Chris Wacha, BOE Candidate 2021

Chris Wacha, Line 2F
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Common questions

When you talk to prospective voters about what the Board of Education can and cannot do, what do you tell them?
So, a board of education, primarily, they’re going to look to hire the superintendent. Secondarily, they’re going to look to evaluate a superintendent. After that, the board of education can vote on agenda items that are put on most likely by the superintendent or oftentimes by the business administrator or board secretary. The Board can ask questions about any aspect of those agenda items that come on. In Verona, because it’s a consent agenda, Board members may ask that there be separate discussion or vote on any particular agenda item. So we vote on policy, but we don’t necessarily set policy, and we vote essentially on the recommendations of the superintendent and our vote is based on the questions we ask the superintendent based on the agenda items.

According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, “Setting policy is a primary responsibility of the local board of education.”

The BOE is the most demanding community position in Verona, often requiring upwards of over 10 hours per week of unpaid time from its members, and you all have day jobs. What in your current job roles and responsibilities might prevent you from fully carrying out your duties on the BOE? And how will you find time to commit fully to the work of the Board?
To answer the first part, I don’t believe that there’s anything that will be a prohibitive factor. I’m 100% committed to this. This deserves it. I think it’s likely very accurate that this could be one of the most demanding volunteer or elected jobs in our community. But, you know, my son’s almost a man. He’s going to be a freshman in high school next year. My wife and I only had one kid, because that’s the way it’s gonna have to be. There’s going to be no more basketball Rec teams to coach or Little Leagues to coach because when he’s in high school there’s going to be other coaches for all those things. So, I don’t imagine that there’d be really anything that’s going to prevent me. I am a school superintendent, and I talked to my Board of Education. I told them I was interested in the same way that they were when they were running for the spots in Haledon and I want to do this, and they were very supportive. They said whatever meeting, whatever night of the week we’re going to meet, we’ll schedule our meetings at different times, so that there won’t be that conflict of interest.

But but but I think that, moreover, in addition, I think that a big part of this is not necessarily an unfamiliar role for me. You know, I sit as a non-voting member of the Haledon Board of Education. I’m also on the Northern Region Board of Education executive director group. I’m very familiar with board of education practices, so it’s not just going to really be a learning curve, or anything like that. I anticipate that I’ll be able to give 100% of my attention to this very important job.

Do you support Gov. Murphy’s COVID mask mandate for schools and the vaccination and testing requirements for teachers and staff? How then will you help the BOE to carry out any future directives to prevent the spread of COVID from the state or health authorities that might not be what some parents want?
Every Board candidate is going to take an oath saying that they’re going to follow the laws of the state of New Jersey. This executive order carries with it the law of kids must wear masks while in a building; adults, visitors, as well while they’re inside the building. So will I support it, yes. I’m in my office with the door closed doing this interview but every time I leave my office, the mask goes right back on.

We found that we were able to open our building full time the entire year last year. We believe that wearing masks made the virus very, very difficult to spread from one person to another person within the school setting. So will I support it? Yes.

As far as is this a good idea, the parents are unhappy about it and I can certainly empathize with them. I think it’s really hard for kids, I think it’s hard for staff. It’s not something that’s ideal. And I imagine that whenever it is that Governor Murphy, or whatever the next governor might be, potentially lifts that executive order, I would imagine that our COVID numbers would be at a certain metric where that would make sense, where it was less likely there would be viral transmission within the school setting. It absolutely makes the learning harder in some ways and even more intimidating for students.

Wacha clarified that, for the 2020-2021 school year, the Haledon school initially divided its students into two groups that would alternate being in the building for a full week. In December, the district policy became that any child who wanted to come in every day could do so. Wacha said that there were 12 times when Haledon was notified that COVID was in its building and that it had evidence of one transmission within its school setting. In the current school year, Haledon has been announcing COVID cases in posts to its Facebook page.

