This article has been published as part of a series of profiles on West Orange Board of Education Candidates. All candidates will be featured individually during the week leading up to the November 2019 election.
WEST ORANGE, NJ — Meet Jennifer Tunnicliffe, an independent voice running for a seat on the West Orange Board of Education in the upcoming election on Nov. 5.
Tunnicliffe was born, raised and educated in public schools in New Jersey before obtaining a bachelor’s degree in business administration/marketing from the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown. She currently works in Student Affairs and Wellbeing at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall.
She and her husband have lived in West Orange for 17 years and have three children who have benefited from the educational system in West Orange. Her daughter, Zoe, graduated from West Orange High School in 2012; her son, Liam, is in 10th grade at West Orange High School; and her other son, Peter, is in eighth grade at Liberty Middle School.
Q: Why are you running for board of education and why do you feel you deserve the job?
A: I am running for board of education because I have a passion for education and youth development. I have long considered running for board of education but was waiting for the right time. I realized there is never a perfect time to take on a commitment like this, however, after meeting Dr. Cascone, I was inspired to run this year.
Many times education is the determining factor in whether students can rise above poverty. Hence, it is important for us as a school district to ensure all students have not only a quality curriculum, but also to ensure that students have access and equity to all academic and extra-curricular experiences. I have been actively involved for the past 10+ years in various roles on PTA Boards including President at Kelly Elementary, WOCPTA and current president at Liberty Middle School. I have worked closely with parents, teachers and administrators within our schools and have a deep understanding of the needs, strengths and concerns of these constituents. I am the only candidate with work experience in higher education. Therefore, when folks talk about college and career readiness, I know first-hand what is required to successfully transition students from secondary to higher education.
Q: How optimistic are you that the new leadership at West Orange Public Schools will continue to enhance and support the achievements of all students? Please explain.
A: Before the appointment of Dr. Cascone, current PTA presidents were invited to meet him prior to the public meet and greet sessions. After meeting Dr. Cascone, I felt very excited and optimistic about the future of education in our district. Dr. Cascone brings a myriad of skills to our district that will have a positive impact. I believe that already residents can see and feel the results of his early tenure.
Q: Would you support moving forward with a referendum for capital improvements or would you prefer to support capital improvements solely through the annual budgets?
A: There are several things that our board needs to do prior to determining whether these capital improvements need to be placed on a referendum or can be handled by annual budgets. First, we need to read the report from the architects that are currently conducting a full facility assessment of all school district buildings. Additionally, our current board has asked for a priority list from the architects to better focus assets on the highest need projects. Second, in conjunction with the architectural report, residents need to be given information about what upgrades were completed over the course of the last 10 years under other issues including ESIP and will, therefore, not need to be placed under this referendum. At the last board meeting, I asked the board to provide a list of projects, how much each cost, and when they were completed to be made available for public review. If there is a possibility to reduce the current debt load by paying off some of the previous issues, that would be helpful. We are not eligible for a refinance for another year, but perhaps that could also be an option to reduce debt if the interest rates remain low. Hopefully, the combination of this data will better allow our board to make decisions as to whether we can make improvements through our annual budget or if we need to do a referendum. Finally, I should mention that, our district should ensure we continue to hold the State accountable to receive the additional funding from the Fair Funding Act.
Q: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the West Orange Public Schools district?
A: Our biggest strength is our diversity. However, this is also our biggest weakness. Our students learn to live, work, and play harmoniously together while respecting and understanding each other's cultures and values. Our district needs to do a better job having our teachers and administrators reflect the diversity of our student body. We need to focus on diversity hiring as a priority. Additionally, we need to ensure that all our staff are receiving the diversity training that has been approved and budgeted.
The other challenge is at a State level to get our legislators to understand the impacts of unfunded state mandates at a classroom level. While many of these mandates are worthwhile, it is becoming harder and harder for our administration to find the space in the day to add these new initiatives. Additionally, it is a burden to our taxpayers to find funding to ensure we are in compliance with the mandates.
Q: Do you believe the district currently provides equitable supports for all learners? If so, why? If not, what would you like to see enhanced or added?
A: I touched on this in the previous question. I think we do strive to provide equitable supports for all learners. However, there are several areas where we could be holding ourselves to a higher standard, e.g., our gifted and talented program and certain areas of our special education program. Overall I think given our town's diversity, our district needs to evaluate all programs that are being implemented to ensure access and equity for all of our students.