum and instruction, we will advocate for more in-depth professional development time devoted to collaborative planning and problem-solving around student achievement. This work must involve, initially, a focus on aligning our curriculum with our rigorous state standards to ensure that at every grade level, we are setting forth high expectations and appropriately challenging content, and then providing each individual student with the encouragement and support to meet those standards and, where appropriate, stretch beyond. This kind of curriculum and teaching work is cost-neutral and will go far in helping ensure that every child is getting the support they need to make “access” a reality.
To support more broad- based student learning, we would also like to see more explicit guidance in study and organization skills – skills that are highly predictive of success in high school – embedded in our core subject courses starting certainly by middle school, even into 9th grade.
Finally, the available data suggest that far too many of our students are not coming up to the middle and high school level with the strong foundations in literacy and math skills they need. Strengthening our early education programs must be a focus. We must closely monitor our new Montrose preschool program to ensure its success and its full enrollment in the near future, and we must critically examine our elementary English Language Arts program to put in place ALL of the critical components of effective ELA curriculum and teaching that may be absent. Our early reading intervention program in K-3 has shown promising results; we can build on this by extending the supports we provide through the elementary years.
- 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?
In the spirit of the policy, we would like to see more class options, not less – and believe this could be done in a cost neutral way through re-allocation of current teaching loads.
Board decisions and Administration’s recommendations should be grounded in data. No data has been shared to date on the effectiveness of 8th grade Accelerated English, but from anecdotal feedback, we believe that is a net positive experience for students who want to take on more challenge than what the grade-level English class can provide.
We would like to see a trajectory where students can take more electives, and with Accelerated English they can do just that in their senior year of high school. We would like to see more targeted teaching to students’ strengths and interests. This could mean levels but it could also mean different English classes for those who imagine themselves as academics or authors vs. those who imagine themselves in a business environment where it’s critical to know how to write succinct and analytical points of view.
We believe the Board’s goal should be to promote and enable choices and access to every student, in the best interest of every student.
- 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?
While it is frustrating that it took three years for the board majority to commit to interventions for these students, we feel very good about the approach that we are taking for our G&T program. It is responsive to the needs of identified students who require more challenge in way that is respectful to the moral compass of our community. Though Madhu did advocate that the board remain open to a combination of in-class push in and pull out programming, as most districts have, it was evident that any program with pull outs would not have been accepted in South Orange Maplewood.
We believe that a successful G&T program should have the following:
- Board and Administrative commitment that such a program is necessary for children who require G&T programming as additional intervention.
- IEPs for identified students that outline the interventions and supports that they need, while also educating parents on outside organizations and resources beyond what we can offer in the school day.
- Curriculum extensions that provide multiple points of challenge, including challenge for children who are just ahead and some who are many years ahead of the grade-level curriculum
- In class materials and supports in collaboration with the curriculum extension
- On-going Professional development and support for teachers so they consistently provide differentiated instruction, not just enrichment worksheets or self-guided projects, to highly accelerated students.
- “Hardest first” approach to classwork that avoids making children who are far beyond the grade level curriculum do work they will find boring and not challenging
The district’s current approach includes many of these things – but not all. We are also excited that the District is working closely on implementation with a well-respected expert of G&T programs who also resides in our community and understands it.
On November 18th, Susan Grierson will be hosting a special session about the district’s approach to G&T. Details for the event are being finalized and will be communicated shortly.
- 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?
The best way to deal with uneven population pressure is not to push parents and children from a neighborhood school they already attend, or have a clear expectation of attending, to another school. Instead, the district should—and we’re happy to say that we do—employ flexible district lines, or soft zones, under which students from addresses that are sufficiently close to two schools can be assigned to either school. With a soft zone system such as the one we are now using, the chances of having student population shifts force a divisive rezoning are greatly reduced.
In the not likely but possible event that uneven population pressures cannot be dealt with through soft zoning, we can give ourselves another arrow in our quiver if we follow up on the newly adopted access and equity policy originally spearheaded by Wayne and Madhu to develop areas of special excellence for within-school choice for each of our elementary schools. (Here as in many other matters involving the access and equity policy, it would be a mistake for the Board to be heavy-handed in prescribing in-school choices from above; each individual school and their faculties need to be centrally involved in generating their own in-school choices.) If we develop distinctive, appealing in-school choices for each school, we will then be in a better position to attract families from school 1 that is experiencing population pressure to nearby school 2 that has more space.
On Columbia: Enrollment in our high school is currently lower than it was some years ago. It will increase in the coming years as the rise in elementary school enrollment works its way through the middle schools and the high school. As of now, there is no reason to believe that the increase will be impossible to handle in the school’s current footprint. If that changes, we need to be open to creative ideas. Simply building more classrooms adjacent to the building is an obvious possibility, and would be a better idea for expanding Columbia than the expensive proposal for a new pool that Wayne and Madhu helped defeat two years ago. But we should also consider opportunities for having some students go to other locations, as we did for some years with the Montrose Alternative School.
- 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 are open to rezoning as one possible solution to the imbalance in SB’s Free & Reduced Lunch eligible population relative to our other schools. A better solution, we believe, and one in the spirit of the new Access and Equity policy, is to strongly support the work to identify a new program that will revitalize Boyden as a demonstration magnet.
The Multiple Intelligences model leaves a legacy at SB of many of the hallmarks of excellent elementary curriculum and teaching – a strong focus on multicultural and environmental education, a commitment to the arts, an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum planning, and a recognition of multiple pathways to learning. These guiding values now in place at the school should carry forward to a new approach.
