UNION – Seven newcomers have thrown their hat in the ring for one of three board of education seats up for grabs in November.
The unprecedented number of candidates came on the heels of a controversial and often confrontational few years where parents went head to head with the sitting board of education over issues that were stonewalled.
Incumbents Ray Perkins, who has maintained a seat on the board for 19 years, and Vito Nufrio, who has served one three-year term, will go up against challengers Christopher Hackett, Jeffrey Monge, Paul Casey, Ronnie McDowell, Nancy Zuena, Ondria Caffey and Steven Le for the three seats that are open. Board member Susana Vitali has chosen not to run for reelection.
While most of the challengers are novices when it comes to running for an elected seat, one has a track record in the public arena, even though he failed to win a seat both times.
Chris Hackett, despite being in his mid 20s, managed to run for two elected positions, including the Union Township Committee in 2012 and state assembly the following year. Although he lost both these bids, the lifelong Union resident has not let that stop him from being an advocate for the township. In fact, last year he launched the Union, NJ Residents Forum on Facebook, which has more than 2,000 registered members.
“I disliked the partisan politics of those elections and am happy to be running for something where the most important thing isn’t what side you are on but what your vision is for the town and children,” said the candidate, who preferred praising fellow candidates for stepping to the plate.
“Deciding to run is not an easy one and it makes me so happy to see a record nine candidates running and partaking in our democracy,” said the board of education candidate, adding that he was equally proud of the six other contenders for “putting their names on the ballot.”
“I created the Union Resident’s Forum hoping to get people excited like this but I would have never dreamed to have this kind of success so soon,” he said of the stir that occurred on the forum because board members refused to discuss certain issues.
Over the last several months there has been considerable discussion about the need for a change on the board, but few residents spoke of running. Despite the competition, Hackett felt it was a giant step in the right direction toward addressing many of the concerns parents have voiced in the last year.
“I decided to run for the board of education because I want to see the town continue providing the great education that I received when I attended more than six years ago before heading off to college,” he explained, adding that it would not be too long before he has children in the school district.
“I want to be able to raise my children in a town that I am confident is providing the highest level of education it can to each and every student, regardless the path they choose to follow,” said the candidate.
After attending Union public schools, Hackett graduated from Rutgers University with a BS in biotechnology and is in the process of working on his Masters Degree in Biotechnology and Genomics. He worked for five years as a scientist at Chromocell in North Brunswick, but recently changed careers and is a life sciences producer at Terrapinn in New York.
Hackett does have educational reasons for running, including something that is very important to him – transparency.
“I want to see transparency increased at every single level of the school system in town and see an increased engagement by parents and teachers in decision making,” he said, bringing up a controversial issue that has not simmered down, despite the departure of a very popular superintendent.
“I want to see the return of the Academy program instituted by Dr. Patrick Martin that was abruptly canceled,” he said emphatically, adding that he also would like to see class offerings expanded “not cut.”
“It takes a village to raise a child and in that way the board of education is the most important body in the community. Our teachers helped to shape me into the man I am today,” the candidate said. Hackett also pointed out that citizens across the country often forget that elected officials and every single employee they hire “are the people’s employees.”
“This is why their resumes and emails are public knowledge and we, as a community, must supervise them as a manager would supervise their company,” Hackett said, noting that the 2014 board of education election is a pivotal one.
“The 9-person race for the board of education sends a message this year, and I think it is a resounding one. The people of Union are ready to do what it takes to ensure transparent, effective and efficient management of their town,” said the candidate.
Paul Casey is a 10-year resident of the township who moved to Union with his wife Anne and two sons, 8- and 5-years-old, because of the diversity and reputation of the school district.
As the director for the Northeast Resiliency Consortium at Passaic County Community College, Casey oversees an education and workforce development initiative that includes seven community colleges in four states. He holds a masters degree from Springfield College of Human Service Administration and Leadership. Prior to that he spent more than 15 years with the Boys and Girl’s Clubs of Union County and currently volunteers his time to the Union Little League and Boys and Girls Clubs of Union County.
“I believe my years of leadership experience in the field of youth development would be a great asset to the township board of education,” he said.
Casey said he decided to run for one of the open seats because he “believes in the mission that every child is entitled to an education, designed to meet his or her individual needs in an environment that is conducive to learning.”
“As a product of public school education I want to help continue the great work being done by the faculty and staff and to help ensure that all children receive a high quality public school education,” said the candidate.
Casey feels that community input ensures transparency, trust and accountability for the board of education and all its members.
“A partnership between the community and the school district can ensure that our teachers, staff and students receive the support they need to achieve at high levels,” Casey said, adding he believes the diversity of the community should make the district stronger.
When it came to making the decision about running for a seat on the board, this candidate had to think about it long and hard.
“Some of my fellow parents approached me about running earlier this year but I was hesitant,” he said.
Then when things began to heat up about the academy being cut, he began to pay closer attention to what was going on.
