By: Walter Fields
As we wind down this campaign, I feel compelled to share my thoughts with you concerning the school board election on November 5.
I have lived in Maplewood for the last 16 years and, despite my 30 years professional experience in politics and campaign management, never became involved in local elections. In fact, I turned down an offer to run for township council because I have tried to live a relatively anonymous life in this community. The times, however, require that all of us abandon our comfort zone because there are some clear signs that our communities are at a critical turning point.
Several years ago it became apparent to me that the local school district was underwhelming in its governance of our public schools. During my daughter’s years at Tuscan elementary school I became alarmed that children were attending classes in portable trailers, and still are years later. Having served many years as the NJ NAACP Political Director, the idea that our school district had an achievement gap and that African-American students were largely warehoused in lower level courses was disheartening and unacceptable. As was the fact that a school district representing two communities that boasts of its diversity was lagging in its implementation of the state mandated Amistad Black history curriculum. I was beginning to sense that young African-American males were isolated and estranged from the classroom and the school building. The population of our district is significantly diverse and Columbia High School is predominantly African-American but the reality of our new demographic profile is largely ignored by our school district administration.
So, it was with great interest to me when Johanna indicated she was committed to running for the Board of Education. Though I had only known her for a relatively short period of time, there was no doubt in my mind that she was committed, passionate about children, and most importantly, wanted to serve our communities. The last point sealed the deal for me. From what I have observed about our school board, there is too much self-interested behavior and insider trading that only serves a very narrow constituency in our towns. And some of the real pedagogical issues confronting the district are either ignored or glossed over with gimmickry that fails to educate our children.
My concern over the leadership of the district grew deeper after probing the proposed capital plan for the high school and the push by some Board members for a new aquatic center. It is unconscionable that there could be a consideration of such a facility against the backdrop of overcrowding in schools, the use of trailers for classrooms that pose a health and security risk, and the larger needs of Columbia High School’s athletic and academic programs in the face of projected enrollment surges. The existence of a projected $17 million dollar deficit should also cause members of the Board to reconsider the immediate costs of such an undertaking as well as the long-term costs associated with the debt service tied to any capital projects undertaken. It is the arrogance of this Board and the sense of entitlement with taxpayer money that has compelled me to get involved at a time when I had no intention of engaging in electoral politics at this level.
This election is about two things – leadership and our children. We need someone like Johanna on the Board who will lead in a moral way and demand good governance that is accountable to all taxpayers of Maplewood and South Orange. We need Johanna because the business of the school district is “children” and we have forgotten that, and we need a compassionate voice for all children who will be passionate in her advocacy for students. We also need Johanna because we need a voice that will be righteously indignant about racial, gender and class disparities and who will be unafraid to give voice to the voiceless and speak truth to power. I am supporting Johanna Wright for those reasons and I hope you are too.
It is why I am asking each of you to do whatever you can in the closing days of this campaign to help us achieve victory on November 5. It can be simply calling and e-mailing all of your friends in town and encouraging them to vote on Election Day. You can help us pass out literature in key neighborhoods or simply walk your own neighborhood and pass out literature. We could use your help making certain Johanna’s yard signs are displayed throughout Maplewood and South Orange. Your assistance on Election Day would be greatly appreciated.
We cannot expect change if we are not willing to work for it. Having been involved in some major civil rights battles in the past, it is my perspective that nothing is impossible. If we work, we win. It’s that simple. Our opposition can’t put up enough yard signs, billboards or drop enough mail to beat us if we simply refuse to be defeated. This is about our will and our votes. I want you to be energized and focused, angry over the current state of affairs in our schools but determined, fired up but cool and confident in our cause. I sense a shift, a real surge toward Johanna in these closing days. This is our race, and opportunity, so let’s get to work!