UNION, NJ — As a school board ad hoc committee this week prepared to publicly interview four candidates seeking the unexpired term of Richard Galante, controversy surfaced delaying the process until next week.
The usual process in filling the unexpired term of a board member who resigned is for the school board president to appoint an ad hoc committee to interview candidates submitting applications for the seat and then present one of these candidates to the full school board, who then vote on the selection.
While this process has historically taken place behind closed doors in Union, board President David Arminio made an unprecedented move when he decided to allow these interviews to be held in a public venue.
“I believe there is nothing to be gained by closing the interviews and everything to be gained by allowing them to be in public,” Arminio said in an interview with LocalSource several weeks ago.
The move towards more transparency at this point was critical not only for the school board but also the public, who in the past had voiced serious concerns about the board not being open enough, or at all.
Arminio, who appointed board members Tom Layton, Nancy Zuena and Guy Frances to the ad hoc committee, said Tuesday he always has been open and transparent as a board member and will continue to do so as a board president.
Four residents submitted applications to be considered for the seat, including Steven Le, Jeffrey Monge, Giuliano Farina and Dagmara Maslanka. However, only Le — appointed in 2013 to temporarily fill a vacated seat for several months — questioned the fairness of the selection process and also the members who were appointed to the ad hoc committee.
Le, who ran in the 2013 school board election in an effort to retain his seat, lost the bid, but not his desire to serve. Complicating matters is his alliance with the Union Democratic party, who backed his candidacy in 2013. Le explained his concerns about the selection process to LocalSource Tuesday.
“One concern in particular was about the fairness of not conducting the interviews on the same day, and thus giving those not interviewing on Wednesday an unfair advantage,” Le said, alluding to the fact that Monge would be interviewed on a Friday, while the three other candidates would be interviewed prior to that.
According to one source, Le was concerned that Monge would have an unfair advantage because he would already know the questions the committee would be asking. Also at issue is that Monge served as Zuena’s campaign treasurer when she ran as an independent in 2013, against Le.
Arminio addressed the issue of the interview dates, saying nothing could be further from the truth.
“For the first time ever in Union, the vacant seat is being filled with open and public questioning of candidates by a committee appointed by me,” he said, adding that the ad hoc committee was established days before the four candidates informed the board secretary of their intention to apply for the vacant seat.
“I had knowledge of intention of one candidate only, Steven Le. Because of that I kept Vito Nufrio and myself off the committee because of our prior relationship with Steven,” said Arminio, adding the fact that the interviews were scheduled on two days was not up to him.
The school board president said by the time he found out about the two dates, July 14 and 16, public legal notices had already been posted.
“I will not lower my standards to attack anyone, but I will make sure that the board remains open and transparent,” Arminio said, referring to the “distortions” that have been circulating.
Within hours of this interview Tuesday, Arminio canceled the previous interview dates and rescheduled all candidate interviews for July 22 at 7 p.m.
Le’s concerns about how relationships between candidates and certain board members “could compromise the process” was addressed quickly by Zuena, Frances and Monge, after they heard the candidate was questioning the matter.
Zuena said she wanted all residents to know her “integrity is solidly intact.”
“I know the core values of our district. I ran for the board of education as an independent and with the heart and soul of Union township, which are the students, teachers, parents and young adults that are former students of the township,” Zuena said, adding she accomplished this honorable position and “I embrace the respect that comes with the task.”
The school board member explained that while Monge was indeed her and her running mate’s campaign treasurer, she believed “anyone will attest to my character that my vote will be for the best candidate.”
“I will hold any candidate responsible for doing the work for the children and teachers of our district,” Zuena told LocalSource, adding there should be more involvement from families of children in the district and “less politics from the players who have lowered our standards of what families should get from this school district for their tax dollars.”
Zuena asked “the players” to not be hypocritical because if the truth be told, she never mentioned that Layton is the treasurer of the Union Democratic party.
“I do not and will not question his integrity because this would be classless,” the school board member added.
Zuena also pointed out that all the candidates interviewing with her “better convince me they are intelligent, independent and willing to do the work for the students of the district.”
“Our model should always be one of being equitable to the people you protect and serve. This little nugget should be taught to ‘the players’ who try to use power instead of fairness,” she said, suggesting all candidates “should bring their ‘A’ game” to the interviews.
Frances, who also is on the ad hoc committee, supported Zuena, noting “her dealings with Jeff Monge are immaterial.”
“If we are questioning her relationship with Jeff Monge we have to question Steven Le’s and Giuliano Farina’s relationship with the other Democratic board members as well,” said the school board member.
Monge said Tuesday he is an independent thinker with “the sole goal of trying to make the Union School system the best it can be for our children.”
“I am not looking at this seat as a stepping stone for a career in politics or a job elsewhere. I don’t need to empower myself or others tied to me with job and contract placement abilities and the like, or anything of that sort,” he added, referring to the political ties Le has with the Democratic party in the township.