Five community members are vying for three seats on the 9-member South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education: Regina Eckert, Nubia Wilson, Bill Gifford, Will Meyer and Ritu Pancholy. Terms are for three years. Election day is November 8, 2022; read more here.
The following candidate statement is from Pancholy and Meyer.
We’re running as a team for the Board of Education under the ticket “Doing Better, Together.” We both believe our community is stronger when we work toward our mutual goals collaboratively and commit to supporting all students in their educational growth.
Public school boards are the most local form of democracy and self-governance, with the purpose of helping the entire community to do better together. That’s the vision we are committed to. We are both parents with kids in the public schools who volunteer to help kids thrive. Will spent last Tuesday at South Mountain School helping teachers set up their classrooms. Ritu spends her weekends on the soccer field coaching our community’s kids. We both have professional expertise in public education, as lawyers with experience on different sides of the public school system – Ritu representing the country’s largest school district and Will representing students with special needs for well over a decade. We’ve been on opposite sides of the table, and we’ve reached across that table and learned to see the public schools from multiple perspectives.
We’re running for BOE together because we share a commitment to public schools and to fighting for a multi-racial, multicultural democracy. Will is a tall white New Englander, Ritu a proud Indian American from New Jersey. We come from different places, yet we share what’s most important: a set of values that prioritizes inclusion, equity and democracy as the way to a great education for all. We’re running for Board of Ed because we know that our community can do better, together. Below, we each share the story that brought us to this campaign.
Statement of William Meyer
Hi neighbors, my name is Will Meyer, and I’m running to represent our community on the Board of Education.
I’m running for the BOE because I want to see every student in our district have access to the best education we can provide. To me, that means an education that meets the unique needs of all our children; an education where the richness of our towns’ diversity is fully represented and celebrated in every classroom; and an education that is responsive to the needs of our community and our world.
Since 2006, I have worked as a special education lawyer in New York, for six years at a non-profit and since then in a private firm. I represent the families of students with disabilities who need better access to appropriate educational supports from their school district. It is rewarding work but also heart-wrenching. I’ve heard stories from hundreds of parents whose kids were struggling academically and emotionally in their public school classroom, with no hope in sight. I’ve witnessed the countless ways a school system can fail a child, but also the ways that a district can respond appropriately to fix those issues, if it has the knowledge and inclination to do so. Most importantly, I’ve seen the tears of relief from a parent once they see their child thriving in a program that is meeting their needs. That’s what motivates me to do this work, and I want our district to be an example of a place where all children can thrive.
My wife Katie and I moved with our two young kids to South Orange in 2019. We came here for the vibrant sense of community, breadth of diversity, and of course the schools. My son Henry is a second grader at the South Mountain School and my daughter Josephine is a preschooler at the Montrose Early Childhood Center. Katie is Chief Innovation Officer at Planned Parenthood – she’s the star in our household. We love SOMa and are certain this community was the right choice for us, and the place where our family will grow and thrive.
In my personal time, I’m very involved as a parent and community member in our schools. I serve on the South Mountain PTA as co-chair of programming. I have volunteered as class parent at SMS, where I coordinated a first grade food drive that served Thanksgiving meals to 100 families in need, as well as at our kids’ preschool. I also had the pleasure of serving as a recess volunteer at the SMS Annex on almost a weekly basis last year, after the district couldn’t hire enough lunch monitors due to pandemic-related shortages. I made about a hundred five- and six-year-old friends in the process, and got to have lots of candid conversations with teachers and staff as well.
We are fortunate to be part of a school district where teachers care tremendously and go above and beyond daily, our parent community is deeply invested in ensuring equity and excellence for all students, and our administrators truly want to help our kids succeed. We are especially lucky to have such active PTA/HSAs and a strong Special Education Parents Advisory Council.
But let’s be clear: we can do better for our children. Not all our students find equal opportunities to be successful in our schools. Kids with different learning needs are especially impacted, and we have serious disparities in educational success based on race, income, and other factors, despite steps the board has taken to address them. Covid has had a drastic impact on student achievement and emotional well-being, and has also led to fraying of relationships between and among parents, teachers, the district, and the board. We all have a responsibility and an opportunity to be part of improving our relationships and conducting open, good-faith dialogue about how to best educate our children and keep our district moving forward.
