UNION – With seven newcomers and two incumbents vying for three open seats on the Union Board of Education in November, voters will have a full slate of candidates to choose from when casting their ballots.
Last week LocalSource focused on five of these newcomers, and this week the introductions continue with Ondria Caffey, another newcomer candidate who was out of the country when candidates were initially interviewed, and Ray Perkins and Vito Nufrio, the two incumbents.
In phone interviews with LocalSource, Caffey said she had moved to Union six years ago from Orange, and is a single mother with a son and a daughter. Her older child just graduated from Union High School and will be attending Union County College, and her younger one will be just entering the high school in September.
Now employed at NJIT as an administrative support person, Caffey previously worked at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield where she helped administer the state Health Benefits Plan to state employees. In the fall she will be attending Union County College to study communications and print journalism.
Although new to town, this resident’s roots go back far in the township.
“My family is originally from Vauxhall. In fact my great-uncle, Herbert Davis, was the first African-American detective,” Caffey said, proudly noting that a township park had been named for this relative.
When it came to moving to Union, this candidate confessed she had done her homework and knew it was the best move for her and her school-aged children.
Although Caffey’s children settled right into their schools, it took a little longer for her to find the niche she’d previously had as an active parent in the Orange school district.
“I had always been what we refer to as ‘furniture’ in my children’s schools — always there, active as a PTA member and then vice president for some years,” she said, noting she also was consistent in fundraising efforts, maintaining dialogue with administrators and advocating for not only students, but parents and teachers, too.
“I had enjoyed my time there and being active and contributing and being part of the school climate on a whole,” she said, adding the move to Union was a very different experience for her.
“I was the new kid on the block, just as my children were,” she said, adding it was initially difficult to form the bonds she’d had in Orange.
“The desire to mesh into what had already been established was not as strong, mostly due to the size of the schools,” Caffey said, pointing out that she at first felt more comfortable just interacting with her children’s teachers on a one-to-one basis as needed.
About two years in, though, that all changed.
Caffey said this primarily had to do with her daughter entering the high school.
“I began to pay a lot of attention to many of the issues within the district and started fostering relationships with some of the parents, teachers and administrators more and more,” she said.
Caffey said she has always been a “community person,” and that the drive goes deep.
“When you have that in you, you can’t function without it, and it doesn’t end with education,” she said, mentioning that it was around this time that she began to attend school board meetings and PTA meetings at the high school.
“I began to pay a lot more attention to many of the issues within the district and fostering relationships with some of the parents, teachers and administrators,” Caffey said, adding that as this was occurring and her interest began to peak, the same also happened within the community.
She also began an outreach ministry at her church in Union that actually served to help the schools.
“Throughout these various avenues I’ve heard many heartfelt stories from parents and teachers about their hardships and successes in the district,” she said. “There seemed to be a public outcry for change but a deficiency, for whatever reason, in the willingness to be that agent of change by way of the board of education.”
After a few years of urging by peers and others, along with conversations over the Internet on the very active Union, NJ Resident’s Forum on Facebook, Caffey said she realized it was time to make a decision about running for a seat on the board of education.
“I couldn’t ignore the calling when the opportunity came around,” she said, adding that Union has become her home and her community.
Caffey is looking forward to the election because she feels people are more than ready for something different.
“I believe an audible message of change has been sent with the number of candidates that have applied for this year’s election,” the candidate said.
Caffey was selected to administer the Union, NJ Residents Forum on Facebook, which has grown to more than 2,000 members. The forum, which provides an outlet for residents seeking everything from a handyman to the best place for pizza in town, also has given residents a place to vent their concerns about the schools, which they do on a regular basis.
“I believe more and more citizens have become empowered by the sharing of information and, as the economy continues to take a nose dive, the lens on how money is spent is more focused than ever, transcending our usual household budget,” Caffey said.
“Tax dollars are being finely combed even by the most novice of novices,” she continued. “People want to see the return on their investment in property and education. Where is the stellar academic investment and performance? It is there you will find that return.”
Caffey also strongly believes the days of “business as usual” are long gone for the township school district and the community is looking for more.
