SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – Donna Smith is the first candidate to jump into the race for the South Orange-Maplewood School District Board of Education, which will be decided in November. With three seats on the Board up for grabs ad no incumbents seeking reelection, residents are hoping for a strong field of candidates from which to choose.
TAP sat down with Smith to discuss her decision to run and her views on a number of topics the BOE will face in the coming years.
“I have been involved in the District over the years, and I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that I would like to run for the Board of Ed,” Smith said. “I care about the school district. I love this community and I want to see it continue to succeed. I felt I couldn’t really run before because I had children in the schools and I needed to be home at night to supervise homework and help them along. Now that my youngest has graduated from Columbia High School, I am free to do it.”
Smith has had three children go through the school system and has strong concerns about the future of the district.
“One of the biggest issues is the fiscal cliff,” she said. “We have a huge deficit looming and it’s going to be very difficult to maintain the budget the way we’ve been doing.”
While some Board members are lobbying the state to redistribute the aid it contributes to local school districts, but Smith said that while she does support that effort, we cannot count on that happening any time soon.
“Traditionally, it has been very hard to do anything at the state level,” she said. “What it boils down to is we are left here with huge constraints on our resources. Every decision we make has to be focused on what the costs are, what alternatives there are that might be less costly. We are going to have to make that decision every time we are working on any new program or initiative.”
Another issue of great importance to Smith is the achievement gap in the district.
“The perception still remains that the system is not working to help African-American students as well as it should,” she said. “To Brian Osborne’s credit, over the years that he has been here, he has significantly reduced the number of suspensions and other disciplinary actions, which were a large cause of the complaint.”
She noted that the de-leveling at the middle schools and the implementation of the International Baccalauriate (IB) program have intended to help narrow the achievement gap, but it is hard to say whether it is working or not.
“We are still in the throes of implementing IB and the research I have done on IB indicates that the first five years can be a bit rocky,” she said. “So it’s hard to see a really great impact on the achievement gap in that time. “
“I do not favor implementing it at the high school,” she said. “It is far too costly, for one thing. The costs are somewhat hidden in the budget, but they are tremendous. There is a lot of training required. We are losing an IB coordinator at one of the middle schools that we might have spent $10,000 training. Now we are going to have to find a new person and train him or her. The costs don’t ever end.”
Smith would like to see more Columbia High School students have access to honors classes and Advanced Placement classes.
“When Superintendent Osborne came into the district, he had a policy of never denying an eligible student access to an AP class,” she said. “I think that policy has not been followed recently, based on anecdotes I have heard recently from students who have not been able to get into classes for which they were eligible.” She said she also supports efforts to identify more students who might not ordinarily take AP classes and encourage them to do it.
Smith also addressed the recent concerns over school security.
“I think the BOE must address the security issue or at least make it more clear as to what they are doing about it. That fiasco at the Marshall School was a big eye-opener,” she said. “Number one, you don’t train people in procedures to follow when what you are training them on is not operational and will not be for another year. Then to send a letter saying ‘We’re sorry for the miscommunication,” upset them even more. Board members and/or administration members should have gone to that school right away, the next day to talk to those staff members and see what they had to say.”
Smith would like to see the Board more actively involved in the community.
“Board members used to take assignments as to which school activities they would attend, to assure there would always be someone representing the Board at every event,” she said. “I would like to see more of that kind of outreach.”