I entered this race because I believe my years of experience advocating for equal opportunity in education puts me in a strong position to help our district meet its legal and societal obligations. My history of working cooperatively and congenially with school district lawyers and staff, even while I was advocating that they do more for children, will serve the board well by bringing a level-headed and collaborative approach to its interactions with teachers, district administration, and fellow board members. And most importantly, I would like to bring a fresh set of listening ears to the board to hear the voices that often go unheard to help inform policy decisions.
I look forward to speaking with as many members of our community as possible to hear your experiences, hopes and ideas about how we can all do better, together. And by November 8th, I hope I will have earned your vote.
Statement of Ritu Pancholy
I am a proud, enthusiastic life-long New Jersey resident. Growing up in Burlington, New Jersey I attended a socio-economically and ethnically diverse public school where teachers nurtured me and propelled me to think about how I would give back in the future. I believe in the power of public schools and the opportunities it provides for first-generation Americans like myself, the daughter of Indian immigrants.
Almost twelve years ago, I moved to South Orange with my husband, Darshan Bachhawat. We were expecting our first child and it was important to us to be part of a community where we could raise our children and have access to nature, the arts, and diversity among our neighbors. We now have two children at the South Mountain Elementary School, a fifth grader and a third grader. Our weekends are filled with soccer – both my husband and I serve as parent coaches for Cougars Soccer – and lots of laughter and fun with our neighbors and friends. I love coaching my daughter and her team because it provides me with an opportunity to interact with younger kids on the field, encourage their growth, and watch them improve over the years. I’ve also probably tied over a hundred cleat laces on the field over the years. Coaching reminds me of the importance of working together as a team. I am also an enthusiastic tennis player and have formed wonderful friendships with members of our community on our public tennis courts.
I attended Rutgers University where I followed my passion for political science by becoming involved in local New Jersey political races, served as an undergraduate Board of Trustee representative, and advocated for greater public funding from the State for the university. After Rutgers, I attended law school at Duke University and started my career at a large law firm in New York City as a litigation associate. I subsequently left corporate law to start a role as an Agency Attorney in the General Counsel’s Office at the New York City Department of Education (“DOE”).
At the DOE I was responsible for ensuring the DOE’s existing policies were upheld, reviewing policies to ensure they were revised to reflect current law, defending the DOE in employment litigation post termination after a teacher or administrator sued the DOE, and representing the DOE in litigation or compliance reviews brought by U.S. Dep’t of Justice or Office for Civil Rights. I also became intimately familiar with parents’ requests for an accommodation for their students, equity issues as it relates to student suspensions, transportation issues, admissions, and other student requests. I left the DOE with an in-depth understanding of how complex it is to run a school district. I also left with a passion for ensuring all students received equal access to an excellent public education. After all, public schools and teachers enabled me and so many others to thrive and contribute to society.
After a few years as an in-house employment attorney for a corporation, I started my own human resources employment law consulting company called Culturupt. At Culturupt I focus on ensuring that complaints of discrimination, harassment, and a toxic work environment are addressed through impartial workplace investigations. I am also passionate about ensuring that organizations develop a Code of Conduct and a compliance culture that prioritizes respect and an ethical culture in the workplace. I am called upon frequently to deliver Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training, as well as Sexual Harassment training in the workplace. Because of my work, I know how important an inclusive culture and mutual respect are to an organization’s well-being.
In addition to my soccer coaching, I have been a dedicated and passionate volunteer in our community. I previously served as President of SOMA Action, a volunteer organization dedicated to driving progressive action in our town to help encourage the state and federal government to be as democratic and truly representative as possible. As President of SOMA Action I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of community members to mobilize our community to work for a more just and equitable society.
I am running for Board of Education this year because I am confident that my interwoven skills as an education attorney, who understands the complexity of public education administration, and as an entrepreneur who consults with organizations on their culture, can contribute to our school district as we move forward. Education issues are complex and challenging because there are a host of regulations, policies and agencies that govern public schools, and our decisions impact the ones we care about most- children. At the core I know that we need to create more thoughtful collaboration on the Board of Education in order to continue to drive meaningful change in our community. I am looking forward to earning your vote to serve our community and our public schools.