The third and final debate for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education election was fun to watch.
The five candidates vying for three seats were all hitting their strides, speaking clearly, passionately and persuasively about their experience and their vision for the future of the school district of 6,500 students.
The five candidates have basically divided into two groups: On one side are incumbents Sandra Karriem and Andrea Wren-Hardin and challenger Bill Gaudelli who defend and support current efforts to close the achievement gap but want to see progress move farther and faster; on the other are challengers Marian Cutler and Jim Lo Stuto. Cutler is very vocal in her criticism of the district's communications with constituents on important policy-changing decisions and what she says is a lack of rigor and consistency in curriculum. Lo Stuto is less critical, but is also running on a platform of communications and has aligned his campaign with Cutler's.
But before candidates began answering questions, Community Coalition on Race Executive Director Nancy Gagnier made a public apology for the actions of Coalition Chairman Chip Madsen who had endorsed three of the candidates using twitter the night before while reminding those receiving his tweets to attend the CCR-sponsored forum.
The tweet was not sanctioned by the Coalition.
Gagnier's statement at the podium was immediate and to the point. "Yesterday the Chair put his personal endorsement out on his social media. This was a mistake." Gagnier said that both the Coalition and Madsen apologized for the incident. She stressed that the debate was an "open public exchange" and that the Coalition was a nonpartisan organization that did not endorse individual candidates.
John Davenport, a Maplewood resident who had raised concerns about the tweet, later said that he "appreciated" Gagnier's statement.
Candidate Marian Cutler addressed the tweet during her opening remarks, saying that it was "disheartening" to her and her running mate Jim Lo Stuto, who had "anticipated an unbiased host" but now felt the "process of this debate has been tainted by Mr. Madsen's actions."
Nonetheless, Cutler agreed to participate in the forum in the hopes of having her voice heard and participating in the democratic process.
The Forum Questions
Teacher Development on Cultural Competency
Candidates then answered questions related to teacher development on cultural competency, leveling, budget cuts, school integration and the achievement gap.
On cultural competency, both Wren-Harden and Karriem talked about having tough conversations and taking responsibility for cultural attitudes in the community. Said Karriem, "There's an intersection of race, class and performance in this district." Wren-Hardin added that cultural competency training for teachers would not be successful "if we are not able to sit down together and be open and honest with mutual respect."
Lo Stuto said cultural competency had to go beyond training, including "outreach to families." Cutler said teachers should not be pulled out of classrooms for training. She suggested having master teachers teach other teachers in classroom. She also said, "We need to let teachers know we respect them."
Concerning cultural competency, Gaudelli said that the district needed to "leverage those teachers who get it to teach those who don't." He talked about the idea of "touch" — a "singular moment that changes kids' lives. That's what cultural competency does."
Lo Stuto said he felt that nothing should be done about 8th grade leveling until "we have the results" regarding the effects of de-leveling 7th grade science, English language arts and social studies. He added that he is "not a huge proponent of collapsing units," that the district needed to challenge gifted and talented students, and that focus on narrowing the achievement gap needed to happen more at the elementary level.
Wren-Hardin noted that she had voted for de-leveling of 7th grade science, social studies and ELA last year because teachers supported the change, the new ELA curriculum was providing rigor, and "students in middle school ... need every opportunity to achieve." Karriem said she supported the move because "our children were not prepared for college success." She noted the curious feeling she and her husband had experienced being the only parents of color at Level 4 meetings, and stressed that it was more critical to make the curriculum rigorous for all students.
Cutler said she felt the Level Up effort was flawed. "We want hard data, evidence." She said the leveling system on the whole was broken and noted that "nothing is being done for level 2." Cutler said that nothing should be done to de-level 8th grade until there are data.
Gaudelli said he recognized Cutler's fears, "but placing the blame on the presence of other students is misplaced." He added that he was open to de-leveling 8th grade if the data suggests "that's the way to go."
Budget Cuts vis-a-vis the Achievement Gap
Cutler — "We have to stop the trend of cutting teachers and increasing class size." "We need to find opportunities to take programs like Read 180 and pull it into the elementary school."
Karriem — "Our highest priority is equity ... learning for all our kids." "We must make sure more students have access to AP classes ... we can't cut these."
Lo Stuto — "We should not cut any programs that impact learning." "We need to recognize teachers." "Perform outreach to parents with struggling learners. The school day does not end at 3:15 p.m."
Wren-Hardin — "Remove the 'if'. There will be cuts." "The budget must be directed to teaching and learning. We need leadership, need benchmarking, analysis, support." "Having parents who are successful advocates is vital."
Gaudelli — "Our highest priority is student learning." "We should move to a competency-based course of study where the curriculum is personalized." Gaudelli said this involved online learning and internships and externships — "It's much better than AP courses. We should pilot this."
Actions to Close the Achievement Gap
Wren-Hardin listed out actions already taken such as full-day kindergarten, the new ELA curriculum, the math audit, new teacher development protocols, parental engagement program, de-leveling at the 6th and 7th grade, summer Step Up program and opened access to AP classes, inclusion classrooms and early interventions. "It's a bunch of initiatives working together."
Lo Stuto said that Superintendent Brian Osborne has a "great vision" but that there is a long way to go" and "no silver bullet." He said it needed to be recognized that every child learns at a different level. "We need to work as a team."
Karriem drew a laugh when she said, "Everything Andrea said." "I know we have a long way to go, but I'm encouraged by the progress we've made."
Cutler — "We have so many initiatives but what we don't have are so many measurements." Referring to recent test scores that showed a narrowing of the achievement gap, Cutler said, "We need to get past modest to a signal to a trend." She noted a gap between different elementary schools in the district. "We need to be consistent across neighborhoods."
Highlights of Closing Remarks
Gaudelli called the schools "the glue that binds our community." He reiterated his dedication to public education, calling it a "sacred trust." Regarding diversity, he noted his son's bewilderment at his tears when Barack Obama won the presidential election. "It was not a big deal to our son." Next, said Gaudelli, is to "realize the dream of equal opportunity in public education."
Marion Cutler addressed the topic of gifted and talented students. "We don't have a Gifted & Talented program in our district. It's not mandated by New Jersey." But she said that such a program doesn't need to be expensive or elaborate. "It doesn't need to be a whole new program." She talked of pulling kids out of classrooms to work at different levels and with different instructors. "It's about scheduling." Overall, Cutler said, "We have neither the luxury or stomach for modest changes." She called for more transparency in the Board's activities, healthy debates and more engagement between the board, the district and the community. Finally, she said, "You will always know where I stand."
Sandra Karriem reviewed her local education resume over the last 22 years that included running several PTAs and her tenure as President of the Presidents Council. She said that she was "a longstanding supporter of all our schools and all our students, not any one group." She stressed that she would hold the superintendent accountable and that she believed that the achievement gap could be closed while raising achievement for all students.
Jim Lo Stuto focused on his career experience in the Coast Guard and retail. He stressed his platform of communications, saying he would have office hours and would meet with anyone anytime for coffee. "I encourage the administrative staff of each school to invite me in." Lo Stuto said he was committed to "open dialogue — no decision is set in stone." "We can support the super's initiatives, but there is so much more we can do." He added that he wanted to create a 5 year budget forecast should he be elected.
Andrea Wren-Hardin reviewed her accomplishments over two terms: "We have diligently focused on raising the bar and closing the gap. Last year for the first time saw evidence that this is moving us in the right direction." She added for emphasis, "We have momentum." Wren-Hardin stressed that "education is not a zero-sum game" — "Gains for one group of students does not, can not come at the expense of another group."
The South-Orange Board of Education elections take place on Wednesday, April 27.