SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — What the third annual Candi-Date lacked in attendance, it made up for in conversation between voters and three of the seven candidates running for South Orange Maplewood Board of Education. The November 3 event, held at Congregation Beth-El, had some 25-30 SOMA residents in attendance. The event was a round robin, 20-minute conversation with each candidate at three tables.

Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad was asked by a Columbia High School student about security guards in the schools, especially at the elementary level. “I don’t want our kids in school feeling as though they’re in fortresses, that they’re in a dangerous situation.” She felt security guards are not needed in the elementary schools, and noted that over the past several years the relationship between the security guards at CHS and the students “has dramatically improved” to a more respectful situation.

A parent who said she’s lived in the district for 17 years asked about how teacher evaluations are conducted. Lawson-Muhammad said the district “uses the Danielson Framework as the evaluative tool for teachers.” Six years ago, when the Framework was new to SOMSD and she was in her first BOE term, they were only using one portion of the evaluative tool. When Dr. Thomas Ficarra was interim superintendent, “he helped us understand you can’t pick and choose which part of Danielson you are going to do,” she said, and the district is now working toward using the full breadth of the evaluative tool. 

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Erin Siders was asked at a different table about budgeting for special needs students. Siders, who has parented a special needs child through the district herself, said that in trying to save money, the district was “thinking that the special ed budget was the place where we could make cuts…. It was, let’s take the out of district kids” those who attend a school outside the district which can meet their needs and which SOMSD pays for, “and bring them back in. And I am against that. I will always be against that because the reality is we have a segment of our special needs population that cannot be serviced in district. So to say bringing kids back in is going to save the district money is a false narrative.” The same amount of money will be spent on educating those children either way, she said.

Thair Joshua was asked in one group how his background in finance could be helpful on the board. “If I win and get selected to the finance committee of the board, it would definitely help as we do our zero-budgeting process,” he said. Building leaders no longer carry over their budget from the previous year and tweak it, he said. “Every year we now ask them to start with zero, as if you have nothing in your school, and tell us what you need. That’s how we build a budget.”

Joshua was also asked about his vision of implementing integration. He said he favors the controlled choice model that the Montclair School District has used, “a magnet model where all the elementary schools were assigned themes” and made sure the racial balances in those schools reflected the town. “That’s how they fixed it” in the 1970’s when both Montclair and SOMSD were sued for lack of integration, he said, “and they haven’t had to do anything since. We’ve done Seth Boyden, we did rezoning around South Mountain…we’ve done all these different things to fix the integration problem and it keeps coming up. So I’m a big proponent of going to the Montclair model.”

Although cordial the day of, the event was not without some controversy. Three candidates did not accept their invitation to appear, and sent a Candidate Statement to TAPinto SOMA explaining why. Ritu Sharma, a volunteer at the event, said she strongly disagreed with their assessments. Johanna Wright was not in attendance and her absence was not mentioned.

The event was produced by grass roots local groups SOMA Action and PARES (Parents in Partnership for Equity and Respect in SOMA). The SOMA Action’s Facebook page’s description says, “We are committed to social and environmental justice, a healthy nation and planet and a transparent and accountable government. SOMA Action promotes the dignity, rights and welfare of the community, earth and society and we stand in solidarity with other groups working toward these goals.” Their group has 1,827 members on Facebook.

PARES, the Facebook page says, “was founded in March 2017 by a volunteer group of parents of the South Orange School District. Our group is interested in partnering with all parents, community members and the South Orange Maplewood School District Administrators to address bias and acts of hate and discrimination in our schools. Our first step in this quest is documented in an Open Letter to the Community, School Board and SOMSD Administration pinned in this group and posted on March 14, 2017. We look forward to working with you all to ensure that SOMA schools are a safe place of learning where respect and equality is actively built and embraced.” The group has 716 members on Facebook.

Voting will take place tomorrow, November 5.