BOE candidates face off in debate

UNION, NJ — In a Union Board of Education debate that was, at times, riddled with tension and accusations of underlying partisanship, eight of nine candidates laid out their platforms during one of the election’s only public forums.

Two unaffiliated candidates and two, three-person tickets took part in the debate, which was held in the Union High School Library on Thursday, Oct. 15.
Guy Francis, Jeffrey Monge, and David Arminio call their ticket “Partnership for Change” and are all incumbents.
The second three-person ticket is made up of Thomas Leydon, Maria Sanagustin, and Mary Lynn Williams. Leydon is a two-term incumbent.

Nancy Minneci and Carl Cole are both unaffiliated.

The ninth and final candidate for the Board Education, Steven Le, was unable to participate at the debate, per League of Women Voters rules.

Because Le is running unopposed, for a one-year unexpired term on the board, he was not allowed to speak. That set off a chain reaction of events which, to the dismay of many in attendance, left the debate off public television, and prevented local residents from staying informed ahead of the election.

“There’s no reason that something like this, a very important debate, shouldn’t be on TV,” said Franklin Prather, who’s lived in the township for 74 years. Prather, a disabled veteran, attended the debate in person when he found out that it wouldn’t be televised, but said many others couldn’t do the same. “There are 56,000 taxpayers in the township of Union, and they cannot make a judgment on how their money is going to be spent. They can’t show their concern for education in Union.”

Despite this complaint and more like it, the debate continued without airing on television.
The Partnership for Change candidates had many of the night’s most animated claims, among them that local political pressure creates “political puppets” on the board, as Francis said, or that these campaigns are “run by special interests,” according to Monge.

For their opening statements, though, these candidates kept their message simple. Taking two-minute turns, they explained who they are and why they deserve to be re-elected. Monge, who works with a firm that revitalizes low-income communities, said he’s a specialist in economic development, and has become an active advocate for parents since his family moved to Union.

“We came here from the Bronx for a better life. We actually came 10 years ago. We struggled with our upbringing, and I am proud to say I have a Master’s in Business Management and an undergrad in Computer Engineering Technology,” said Monge. “I am the fighter for parents rights. I founded the Township of Union Parents for Change, I have founded the Township of Union PARCC Advocacy Group.”

In addition to measured spending and parents’ rights, “Partnership for Change” expressed an appreciation for the students of the township. Current Board President Arminio, who taught thousands of students at Kawameeh Middle School during his 36-year teaching career, said that “one of our greatest strengths is the diversity of our student population, and the growing diversity of our staff,” a belief echoed by Francis.

“In particular, our strengths as a school would be the diversity of our students. Our students come from various backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds. This gives them the opportunity to learn from each other and their culture,” said Francis, who is finishing his first term on the board. “This is a reflection of the real world that they will face, when they go to college and when they go into the world.”

That’s why, the Partnership for Change candidates said, the people of the township should take special care to elect candidates with integrity, as well as an underlying belief in their students.

Similarly, members of the other three-person ticket used their opening statements to burnish their credentials and lay out their ideas. Leading the group was two-term incumbent Layden, who talked about the need for improved technology, safety in schools and better academic results in the district.

“My family decided to move to Union in 1993 because of its reputation for an outstanding school system,” said Layden, who works as supervisor with the Union County Division of Social Services. “As one of the most senior members of our Board of Education, I bring a tremendous amount of experience to the table. I have a deep passion for serving my community, and know the importance of a solid

Layden’s running mates also spoke to the significance of a child’s education, including first-time candidates Sanagustin, a marketing director, and Williams, who works with the Union County Division of Social Services.
Sanagustin’s four children went through the Union Public Schools system, an experience which taught her education is the “greatest wealth we can afford our children,” she said. And the success of Sanagustin’s children, she believes, can be attributed to the quality of their education in Union, a point also made by Williams, who identifies as an advocate for special needs children.

“As a board member, I would seek fiscally responsible ways to keep children with special needs in the district, while providing outstanding support and services to help them achieve their true potential,” said Williams. “I am asking for your support because I believe every child, regardless of their learning style, deserves an amazing
public school experience.”

Cole, an unaffiliated candidate, agreed wholeheartedly, saying he wants to make sure that “every child has the opportunity to receive a level of education that can foster their success.”

Cole, an Operations Manager for a chain of supermarkets in the tri-state area, added that his passion for learning as well as his honesty, energy and focus make him the most deserving candidate to be elected, and he was looking forward to a “lively discussion.”

Minneci, the debate’s other unaffiliated candidate, felt similarly about the potential of the district’s students. Minneci was a teacher with the Essex County Vocational school system for 40 years, she said. While her son went through the district’s school system, she was a diligent member of PTAs, and will “work diligently” to support the school system, if elected.

