Categories: News

South Orange-Maplewood School District Sparks Community’s Ire With Misplaced Priorities

Last year Kate Travers’ son had a wonderful experience in his South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMA) kindergarten class. His inclusion classroom, team-taught by a general education and an special education teacher, provided the social-emotional support he needed to thrive, reported his mom at October’s public school board meeting. In preparation for first grade, the youngster spent part of the summer working closely with the special ed teacher who would be assigned to his classroom in September. He was ready to go!

But SOMA wasn’t ready. Instead district leadership is putting its energy into an initiative to “assess and refresh its overarching brand identity.” Community members have until tomorrow to fill out a survey designed by consulting firm Skye Design Studios that includes questions like:

What is the most recognizable symbol for South Orange?  Choices: Orange, Gaslights, or the South Mountain Reservation. 

Meanwhile, the Travers’ son is in a first-grade classroom without the accommodations he needs and state/federal law requires. Currently, his mother reports, he is calling himself “stupid” and telling his parents he’s “garbage.” 

Perhaps SOMA needs to assess and refresh its priorities.

According to the parents who spoke out at the October board meeting—all have children in inclusion classes—SOMA is in the midst of a staffing crisis in special education. They received their first notice on the evening of September 7th, 12 hours before the first day of school, through an email from the Department of Special Services saying there would be no special education teacher in at least some inclusion classes due to a district-wide shortage. This is a violation of state law, as well as the children’s Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Now, almost two months later, general education inclusion teachers are still trying to manage large classes without mandated specialized support.

What is the reaction from Superintendent Ronald Taylor and the school board? 

Nothing of substance.

Then again, what is there to say? SOMA’s problems won’t be fixed by rebranding: Taylor is the fourth superintendent in the last six years and the current Assistant Superintendent of Special Services, who is in charge of special education, is the seventh administrator in eight years to hold that position. Current vacancies include 14 special education teachers, 5 inclusion teachers, 7 resource room teachers, and 12 instructional aides. 

Now, let’s be fair: This wealthy high-performing Essex County district is surrounded by even wealthier districts (Millburn, Livingston, West Orange) that have higher teacher salaries. Competition, particularly for special education and STEM teachers, is fierce.

Yet expecting a general education teacher to provide IEP-mandated services in (from another parent’s testimony) a classroom with 26 students, eight of whom have disabilities? Not happening.

SOMA tends to be much in the news. Just last week NJ Ed Report detailed  a lawsuit by a long-time teacher who accuses the district of anti-Semitism and “relentless discriminatory treatment.” Over the last year the district retracted transportation for elementary school children, passed a moratorium on suspensions (which, I’m told, is one reason the district has trouble retaining teachers), and set a rigid masking policy that included three-year-olds. 

The community is getting fed up. From Village Green:

“Please tell me it’s not real,” wrote resident Joy Yagid on Facebook. “…there aren’t enough staff, [Special Education] kids are being short changed….and the district/BOE are spending money on updating branding….They don’t need a new logo. They don’t need a flipping mission statement. They need to get their act together and focus on important stuff….Maybe when they fix everything else, they can live up to their mission statement and get a new logo.”

“Tell me that the time our administrators spent on this (let alone the money) is some sick version of April Fools during Halloween season,” a parent wrote to Village Green. “Because if we’re spending time on perception instead of fixing our bussing issues, our 100-year-old infrastructure that’s falling apart, our special-needs students who are getting left behind, the salaries of our underpaid teachers, etc., then I would like these administrators to perceive themselves into another JOB!”

Former BOE member Tony Mazzocchi wrote on Facebook: “For the past two years the BOE has chosen to completely absolve itself of its oversight role. We went from bi-weekly ‘packet meetings’ in 2019 where we went over every ounce of resolutions, expenditures, personnel actions, etc., before a public meeting. Now we have this tone deaf nuttiness. There’s no sign of governance right now. It’s really hard to watch.”

Even current board member, Elissa Malespina, is joining in the criticism: “I first found out that we had hired a company to redo the district’s branding when I was invited to participate in a focus group with the vendor. I had no prior knowledge that we were doing this, and it was not something that was brought to the full board’s attention. Had it been brought to my attention, I would not have supported spending money on this.” (Board President Thair Joshua: “it would be inappropriate to get into the weeds of the district’s rebranding efforts though we are supportive of the overall project.”)

SOMA leadership would be advised–certainly by the  Travers and other parents who showed up at the meeting below— to start worrying more about student well-being and less about brand identity. The problem is management and oversight, not marketing.

Laura Waters

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