Jim Lo Stuto is at your service.
And this 53-year-old father of four knows a lot about service having worked as a store manager for Macy's for 25 years. Now that he's retired, Lo Stuto wants to take his considerable energy and business know-how and devote it to the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education by running for a three-year term.
"Politics intrigue me," Lo Stuto told Patch during an interview one morning at the Bagel Chateau. "On the local level, you can make a difference."
Prior to declaring his candidacy, Lo Stuto has spent the last several years getting very involved at Tuscan and is now serving as the President of the Tuscan PTA. "Parental involvement is key" to a quality school district, Lo Stuto said, "I want to enhance it [the school district]. I think it's exciting. I want to be a part of the community. It's my goal."
Lo Stuto is a company man all the way. He even met his wife through retail (Miriam, now a buyer at Macy's in Short Hills). Lo Stuto's mother hailed from the Bronx and his father, Frank, was an immigrant from Italy. Frank learned the trade of shoe repair in POW camps after WWII and became a shoe designer to stars such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, says the younger Lo Stuto. The Lo Stutos settled in Saddlebrook, where Jim grew up in modest surroundings.
"We lived in a two-family house near Lodi. My father wanted us to continue our educations."
Lo Stuto himself had 8 years of Catholic School and 4 years of public high school. He went to William Paterson College and then joined the coast guard working in search and rescue, security and explosives — but ultimately wound up back in retail. Since his father had worked at Bamberger's, the young Lo Stuto picked up shifts there during the holidays, working his way through college.
Teachers and Contract Negotiations
Lo Stuto is a big booster of educators. "I think we need to look at all avenues of cuts," said Lo Stuto, but "in my opinion, teachers are not paid well. We need to attract the best talents." To do this, Lo Stuto would like to see a solid base salary and a compensation package. He is not averse to merit-pay scenarios.
Lo Stuto is also dedicated to teacher development. Coaching for teachers and staff development days are important tools in Lo Stuto's estimation. "The big thing is to communicate with parents. The use of Powerschool should be mandatory. It's a change; nobody likes change, but we have to evolve. Being in retail, it's all about change. You have to be flexible."
Lo Stuto says he is very concerned about the lack of a contract for teachers, which he called an "embarrassment" during one of the debates. "There's got to be a way to come to a happy resolution. Teachers deserve to be compensated." Lo Stuto said he thought that a merit bonus was a good idea. "In retail, everything is based on performance."
But how to measure teacher performance?
"It's gotta be a blend, not just test scores. It should be tied in with district performance too because we're all on the same team."
"We've got some great teachers in our district. They want our kids to succeed. I've never had one that wasn't into their job," said Lo Stuto. "In retail, you take care of the people who work for you. If we do that for the teachers, they will take care of our children."
Since joining the PTA, Lo Stuto said he has gained respect for all involved in the education of the district's students, including administration: "They are all hard jobs. We have very huge expectations — which is terrific."
His respect for both sides comes from the fact that his mother-in-law was a teacher and his father-in-law served on a board of education.
Lo Stuto says he is also a big supporter of Superintendent of Schools Brian Osborne: "I think we've got a great administrator. Brian is terrific. He has a clear vision." Lo Stuto added, "It's important to sustain him and evaluate him on how students are performing."
On the Budget
"We have to learn to do more with less and think about things in a different way," said Lo Stuto. "Be creative."
Being creative does NOT include cutting teachers or curriculum, in Lo Stuto's mind. "The core courses are important, as are language arts, music, arts as well as sports."
And, although Lo Stuto agrees that technology is needed in the classroom, he doesn't think it is the silver bullet. "You still need one-on-one — the human piece. Webinars can't do that with children."
Lo Stuto said he would like to look at funding through foundations. "If you look hard enough, there's a lot of funding we need to seek." Lo Stuto said that many for-profit companies — Macy's included — are willing to do matching grants.
During the first candidates' debate, Lo Stuto also discussed finding savings through facilities improvements such as balanced heating and cooling, turning off lights and switching the district to low-energy light bulbs.
Leveling and De-leveling
Lo Stuto said his 8th grader at Maplewood Middle School is a beneficiary of leveling up. "I see what it's done to her socially. We managed to get her into two classes in level 4. Her friends are coaching her. I think the de-leveling helped her succeed more."
But Lo Stuto does not want to take de-leveling any further without hard evidence that it helps students who struggle and doesn't hurt those who excelled in leveled classes.
"I feel very strongly that we need to address the achievement gap at a much earlier stage in the students' education. We need to have a greater focus beginning at 3rd grade. This is where we begin to see students abilities and shortfalls. As it relates to de-leveling in the middle schools, I believe that we needed to test something. However, the jury is still out, as we have no data to support it one way or another. I believe that we should see it sometime this summer or early fall.
"Before we go any further we need to have our parents weigh in and hear their concerns. This goes back to my commitment of making myself available for parents to speak to me. I plan to establish open office hours and continue coffees. Phone calls are fine as well."
Redistricting and Overcrowding
Last year, Tuscan School was roiled by the question of redistricting in order to deal with overcrowding. While there have been no discussions on the Board level about further redistricting this year, we asked Lo Stuto his thoughts on overcrowding and redistricting:
"My feeling is that we have had the enrollment projections for a while. We knew that this was going to happen one way or another. My sense is that we should have communicated it much sooner, and had an open forum to listen to our community as to possible solutions. I spoke to a lot of folks who we were surprised by it. With some planing we might have been able to come up with an alternative solution. However, redistricting still might have been the way to go. I think people would have just liked the information sooner."
It should be noted that, while Lo Stuto technically lives in an area zoned for Clinton, his oldest child, now 15, received a variance to transfer to Tuscan for personal reasons. The Lo Stutos also obtained variances to transfer the next two children as well so that they could attend the same school together. Lo Stuto said that they need to reapply every year for the variance. He said that he hopes his fourth and final child will also attend Tuscan. Lo Stuto said he thinks all of our schools are "terrific and are rich in culture."
The Last Word
"We've got a really great superintendent. He listens to parents, makes a lot of notes, gets back to you. He's very driven to succeed," said Lo Stuto of Superintendent Brian Osborne. And "The board has done a great job supporting his goals."
Then why run?
"The Board of Education needs a change, a fresh pair of eyes," said Lo Stuto. Plus, since his retirement, Lo Stuto says he has the considerable amounts of time and energy to spend that the board requires of its members.
Ultimately what will make Lo Stuto successful on the Board of Education is what he feels made him successful in retail: "I really like people."
To learn more about Lo Stuto's views and positions — and those of his running mate Marian Cutler — visit http://forwardtogether2011.com/.
Five candidates are vying for three seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education. Each seat is for a three-year term on the nine-person Board. The candidates are incumbents Sandra Karriem and Andrea Wren-Hardin and challengers Marian Cutler, Bill Gaudelli and Jim LoStuto. Patch will be profiling all five candidates throughout the week of April 18, leading up to the election on Wednesday, April 27, 2011.