October 29, 2013 at 12:24 AM
WEST ORANGE, NJ - The West Orange Council of PTAs Board of Education Candidate's debate was held at West Orange High School on Oct. 28 with only two of the three candidates. Present were incumbent Sandra Mordecai and Mark Robertson, a newcomer to the local political scene. Phil Orphanidis was not present, citing a death in his family.
Moderated by the League of Women Voters, the debate was attended by about 40 community members and ran about an hour. Mordecai and Robertson appeared to be in agreement on several topics of discussion.
After their introductory remarks, the two candidates were asked several questions that they had time to prepare for, followed by written audience questions. The first question asked the candidates what avenues for savings they would utilize with a 2 percent cap. Robertson replied that he would pursue a pro bono forensic audit if possible; energy audits; quality assurance audits; shared services, and his oft-mentioned suggestion of the evening, seeking out corporate grants and partnerships.
Mordecai said the district's primary goal was student achievement, raising the graduation rate and addressing attendance; she said the district had shared services for fuel and paper and received over 4 million in government grants since 2010. She noted the district has completed an energy audit that is expected to save $300K per year.
The next question concerned whether or not they supported user fees for extra curricular activities. Stating that approximately 36 percent of West Orange students qualify for free or reduced lunch, Mordecai said she believed there were other ways to save money, and Robertson said he would like to seek university and corporate partnerships for funding of extra curricular activities.
When asked whether or not they would be willing to reduce or eliminate comprehensive curriculums to save money, both said no. Mordecai noted that after the 7 million in cuts in 2010, supervisory positions were combined, and caused several long term problems. She also mentioned the addition of several new programs, including ROTC/aerospace, STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and robotics. Robertson again said with the help of corporate partnerships, the district could expand homework and tutoring help and add 21st century computer language skills training.
What are the priorities of the candidates? Both answered the hiring of a permanent Superintendent.
What do the candidates feel about the new PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers) testing requirements to be in place for 2014? Both advocated for more computer purchases and Mordecai mentioned the district's need to change its bandwidth capabililities.
Should there be freshman and junior jarsity sports teams at the high cchool? Both candidates said yes, saying that 14-year-olds cannot play with 17-year-olds and that all levels of sports play helped to develop not only athletic, but life skills.
How would you improve parental involvement? Mordecai endorsed more computer training for parents, especially for Naviance and Parent Portal, and said she would like to see Night Parent/Teacher meetings made available. Robertson wanted to do parent and teacher surveys; provide detailed course syllabi to parents; send out parent letters and hold town hall meetings.
Where do the candidates stand on privatization of services? Mordecai said the buses are already privatized, along with food services. She said the district would not privatize security. Robertson did not want to privatize child study teams.
Both candidates believed that the district could improve its staff diversity, with Mordecai discussing the district's Diversity Committee, recrutiment efforts at various job fairs, and the diversity training going on in the district. Robertson believed stronger relationships with universities would aid in recruitment.
To keep taxes at bay, Mordecai believed that centralizing the grant process would help; Robertson believed corporate grants were the answer.
Both candidates believed that the HAP (High Aptitude Placement) program should be expanded to include the top 5 percent or greater of high performing students with more frequent reviews.
Both candidates advocated options for students that were inclined to academia but still needed physical activity, like ping pong and President's Physical Fitness Challenges.
The moderator read a statement from Phil Orphanidis at the beginning of the debate. He said he was in a "moment of grieving" but that he has knocked on 5,000 doors around town. Although he was only 27, his "heart and mind were in the campaign for the right reason." He managed a large corporation (working at UPS) managing a staff of 20; and trained entry level supervisors. He believes that finding the new superintendent is the most important issue; that that superintendent should create new policies and procedures, and that the goal should be to make West Orange "one of the top 10 public school systems in NJ"--that would also raise property values.