Many suggestions have been offered for a possible alternative to the Multiple Intelligences model that could generate great excitement around the community – a Performing Arts magnet, a Bilingual Immersion magnet, a Core Knowledge curriculum magnet – to name just a few. We are open to many possible solutions, but first and foremost, would want to ensure that the parent communities impacted by these decisions are actually in the drivers’ seat on deciding.
It is also a question of fundamental fairness, we believe, that if families from around the district may choose to send their children to Seth Boyden, then Boyden families must have a choice to send their children elsewhere.
- 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?
We were gratified to learn that this past May the PARCC governing board voted to reduce the spring administration of the PARCC standardized tests from two weeks to one, and reduced the overall testing time by 90 minutes. This response to the concerns of educators and parents will allow us to still accomplish what we believe to be the goals of testing while limiting the time taken away from everyday teaching and learning.
Standardized tests like NJASK have been instrumental in bringing to light key achievement gaps in our own district and in districts across the country, so these tests have a role to play in keeping us accountable for student learning and in monitoring equity. That said, we do believe there has been an over-emphasis on testing in recent years. We want to see an education organized around a rich, engaging and multifaceted curriculum, and reject any narrowing of our curriculum towards test-like tasks, or “teaching to the test,” beyond perhaps a few sessions of preparation in test-taking strategies that have been shown to help allay children’s anxieties around testing. We support parents’ right to opt their children out of standardized testing though would not actively encourage parents to choose this option.
We also need to ensure that the test data we collect is used for its true purpose: to identify student strengths and needs and to improve classroom instruction.
- 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?
Our music and arts programs are, for the most part, excellent – regionally and nationally recognized, and central to who we are as a district. As parents of current or former students at nearly all of our district schools, we take great pride in the artistic accomplishments of our students and teachers, and are committed to ensuring that the arts continue to be foregrounded in the education our schools offer. Ongoing strength in arts programming is also key to the successful implementation of the Access and Equity policy. Our arts programs have contributed to deeper student engagement and, in all likelihood, to improved academic achievement for our students, reaching across all racial and socioeconomic groups, including children with learning disabilities.
We believe, therefore, that it would be fundamentally unwise and counterproductive to sacrifice students’ access to rich arts options in the name of improving academic preparation, and so do not support either replacing arts programming with academic remediation, or curtailing funding for the arts in order to fund additional academic support services. We feel this is a trade-off that cannot be made. If we work to find efficiencies that strengthen our curriculum and teaching, while doing more effective outreach so that struggling students take full advantage of existing academic supports, we should be able to address the challenges of the Access and Equity policy without the need for consideration or measures that will diminish the role of arts education.
We will also support and encourage our administration to look for new ways to weave arts education into a more balanced and integrated elementary curriculum, and to ensure that the middle school schedule keeps the arts in their rightful place.
Finally, we are very grateful for the work of our PTAs and very active community of committed parents who have been instrumental in strengthening our arts programming.
- 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?
In non-crisis budgets such as the ones we have had since the severe cuts in state aid several years ago, our starting point is that we should hold the administration to the 2% cap. Within that figure, administration can, and should, prioritize. The board’s budget as we pass it is not a line-item budget. Given that fact, it is a serious error to claim that unless x dollars more are included in the budget, program y must be cut, or program z cannot be added. In the irresponsible era of high spending increases that prevailed before 2006, such claims were routine. Better Board governance since then has largely though not completely eliminated these dubious claims, and has brought our rates of tax increase down. As a team with extensive Board experience, we understand how school budgeting works, and will uphold the 2% cap and sound Board governance on fiscal matters. Please scrutinize the opposing slates’ positions on the budget closely to judge whether you can have comparable confidence in their understanding of the budget process, and in their commitment to fiscal discipline.
Reasonable people can differ on whether banked cap based on, in particular, enrollment increases and health insurance cost increases, should be used routinely as a basis for raising the tax levy by more than 2%. Our position is that it should not be. In a profoundly tax-stressed local environment, with per pupil school spending in Northern New Jersey that is among the highest anywhere in the nation and the world, we need to avoid a default assumption that banked cap should be used, and should instead press to figure out ways to do our work more economically.
A crisis, in our view, is a situation in which there are serious cuts in the limited but real support the district receives from the state and federal governments. In that case, educational needs may indeed require a local tax increase above the 2% and banked cap figures. That happened several years ago, when there was a large cut in our state aid. Our operating spending went down, but our tax increase was greater than the 2% or banked cap figures. Under the circumstances, that higher rate of increase was appropriate. But those circumstances are rare, not routine—a budget crisis should not be confused with a desire to spend more money.
- 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?
The Pai-Eastman-Freedson slate differs in three major respects from the other two slates.
First, as detailed in the previous question on the budget, we are the only team that has experience in school budgets and that has a clear commitment to the 2% cap.
Second, we are the only team that has a clear commitment to the value of levels for older students and for more complex material, along with open access.
Third, we are the only team with a broad, policy-centered vision of board leadership that is not bogged down in reactivity, or in administrative details.
Consider the recently passed equity and access policy that Wayne and Madhu proposed a version of in 2012, and have led in advancing since Wayne became President and Madhu became First Vice President in January 2015. Our opponents have all expressed support for the policy, which we appreciate. What differentiates us from them is our vision of policy-oriented board leadership that enabled the policy to be born, and that with the addition of Peggy to the board will allow it to reach its full potential.
Going forward, our biggest responsibility and priority is to make our newly adopted commitment to access and choice effective. The new policy is a very big deal indeed—and to move it forward, we need a board that avoids pettiness, and is impelled by a strong positive vision of board leadership that empowers teachers, students, parents, and administrators alike. We are the slate that has that vision.