As a parent and board member, he hopes to be a strong representative for all students and the community.
“Coming from the field I came from in providing support to youth, when I thought there was a lack of communication and lack of transparency, I knew I had to do something,” he said.
“When you build that kind of culture, it benefits students,” Casey added, noting that he “really believes in public education in an environment that is conducive to learning for every child.”
Casey explained that during his career he has been fortunate to work with children and help them achieve their goals.
“Now I have the opportunity to help kids in my own town and use my 20 years of experience to help,” he said, adding that with mentorship children can soar.
Finally, Casey said that if elected he wanted to represent all residents, “but most of all, the kids.”
“People want change and the number of candidates running is indicative of that,” the candidate added.
A resident of the township for the last nine years, Monge came from the Bronx with his wife Suehay and their three children seeking a better life.
“My wife is a tireless ‘stay at home’ hero who has given her blood, sweat and tears to Livingston Elementary School working as a PTA member in various position,” explained Monge, who admitted he has been dissatisfied with the leadership on the school board “which makes decisions not focused on the betterment of our children.”
Monge and his wife had “sky high” expectations about the school district but they soon were shot down.
“Here I expected that the system would take care of educating our children without need for demands. Boy, was I wrong. Since being in Union my wife and I have had to ask, push, demand and fight to protect our children’s right to a top notch education,” he explained, adding that they have also fought for other children.
“And that starts with making sure they receive a great education,” Monge said, adding “education is the foundation to a fruitful life.”
“Our children have a short number of critical years to excel which will dictate the rest of their lives. As parents we need to make sure they have the necessary resources including the right school leadership to make this happen,” the candidate said.
“This is a parental battle cry in my opinion that we cannot as parents sit, feeling hopeless, and complain about decisions being made which hurt our children,” he said, adding “we need to own the system by becoming and changing the system.”
“There are some good people remaining on the board that are vested as parents with children in the school system or previous educators of the school district creating a good foundation for the three new board members who should be just as vested,” said Monge, who is the managing partner of MCG, a certified Minority Business Enterprise focused on providing advisory and capital solutions for complex real estate projects with a focus on public-private partnership.
Founded in 2009, MCG has closed approximately $350 million of public private investments since then. Clients include municipalities, retailers, developers and non-
During his 10-year tenure, Monge was the primary investment originator and Senior Vice President and Principal for Urban America, L.P., a $520 million real estate investment fund focused on acquiring and developing commercial real estate in low and moderate income urban markets.
Monge has a long history of community service in many capacities including as a volunteer, organizer, board member, fundraiser and contributor. Specifically he serves on the Northeast Advisory board in many capacities; a founding trustee for a high performance Charter School in the Bronx and has served the last seven years as a Union Little League baseball coach and sponsor of fall ball.
Zuena was born and raised in Union and since she has lived in the township her entire life strongly believes she has “a lot invested in our town.”
Although she went to St. Michael’s the first eight years of school, she then went on to Burnet and Union High School. She took cosmetology in high school and that is where her hairdressing career had its roots.
“I started working at Salon 44 in Summit when I was 16-years-old and have been working there ever since,” the candidate said, adding that she now only works three days a week so she can devote more time to her three boys, 19, 15 and 12.
“My sons all went to Connecticut Farms Nursery School and followed through the township public school system,” said Zuena, who is married to husband Angelo.
“I have been involved and sat as an officer on many PTA boards for many years,” she said, adding that she “loved being involved with the schools and getting to see the great things that go on.”
Interestingly, Zuena is the president of the Union Wrestling Booster Club where her boys all started wrestling but she also just finished up her last year as the Union Little League Parents Auxiliary president since her youngest son just wrapped up his little league career.
“For the last couple of years I have been thinking about running for the board of education. It’s time for me to give back to my community and all the wonderful kids that are part of our school system. I want to see the best, strongest education and activities. This town has some of the best programs for our kids and I would like to see them continue,” she added, noting that as a resident of Union she wanted “our schools to stay strong for my children.”
Zuena briefly touched on the controversy that has left residents with and without children angry and frustrated – the lack of communication with the school board.
“I just think our kids need a voice, someone who isn’t afraid to speak out on their behalf,” she added, pointing out “it’s time to see some change.”
McDowell has lived in Union since he was in elementary school and is a graduate of the high school. Married to a school nurse, the couple has two children attending elementary school in the township.
“Most of my working career has been as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, however, I did work as a middle school mathematics teacher from September 2010 to June 2013 in Jersey City,” said the candidate who readily admitted he now “works” as a stay at home dad for their two sons.
The couple also has two older daughters who are graduates of Union High School.
“My reason for running for the board of education is because I believe that parents and their children need to be made aware of their own responsibility in their child’s education. It is not entirely up to the teachers,” the candidate said.
Candidate Ondria Caffey was out of the country when the request for information was made. LocalSource did not receive a response from Steven Le by press time. The election for Union Board of Education is Tuesday, Nov. 4.