Ronald Taylor appears to have hit the ground running.
The new superintendent of the South Orange-Maplewood School District — who took office on July 8 — described the work he has undertaken during his first few weeks on the job, from meeting with principals, parents and other stakeholders, to preparing for the first day of school.
“I will say it’s been a fantastic 20 days, and it also feels a lot longer than 20 days, based on all the work we are doing, as you have heard our team members explain this evening,” Taylor told the Board of Education at its meeting on Monday.
Taylor listed his three top priorities: learning the culture of the district, instilling confidence in stakeholders, and ensuring that schools are ready to open when students head to classes on Thursday, September 5.
“We are in the people business, so I want to learn from the people that are here every day,” he said.
Taylor said he had convened one-on-one meetings with school principals, held a conference call with the president of the South Orange and Maplewood Education Association (SOMEA) to “hopefully continue the rapport” established in a June meeting, met with the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC SOMA) to gain historical context on the community’s special education needs and processes and with the executive board of Achieve.
With an eye on security practices and community concerns, Taylor said that he had met with the police chiefs of South Orange and Maplewood, along with the fire chiefs of the two municipalities, and with the district’s Director of Security Thomas Shea.
The effects of security drills on students’ well-being were a topic of concern from various speakers at the Board of Education meeting in May, before Taylor took office.
Taylor also delved into the details of some of the district’s maintenance efforts, including a plan to replace carpeting in elementary schools, as well as repairs on a sinkhole near Columbia High School.
The new chief school administrator also noted that two of the district’s most ambitious initiatives were a primary focus.
“At the heart of all this work is still our 2021 integration plan,” he said. “In the background is also the $160 million facility improvement plan. There’s always planning happening around these two initiatives.”
In June, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of School Estimate approved a sweeping $157.4 million capital improvement and integration plan, known as the Long-Range Facilities Plan, to expand classroom space throughout the district, address long-neglected maintenance issues and advance the redistricting of each school to achieve socioeconomic and racial balance.
Over the past couple of years, the district had planned to eliminate segregation in its schools by creating a student body within each school that reflects the demographics of the entire district. Originally scheduled to be enacted in the fall of 2020, the plan was postponed to the beginning of the 2021 school year.
During the public speaks portion of the meeting that followed, Maplewood resident Abigail Murtaugh delivered an impassioned plea to Taylor and the board to “design and implement a desegregation plan.”
“Let me underline: It’s 2019. Our two towns pride themselves on diversity, inclusion and equity — and our schools are segregated,” she said. “Desegregation is an urgent need. We can all agree that it is just as important as improving fields and improving leaky pipes.”
Murtaugh lamented the pushed-back deadline to 2021 for the district’s desegregation plan and said that rumors have been circulating that “even that hard deadline might not exist anymore.”
“I can tell you I am committed to that date,” Taylor said, noting that he had met with the BOE committee in charge of integration and redistricting. “There are lots of different ways to achieve the goals the district has for integration.”
As for redistricting, Taylor added, “I can tell you it is always challenging but is something we can do together.”