UNION – The four challengers attempting to unseat three incumbent school board members have initiated an all out effort to ensure their platforms for change are heard by voters before Nov. 4.
With only three seats available, voters have less than a month to decide if “change” is what the Union School district needs.
Unlike the incumbents, who have not presented their platforms, the challengers are getting their voices heard by whatever means they can. This includes the media, social media and signs on the front lawns of supporters.
The three incumbents include Ray Perkins, who has served 19 years on the board, Vito Nufrio, finishing his first three-year term, and Steven Le, recently appointed by the board to fill the unexpired term of Susan Vitali, who resigned prior to the end of her term.
Vying for the three open seats are four challengers in two separate camps: Nancy Zuena and Ronnie McDowell, who represent the grassroots group Parents for Change, and Christopher Hackett and Ondria Caffey, who are running on yet another slate and platform.
The challengers maintain that although the incumbents are running for re-election, they have not been forthcoming with information about their platform or why voters should return them to their seats.
The past few years the board has faced the angry wrath of parents and members of the community who objected to a lack of transparency by the board.
In fact, this lack of transparency, challengers said, was evident by the fact all three incumbents turned down an invitation to attend an open forum from Parents and Others for Academic Excellence, or PACE, a grassroots group that began in 2011.
According to PACE spokesperson Susan Lipstein, all seven candidates were invited to a PACE meeting Tuesday evening to meet with residents and respond to a list of six questions.
Although the incumbents opted not attend this meeting or respond to the six questions PACE presented, the four challengers welcomed the opportunity to present their platforms in an open forum and answer the questions, Lipstein said.
Although Perkins responded to LocalSource for an interview regarding his decision to run for another term in a previous article, neither Nufrio nor Le returned telephone or email requests.
Since then, all three incumbents have not responded to requests for interviews or efforts to obtain their campaign platforms for re-election.
All four challengers, though, provided LocalSource with their campaign platforms, which they planned to discuss at the PACE meeting Tuesday night. This meeting, however, took place after LocalSource’s deadline and will be in the Oct. 16 edition.
Hackett and Caffey are running on a “Building Open Education,” or B.O.E., platform for the school district.
They unveiled their plan this week, explaining that their plan is to resolve as many of the concerns that the community has, while putting education of the township’s children above all else.
“Our plan is about three key elements,” said the candidates.
If elected, the team intends to build better ways to expand transparency and openness, including reevaluating how appointments are made to the board. Also on the agenda is taking a closer look at how the school district handles hiring procedures.
Secondly, they want to open the doors to community involvement and engagement and lastly, look at the education of students dynamically and effectively by understanding various styles of learning.
Hackett and Caffey intend to work with the policy committee to begin implementing specific policies regarding transparency and openness, including how appointments are made to the board when a member resigns.
“The first step to achieving academic excellence is by ensuring the board and school administration itself is transparent, efficient and professional as it can be,” said Hackett.
However, while this candidate indicated that they will address this issue, they failed to note how they intend to do this if the full board is not in agreement.
Caffey and Hackett also mentioned that they want to work with the rest of the board to develop a strategic plan for improving test scores while working with teachers to reach that goal.
“Our teachers need and want timetables with specific goals to meet so that progress can be measured and additional gaps can be identified,” Caffey said, adding that this will help convey a constant message to parents and broadcast a cohesive mission on a yearly basis for the district.
This team also plans to work with the board to establish goals for the district, both long range and short, to ensure “true positive progress.”
Again, neither Caffey nor Hackett explain how they intend to move forward with this plan if the majority of members on the board do not agree. If elected they are only two votes, which is not a majority. There are nine members on the board.
This team also believes that education does not end with the students, but rather extends to parents, who they believe need to be involved in their children’s’ schooling from the day they arrive until the day they leave. They strongly advocate that the school district begin a series of workshops throughout the school year to assist parents in understanding their child’s curriculum.
“This will serve to both increase the ability of parents to understand what is going on in school, which will help them to participate more effectively in their children’s schooling,” Hackett and Caffey said, adding that this also will help residents “in the loop at each stage in the process of educating our children.”
“Understanding that children learn differently seems like common sense, yet much of our curriculum in New Jersey is shaped around standardization,” said the candidates, adding they intend to focus on building a curriculum that embraces differences in learning styles for students, both through course offerings and course work.
The candidates do not, though, address how they will maneuver around state education mandates to do this or convince their fellow board members that this is the direction the board should take.
Parents for Change candidates Nancy Zuena and Ronnie McDowell also have a platform that has aggressive goals, including a quality education for all, increasing school based performance and creating a district wide culture of collaboration.
While these candidates elaborated on these three goals, they too provided no explanation how they intended to put these campaign promises into effect if elected. Nor did they address the fact that, if elected, how having only two votes on the board would further their agenda.
Nevertheless, Zuena and McDowell explained that they fully intended to support bringing back the after school academy, which was eliminated by the school board despite being extremely successful.
These candidates had a broad platform that encompassed many goals, including development of peer and professional mentoring programs.
Like the other challengers, Zuena and McDowell also addressed reversing downward district performance of recent years by adopting a strategic plan with measurable goals for improvement and accountability.
These candidates, though, suggested a “look back, plan forward,” approach, or analyzing five years of performance and then “plan forward” five years with a goal of becoming a high performance district.
The Parents for Change candidates want to also create a school district of collaboration, with a “children first platform.”
This would include input from students, parents and teachers to influence policy change. They also demand board transparency to eliminate “backroom decisions without parental involvement.”