“We want to better support teachers in the classroom in every way we can. We have some of the finest teachers here and they deserve our support with our children, their individual faculty-development needs, as well as union concerns,” said the candidate, adding “we are looking for transparency.”
When it comes to the school board, which this candidate said does not always respond to residents the way they would like, Caffey said residents are, “looking for the real invitation and real welcoming of engaging with the board, the teachers, the new superintendent and each other.”
“We want the best for our students, even if it means reevaluating things of old to ensure we’re at the edge of all things new on the education front, and competitive with other districts in and outside New Jersey,” she said.
Lastly, Caffey believes township residents should not have to pay additional tuition for their K-12 students
if there is an effective and competitive curriculum in place that equips them for the challenges of higher education.
“These are all of the components to the dynamics that uphold the very mission statement of the board of education that I am only looking forward to assisting with,” Caffey added.
Ray Perkins, an incumbent, has spent 19 years on the school board, and currently serves as board president. He has resided in the township for 65 years.
An attorney, who serves as counsel with the law firm Meyer and Landis, Perkins previously had a career as a licensed professional engineer and served as deputy engineering director with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.
A former officer in the New Jersey National Guard and United States Army Reserve, Perkins retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. This incumbent is married and has two grown sons and three grandchildren.
When asked in a phone interview with LocalSource why he has decided to run again after so many years on the board, Perkins chuckled and admitted he enjoyed it.
“There is a lot to be done in our education system, all over, not just in Union,” he explained, saying education today is “over regulated.”
“From the top down, to what we pay a superintendent, to the testing, education has become very complicated,” Perkins said, adding that, in his opinion, “sometimes you have to let teachers use their professional judgment.”
Perkins explained he was not elected to the school board until a few months before his youngest son graduated from high school, but when he did, it was a lesson by fire.
“There are so many things we can’t discuss because of contractual obligations or personnel issues, and residents don’t understand the position we are in on the board,” said the incumbent.
More often than not, Perkins explained, residents want and need an answer from the board to which, based on legal counsel, they cannot respond. That, he said, explains why board members often sits with stony faces when an issue surfaces.
“It’s hard when residents desire a back-and-forth conversation about ongoing issues and we legally cannot discuss it or even respond,” he said.
Another issue Perkins brought up is that while many residents feel the school board “runs” the schools, it does not.
“It’s not the board’s job to run the schools. We really have to rely on our professionals’ advice, including the superintendent and staff,” he said, pointing out the board is there to represent the community.
Perkins also explained that when things become confrontational at board meetings, it is difficult for board members.
“It becomes frustrating when barbs are thrown, but we know it is because residents have a lack of understanding about an issue,” he explained, pointing out that many times board members are precluded from responding.
Despite residents not clearly understanding the legal ramifications board members face, Perkins is ready to take on another term because he feels his experience can continue to help the board.
“There is much to do and I’m ready to take on another term,” he said.
Vito Nufrio, an incumbent, did not return email requests for an interview or answer questions about why he decided to run for a second, three-year term. LocalSouce pulled information from the school district website in order to inform voters about this candidate.
Nufrio was elected to the board in 2011 and, according to the website, has served on numerous board committees since then.
A retired educator and administrator with 40 years of professional service, Nufrio has post-graduate certifications in teaching, counseling, supervision and school administration, and has experience at all grade levels.
Throughout his professional career, this incumbent anticipated and chaired many local, county and state committees in conjunction with the state Department of Education.
In addition, Nufrio served for more than 12 years as a negotiator, vice president and president for the Elizabeth Administrators and Supervisors Council.
Nufrio, who moved with his wife to Union in 1988 when they bought their first home, are the parents of three children, all of whom attended Union schools.
The school district website noted this incumbent’s commitment to the district, “is to promote and support superior performance by staff and management, so as to ensure the delivery of the highest quality educational services to our children.”
Nufrio also pledged to assure transparency of process and services, coupled with a personal, total resolve to safeguard students, staff and community.
The Board of Education election is Nov. 4. Steven Lee, another newcomer to the election, never responded to repeated requests for information and comments.