UNION – Three board of education challengers squared off against three incumbent candidates Monday night at the annual League of Women Voters forum, responding to questions posed by residents.
With less than two weeks until voters decide who best can fill the three seats that are up for grabs, six of the seven candidates jockeyed for position throughout the forum, providing a snapshot of where they stand on issues such as the budget, curriculum, and state testing.
Candidate Ondria Caffey was unable to attend the forum due to a previous commitment.
The candidates, including incumbents Ray Perkins, who is finishing 20 years on the board, Vito Nufrio, who is completing his first three-year term, and Steven Le, appointed in the last several weeks to fill the unexpired term of a board member who resigned, along with challengers Chris Hackett, Ronnie McDowell and Nancy Zuena, were allotted a specific amount of time for an introductory statement prior to the forum.
Each of the candidates used this time to explain their personal history or briefly go over their qualifications prior to responding to questions from the audience. Once a question was posed to a specific candidate, each of the remaining candidates had the opportunity to respond and later rebut, if desired.
One of the first questions concerned the school district budget and what plans candidates had for addressing this issue.
Le was the first to respond, noting that as a candidate running on a ticket with two incumbent candidates there was no concern because “we come with strong hands of experience.”
Nufrio followed him up, coming right to the point and explaining that the board relies on the school business administrator to prepare the actual budget.
“It’s no different than the budget we prepare at home, except on a larger scale,” said the former educator who held positions as a teacher, vice-principal and principal before recently retiring.
“Fiscal prudence will get results without breaking residents’ pocketbooks,” Nufrio added.
But later in a rebuttal statement he pointed out that during his three-year tenure on the board he had experience negotiating contracts for administrators and teachers.
“This is not something you learn easily, you have to hit the ground running. You don’t have time to learn anything,” Nufrio said, pointing out that a budget has to be prepared and done by a certain time.
Zuena, on the other hand, was frank in her approach, admitting that something as important as the budget would have to be discussed among the entire sitting board in January.
McDowell, on the other hand, felt there was one issue that had to be immediately addressed.
“The teachers are working without a contract and that needs to be addressed,” he said, but did mention that he has an MBA and is qualified to handle budget matters.
Hackett said he felt the same as Zuena, but he also tried to clarify things for voters.
“It’s very easy for incumbents to say you need experience but we need to be careful because they all once sat where the challengers do now,” he said.
Perkins, who is currently board president, mentioned the board had consistently stayed under the 2-percent cap, but added “it’s a matter of setting priorities.”
The issue of how district ratings have dropped came up, which drew drastically different viewpoints from the incumbents and challengers.
“That is totally incorrect. Ratings are just one aspect of the entire picture,” Nufrio said, adding that his team of Perkins and Le “are confident the school district is moving forward.”
“Test scores are improving,” he said, but offered no examples to back up his claim.
Zuena felt everyone depended on test scores too much.
“Test scores fluctuate. But why are we going only by test scores. I feel we need to follow our kids not just by test scores but also by their report cards,” she said.
Hackett explained that while test scores were not everything, testing was mandated by the state.
“It’s not everything, but it is something,” he added.
This particular question raised the ire of Perkins who explained how he felt about statements involving school ratings.
“I really get upset when I hear our ratings have ‘dramatically’ gone down. This is outrageous. Where is this coming from?” he asked, suggesting that someone provide proof that this indeed was occurring.
McDowell pointed out that he felt school district test scores “were stagnant.”
“We need to correct our curriculum,” he added, noting that he believed students could perform better.
Le insisted throughout the forum that test scores actually were up and not down.
“We are improving. We have seen the results,” he said, pointing out that the Union School District had moved up 50 places in the annual New Jersey Monthly Magazine assessment of school districts throughout the state.
Nufrio said he frankly was “baffled by this pseudo knowledge of ratings.”
“I personally chastised a speaker who came to the microphone at one of our board meetings for putting out such nonsense. We are very stable and forward moving. That is a fact,” he said.
Le said “the quantifiable data is there,” but the statistics he cited were for individual schools and not ratings of the school district overall. However, he did add, “we are improving as a district.”
Hackett said he believed that ratings fluctuate “but they fluctuate consistently lower than some of our neighboring towns.” This candidate also mentioned that scores “are not the only metric in our school system.”
“I received an excellent education in Union despite those scores,” he added, but noted that if what the incumbents were saying was accurate, “then the fact the school’s image is so poor could be a perspective issue.”
Hackett also pointed out that if it is a perspective issue, he felt it needed to be addressed by the board and would be if he is elected. A question surfaced about the school district saving $1 million if they changed Jefferson School from a 5th grade facility to a neighborhood school. This brought about spirited, but unified debate.
McDowell said the school district was becoming very diversified, which led to Perkins bringing up that back in the 1960s Jefferson school students were bussed throughout the township to meet “the dictates of the Civil Rights Act.”
“But I share Mr. McDowell’s sentiments on this,” he added.
Le pointed out that the school district has always been diversified.
“We pride ourselves on diversity and have that sense of working together that gives our children an understanding of all cultures,” said the candidate.
Zuena said she looks at Union as “a league of nations.”
“As nice as it would be to save $1 million, the school should remain as it is,” she added.
Nufrio felt his experience as an educator was in this area, explaining that changing a school was not as easy as it appeared.
“You would have to redistrict the entire district in order to do that and that is painful,” he said, adding “when you talk about children’s education, you can’t put a figure on that.”
“Jefferson School is a wonderful school just as it is,” Nufrio said.
Hackett did not feel Jefferson School should be changed at all.
“Going there is part of the warm-up to high school,” he explained, noting that he felt if the board wanted to save $1 million, there were other places they could look.
Nufrio mentioned that “neighborhood schools are where neighborhood kids go.”
“It’s not the best possible solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” he added.
A question about PARCC testing came up, which raised some interesting questions about whether this testing would ever materialize. The issue surrounding this testing has to do specifically with the school district having one computer for every two students.
Nufrio explained that back in the 1970s school districts had “subjective testing,” which then was followed by “objective testing.”
“Things go in cycles, but we will address the PARCC testing,” he added.
Zuena felt it was not an either-or question, but rather one that parents could decide.
“I feel if it’s going to be a problem, then parents can opt out,” she said.
Hackett felt the real concern was how the school district would address this testing, if it actually did get implemented.
“Do we even have the infrastructure to handle this test mandated by the state?” he asked.
McDowell said because the test was mandated by the state, it would “take some ingenuity to get it up and running.”
“I don’t even know if we have the computers to handle this,” he added.
Perkins said it came down to if a parent did not want their child to take the PARCC testing, they could opt out.
Nufrio explained where the board was at this point with the state mandated testing that is supposed to affect the classes of 2016, 2017 and 2018.
“We are doing everything we can to prepare the kids for the possibility of this testing but the department of education is currently reviewing if it’s even a viable test,” he said, adding that the school district was “not prepared for PARCC.”