WEST ORANGE, NJ – Last week’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting saw a fresh start as new Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone presided over his first board meeting. Getting right down to business, Cascone provided suggestions on a variety of topics affecting the district, including how to address student smoking in the district.

Prior to unanimously approving policy and a piece of regulation related to student smoking, WOBOE Vice President Sandra Mordecai asked Cascone to elaborate on how he would communicate the revised policy to students and staff.

Cascone explained that although vaping "seems to be the more prevalent form of smoking" among today's teenagers, smoking is still a "statewide and nationwide epidemic and problem."

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He added that when school is back in session, he intends to work with faculty, parents and student leaders to aggressively address this problem.

Mordecai also noted that the recently resurrected Health and Wellness Committee could potentially be instrumental in addressing this issue.

Another issue that emerged during Monday's meeting is the idea behind equity and equality when it comes to planning field trips throughout the district.

After Mordecai raised some concern about different schools—such as Roosevelt Middle School and Liberty Middle School—not having equitable opportunities for field trips, fellow board member Cheryl Merklinger interjected that the opportunities that are available are based on the school’s principal and the PTA’s involvement with that school.

Taking Roosevelt’s trip to Washington D.C. and Liberty’s trip Philadelphia as examples, Merklinger continued that she didn’t “see why there would be any concern” about inequality since the principals and the PTA work “very diligently to help all families across the board.”

Board member Mark Robertson conceded with both Mordecai and Merklinger, stating that each of them raised legitimate points.

He explained that although he agrees with Merklinger that “the principal ultimately makes the call” for the types of field trips that students participate in, he also agrees with Mordecai because several questions have “come up at the middle schools before about equity and ensuring that if there’s a financial gap, that all kids can attend a trip.”

The board mentioned that in the past, before Liberty Middle School was built, Roosevelt and Edison were more aligned in how they structured trips.

Merklinger added that as part of the history curriculum when she was in school, all sixth graders went to Philadelphia, all seventh graders went to Baltimore and all eighth graders went to Washington D.C. However, she noted that she was “not sure where along the lines that changed, but [that] it comes down to what the schools want to do, what the principals feel comfortable with and how much involvement [the] PTA has.”

Liberty PTA President Jennifer Tunnicliffe clarified that the PTA is not always involved in helping to fundraise for trips. She explained that at Roosevelt, the end-of-the-year trip costs an average of $137,000, which translates to about $550 per student, while the overnight trip at Liberty costs an average of $112,000, which translates to $450 per student.

Although she has been told that the PTA can help reduce the cost of field trips, Tunnicliffe expressed her belief that “no PTA can raise this kind of money.”

She also said that although “public education is supposed to be an equalizer,” she hopes that the “socio-economic difference” that exists within the district will convince the board to find a way address this issue.

“I’m glad there’s a diversity committee; I’m glad we’re talking about this,” she said.

Gregory Elementary School teacher Joy Burnett also expressed enthusiasm in hearing the board discuss issues surrounding equity in West Orange, but wanted the board to remember that every West Orange family’s situation is different.

“Our neighborhoods are very different; our schools are very different, and the children do have [different experiences],” said Burnett, adding that even if students were given the opportunity to go on the same trip, parents would still “have a different availability of raising funds because of their stations in life.”

Burnett continued that the inequity would still exist because not all parents have the ability or the option to raise funds for their children.

Due to the large size of the district, Dr. Cascone suggested that it might be difficult to “strike that balance between consistency and autonomy,” but that he believes the community needs to come together to bridge the gap.

After noting earlier in the meeting that curriculum could provide a solution to the problem since schools typically “don’t often build trips into the curriculum,” he later clarified that this does not mean the district will deprive schools of their experiences. Rather, Cascone said he wants to make sure that "all kids are getting a trip that they can feel good about, that they can be proud of, and that is going to be a great experience for them; [one] that doesn’t set up a disadvantage for either of them.”

The next WOBOE meeting will be held Aug. 12 at West Orange High School.