MAPLEWOOD, NJ - The seven candidates in this year’s South Orange/Maplewood Board of Education election took part in a debate at the Maplewood Public Library on October 10, with two incumbents, Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and Johanna Wright, running for re-election and a third seat being open. The candidates touched on numerous issues, including special education, school construction and the role of the administration. The debate was very civil, despite the issues presented, with no heated discussions and only the applause for various candidates interrupting the rhythm of the debate. Elissa Malespina, of the group South Orange/Maplewood Cares About Schools, moderated it.
The debate involved questions being asked of the candidates at random. Cary Smith had the first question, regarding the school budget. Asked if he would endorse a plan to reinstate paraprofessionals and custodians hired directly by the district in place of contracted workers, Smith said that he thought it was a good idea and worth looking into. Smith also said that the district ought to have more supervision over paraprofessionals in order to train them for CPR, a form of training that Smith, a volunteer first responder, considered essential. He regretted that he could not answer how to pay for it without first looking at where cuts can be made to offset the increases.
Narda Chisholm-Greene also made a point about prioritizing spending with regard to arts programs. Chisholm-Greene , who ran unsuccessfully for the Board of Education in 2018, said that music education had a big impact on her own children and thought that it was all the more important to promote arts education in light of the fact that 230 students in the district were locked out of music programs because of the lack of teachers or space. Thair Joshua, who cited his background as a financial data rights management director at a large financial company, also cited costs. He agreed that the board ought to be looking at streamlining processes in response to a question about whether the policy committee should have been removed.
Special education remained a primary topic, and for Sharon Tanenbaum Kraus, it was personal. She noted that her own child, a special-ed first-grader in the district, was helped tremendously but added that the help her child received was not necessarily available to all students. She said there was a responsibility to help both special-education and gifted and talented students reach their full potential and ensure that there were enough programs in place for them. And she cited her own experience both as a parent and as a gifted and talented student as a reason why she was running.
“It was an actually amazing experience and a lot of the lesson plans I remember from gowning up in school are from that program,” Tanenbaum Kraus said of her school years, citing her development of skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.
Another topic that came up was the “undue influence” of special-interest groups. Asked about such influence, which goes against the spirit of state educational standards, Erin Siders, Joshua’s running mate, said that it was the board’s responsibility to work with individuals and that groups should consult the administration instead. Chisholm-Greene, running solo, said that special interests would not deter her from bring independent. “I’m here running on my own,” she said. “I don’t anyone here supporting me that’s in a special interest group . . .. I’m here for the reason that I want to be here. I want to volunteer; I want to do something different for the children of our district.” Smith concurred that it was important to have a school board that is independent and does not automatically “rubber-stamp” administrative decisions.
Tanenbaum Kraus compared the influence of special-interest groups to bullying, but incumbent Lawson-Muhammad said groups had a right to express their opinions to elected board members and that all voices should be heard. She said that groups of concerned parents have fought for “foundational change” in South Orange/Maplewood.
“Our demographics,” Lawson-Muhammad said, “look like the state, and if we can get it right in this district, we can become a model for the state.”
Incumbent Wright said that her objective in seeking another term on the board is to further the board’s commitment to the students and to the community, and she added that everyone in the district ought to be committed to setting and meeting goals. She pressed her own experience not just as a board member but also as a teacher and coach in the public schools.
On other points, Smith and Siders both agreed that turnover in the district needed to be lessened, with Smith noting that South Orange Middle School was on its fourth principal in six years, and he added that the turnover at the administrative level was far too high. Smith also said that the district ought to stop hiring so many consultants and make better use of the revenue it gets from the high school taxes. Meanwhile, Joshua said that he wanted to use his expertise from his volunteer work as a mentor and as a member of the Cross Categorical Resource (CCR) Schools Committee as well as the experience from his profession in the financial sector.
“We are about to embark on an expensive and critical time in our district,” he said. “We are about to reconfigure our elementary schools, and we are spending $160 million on building them out in order to have space to do that.” He also said that the district, having moved away from the “neighborhood school” model, should take the next step and integrate the elementary schools so that they “look like our middle schools and high schools.”
Malespina thanked the participants for engaging in the debate. The election is November 5.