Editor’s note, June 17, 5:50 p.m.: the article has been updated with a quote from BOE member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad explaining why she voted against the resolution.
For the first time since Seth Boyden Elementary became a demonstration school, in-zone Seth Boyden families will be able to opt-out, with the alternative to attend Marshall-Jefferson schools. During a long meeting, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education passed a resolution 8-1 on Thursday, June 15. The decision was met with resounding applause.
When Seth Boyden was designated as a demonstration school nearly 20 years ago, families from other elementary schools in South Orange and Maplewood were able to “opt in” to Seth Boyden. The option allowed families to enjoy Seth Boyden’s “multi-intelligence curriculum” and also helped to create greater racial balance in the district’s elementary schools.
However, in-zone Seth Boyden families did not have an option to opt out of Seth Boyden and opt in to a different South Orange-Maplewood elementary school.
The resolution last night sought to rectify a situation that many families said was unfair.
The vote took place after lengthy debate and significant support from community members as well as parents of Seth Boyden students who spoke passionately
“I am persuaded by the public speakers and sentiment of the board, and I am prepared to recommend that we go forward,” said Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr., Superintendent. “I am also presenting the caveats and requesting members of the board and community to understand just how hard it is.”
Dr. Ramos detailed his logistical concerns for the passing of the resolution. “The problem we have here is one of proximity—that is to say that we’re so deep into the school year and so close to the new one,” he explained. “There are logistical concerns such as the fact that Title 1 funds stay with the school and don’t follow the students [should they opt to attend another school]”
Paul Roth, the district’s Business Administrator, spoke about the logistical challenges which would take place in terms of transportation if Seth Boyden in-zone students choose to attend Marshall-Jefferson. He explained he will have to receive bids for the bus routes, and also cited concerns about the shortage of school bus drivers in New Jersey. In addition, he raised the issue of needing to know the names of students who would opt-out of Seth Boyden so he could track new bus routes.
But board member Annemarie Maini asserted the need to move forward. “We find money when it’s what we want to do,” she said. “I will speak for myself and a few members on the board. We want to do this. We’re going to have to rezone. We can’t be stopped because we can’t figure out a bus route.”
“We have to stop kicking things down the road and need to get it done,” added board member Chris Sabin.
Suzanne Turner, Director of Strategic Communication, explained the reasoning behind Marshall-Jefferson as the option choice for Seth Boyden-zones students. “Students in other zones can only choose between their zoned school and Seth Boyden. They do not have the option to choose any elementary school they want,” she said. “So the plan is for students zoned for Seth Boyden to have the option to choose to attend either Seth Boyden or Marshall-Jefferson. Marshall-Jefferson was chosen because they have the most available seats for next year.” During the Board meeting, Board members also stressed that no in-zone Marshall-Jefferson families would be displaced by the decision.
District rezoning may affect how the Seth Boyden option would function. Turner explained that the district is currently reassessing enrollment across all the elementary schools. “We know that we need to make changes, since some schools are overenrolled and others are not, and the schools range from very few students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch to 47% who qualify,” she said. “The board and administration spent this year working with a consultant, Ross Haber, to assess our space needs. Next year, the board and administration will consider different options for addressing enrollment across the elementary schools. Depending on what option(s) the district decides to pursue, any decision we make now for 2017-2018 may not be applicable in future years.”
[At the April Board of Ed Meeting, both Haber and Nancy Gagnier of the Community Coalition on Race reported on the growing economic and racial imbalance in the school district’s elementary schools as Seth Boyden’s student population has grown increasingly black as other elementary school have grown increasingly White. Seth Boyden’s number of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches has also increased.]
Kelly Villaneuva, who has three children at Seth Boyden and will serve as PTA co-president next year, spoke during the hearing of individuals and delegations. She cited statistics from a recent survey completed by parents of Seth Boyden students. According to the survey 68.5 percent of Seth Boyden-zones parents would like to have the option to send their students to another school, and 62.2 percent said they would choose to remain.
“Our community [at Seth Boyden] values our high level of teachers, outdoor learning center, garden, and arboretum,” Villaneuva said.
Board member Johanna Wright said she was inspired by the recent meeting that took place. “I’ve been part of the Seth Boyden family since Strawberry Fields. When I watched the board meeting the other day, I knew a change was coming,” she said. “This is huge and I know we’re going to find a way to make it work.”
The sole dissenting vote was Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad who said that, while she supported Seth Boyden families having equal choice, she also wanted to see a more comprehensive redistricting solution to address the increasing racial imbalance in the district.
Reached by Village Green after the meeting, Lawson-Muhammad sent the following statement:
Since joining the board 4 years ago, I’ve been a strong advocate for Seth Boyden year after year. And I’ve been frustrated and disappointed at how little the district has been able to offer and our inability to make a major impact. My expectation for the study conducted this year was that we’d end up with an actionable recommendation from our consultant. Instead we just got more data confirming what we already know. Our schools are over crowded, our infrastructure is crumbling, and our numbers are out of wack at Seth Boyden. Couple that with the demographics study conducted by CCR and the picture is bleak. Action is required, we can’t wait any longer, we must figure this out.
Yet we stand without a plan…
Giving choice to Seth Boyden on its face sounds simple enough… sounds like the right thing to do: Leveling the playing field, ensuring equal treatment across the district. But what will opening the doors at Marshall/Jefferson really do for the Seth Boyden community. Will if fix the concerns teachers and parents have outlined year over year? Absolutely not, it’s a symbolic gesture and I think Seth Boyden deserves more than symbolism.
I don’t want folks cheering and patting themselves on the back like we did something that will move the needle. We’ll move the needle when we face the issue that just across Springfield Avenue is Tuscan, an over crowded school that desperately lacks diversity. A school that is supposed to be the home to kids formerly zoned for Seth Boyden that were shifted with the set up of the demonstration model. But those kids are now opting in to SB because it’s a more welcoming environment.
If Marshall Jefferson has actually figured out how to get diversity right then we need to use it as a model for other schools that lack diversity.
I want change that moves the needle. That’s why I voted yes on the other items to benefit Seth Boyden. Items that everyone agrees will work: improved access to registration, translation services, a community coordinator. These are impactful changes.
As we look to 2017/18 we have to be committed to developing a roadmap to deal with the problems outlined above to create a unified equitable district—where every student has equal access and opportunity.
Regarding the costs that would be generated by the opt-out option for Seth Boyden, Turner said, “It’s really too early to know the actual cost. It is safe to say it will cost at least $75,000 to add one extra bus route. We may need more than one bus route added.”
Donny Levit is a Maplewood-based writer and editor. Previously, he has served as a Brooklyn-based editor for news sites that include BKLYNER, Brooklyn Pulp, Park Slope Stoop, and South Slope News. He is editor-in-chief of New Pulp City, a New York/New Jersey-based culture news site. His book Rock n’ Roll Lies was published in 2015.