Tell prospective voters about a time that you failed. What was the failure and what did you learn from it?
I think it’s impossible to either operate a school district or a classroom without making mistakes. It probably happens so often that one specific time is hard to recall but I think what you really want to do is try not to make the same mistake twice. When you do make a mistake, take ownership of it. Let everyone know, especially your school leader, that you were the person that made the mistake, here’s why it happened and here’s what we’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

When we opened the [Haledon] school building, we hadn’t had a building full of over 1,000 kids in quite some time. So I forgot to rope off the second grade section where they dismiss, because we have five second-grade classes dismissing from a certain area so you need the ropes just so parents know where the teachers are. I also run our communications for our district via our website and our social media pages. So if you go into the Haledon Public School Facebook page you’ll notice one of our posts for the first week where it says Mr. Wacha totally forgot to ask the facilities to put up the ropes. That confusion was my fault and I apologize for it, It’s not an earth-shattering example, but I think it goes to the point I was making.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]It absolutely makes the learning harder in some ways and even more intimidating for students[/perfectpullquote]

Candidate-Specific Questions

Verona’s schools have received many accolades for their achievements. The school district that you lead barely achieved the minimum federal standard in reading in 2019, according to the state school report card, and was below the standard in math. Why should Verona voters trust you with a position of leadership here?
I was hired to raise those scores. So when I got here, the scores were lower, but we haven’t had the state assessment metric in maybe two or three years. We invested in professional development, and one of our district goals, our school mission was to use the data we’re getting from the students to help design and adjust our instruction as it goes along. We partnered with a company called LinkIt, and basically what they do is they emulate the state tests and they give sample tests to kids that we use as benchmarks. The goal is to see— the kids take the benchmark in October—the line going up on an incline when they take it again in December and again when they take in April, and then ultimately to see that result on the end of the year PARCC results, the state results. The internal data we had suggested that we were hitting the mark and things are trending in the right direction, but we just didn’t have that ultimate final piece of data because unfortunately COVID came and shifted everything. I know we’re taking the Start Strong assessment sometime in October and then November we’ll see where our kids are at. I’m on my second contract as a superintendent, and the reason that Haledon wanted me back and wanted to make sure that I stayed here was because of my ability to lead the district both academically and socially and emotionally through COVID.

Wacha clarified that this was a renegotiation of his first contract. He became the principal of Haledon Public School in 2017 and was chosen as superintendent in August 2020.

According to its New Jersey School Performance Report, Haledon had English language arts proficiency rate of 49.4% in the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Haledon’s math proficiency rate was 32.3%. (Verona’s rates were 71.4% and 51.9%, respectively, for the same assessment year.)

The seven-point focus statement you posted to your campaign’s Facebook page has multiple erroneous statements, from BOE transparency to merit pay for the superintendent. Why haven’t they been corrected?
So the [Verona] Board of Education had done this [merit pay] for three or four years prior to 2020. I wanted to make sure that we don’t continue with it. I don’t think I suggested that it was something that the Board has terminated or not terminated; I was unaware of that. They did not do that in 2020 right before COVID, but did in the subsequent years so I respectfully disagree that it was erroneous.

Verona instituted annual merit bonus goals for Superintendent Dr. Rui Dionisio when he joined the district in 2014. At that time, then Gov. Chris Christie capped superintendent salaries, but districts could set merit goals. Verona did, and those goals were made public at BOE meetings and approved by the Essex County superintendent. Verona paid Dionisio merit bonuses in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. In 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy ended the superintendent salary cap but put restrictions on merit pay. When the Verona BOE approved a new contract for Dionisio in February 2020, it raised his salary but ended his merit bonus.

On your campaign website, you say that you and Ron Mueller have “proven themselves to be stalwart advocates for children.” How, specifically, have you done that?
My entire professional career has been devoted towards the service to children, working with children or working for children. When I was 10 years old, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and I feel like I’m the best version of myself when I’m working with kids or for kids. When I was when I was a high school English teacher, or a varsity-level coach or assistant principal or an harassment, intimidation and bullying specialist, the roles I’ve had in a school system, the reason that I’ve been attracted to all these and wanted to work as hard as I have is because,I love working with children. I’ve always been an advocate for them.

Haledon approved, several months ago, an armed security guard for its building. Would you be looking to bring that to Verona and if so, why or why not?
We’ve had it every year I’ve been there [Haledon] and before when I was in Manchester Regional, they had an SRO [school resource officer]. Our armed security guard is a former police officer from Haledon, and he’s just there for safety reasons. I’m not looking to advocate that Verona do that. If the new superintendent wanted to do that, I would certainly ask to receive data as to why they believe that would be a useful thing to have. But no part of my platform ever mentioned or spoken of wanting to do that.