The candidates had more time to flesh out their thoughts, ideas and arguments with the debate’s first question. Posed by a representative from the League of Women Voters, which organized the debate, candidates were asked what the most important function is for members of the board. Many of the responses were about responsibility, representing the students and teachers, responding to the needs of the community, and getting parents engaged. Minneci, kickstarting one of the night’s recurring themes, said that a greater ratio of the budget needs to go into the classroom, rather than other costs.

“I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve been a teacher for 40 years, I’ve been a resident for 32 years, and I’ve realized that our money and our courses need to go behind our students,” said Minneci. “That’s a big idea that I have, that we need to concentrate our ideas on the students. We need to prepare them for the next level, for college.”

Serving as a member of the board, some first-time candidates said, will be about translating their experiences with the school system into a new role. Sanagustin said that it’s to “apply what I have learned” about Union Public Schools, from putting her kids through the schools, and being accountable for the district’s performance, while running mate Layden talked about the Board’s role in creating policy.

“One of our most important responsibilities is to make sure, by creating policies and updating them, that all of our schools are well-run,” said Layden.

The “Partnership for Change” candidates agreed on that job description, somewhat, with Francis saying that policy is “all you’re charged with,” along with “allowing the superintendent to do his job, without interfering.”
Arminio and Monge, for their part, said that doing the job with integrity should be the top priority, and that politics have no place in the Board of Education.

“I think, number one, the children should come first. And definitely not be made political. We shouldn’t have politics coming before our kids,” said Monge.

Another question asked how teachers should be evaluated, considering some of them “teach to the test” and others don’t. Led by Monge, who founded a group critical of the unpopular PARCC Assessment, the candidates were again united on the presented topic, saying they’re against teaching to the test.

Instead, they said, teachers should be encouraged to be creative. Evaluations should be made, according Arminio, by going into classrooms and observing students.
Cole agreed with that sentiment.

“Why don’t we let our teachers teach, and why don’t we judge our students on what they’ve learned, not what they have to learn to pass a test,” said Cole. “What I want, and what I hope every wants, is a well-rounded child with respect to education. I think we have professional, highly-qualified teachers, and we need to let them be professional, highly-qualified teachers.”

That was a viewpoint shared by the other candidates, including Francis, who argued teaching to the test doesn’t create critical thinkers, and that all kids don’t learn the same way.

The next question, though, created greater divisions among the candidates, with a question about finance that showed their differences in ideology. School districts have a 2-percent tax cap, the next question went, so what priorities do the candidates have for reigning in costs, while still providing the basic needs of the district?

Layden, a member of the finance committee, said that the Board has to be diligent and spend taxpayers’ money more wisely, going forward. In general, the Leyden’s ticket pointed to administrative costs as an unnecessary burden, and stressed the potential of cost-cutting measures such as public-private partnerships.

“You have to do more with less. One of the things I like to think of is, if you’ve ever looked in a fashion magazine, you’ll see a really expensive one and you’ll see another one where you can get that same look for a lot less money,” said Williams, who first brought up public-private partnerships. “When we were out there, talking to residents, one of the residents was saying he works for a company that would be more than happy to donate old iPads, because the new ones are coming out.”

The ticket of Layden, Williams and Sanagustin would rather direct money toward the classroom, they said, and ultimately the students, instead of unbudgeted positions in the schools, which take up $450,000 in the budget, according to Layden.

But members of “Partnership for Change,” including Monge, criticized the board’s handling of the $120 million budget.

“I personally don’t want the old iPads for my kids, I want the new iPads for my kids. Firstly, this is what I do for a living. I have 20 years of public-private financing experience,” said Monge. “Mr. Arminio, thankfully, put me on the finance committee. I’ve gone to two finance committee meetings, and I’m the only guy who has showed up. Mr. Layden is on the finance committee. And the business administrator said to Mr. Layden, he asks more questions than you ever asked.”

The board, as it is, only takes state bid prices for contract work, said Monge. Instead, they should bid locally, to spread a wider net for potentially cheaper firms. As for why they don’t, a question Monge says he has been asking for months, does “anyone have an answer?” he said.

“We have special interest groups that fund these elections,” said Monge. “Because there’s jobs and there’s contracts to give out. We start bidding locally, we start saving money for our kids.”

Arminio said that one of the better ways to save money is through the shared services that Union Public Schools has in place with the township, and that, in theory, they could extend that working relationship to other school districts.
Francis said that, just because the board can spend money, doesn’t necessarily mean it should.

“Because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should do it all the time. I remember when I got on the board, I was asking board members ‘is there any time we have excess money leftover, to be used to maybe reduce the amount of taxes being placed on the taxpayers,?’” said Francis. “I won’t name who it was, but he said ‘you want to give money back to the taxpayers?’ And I said yes, because I’m a taxpayer.”

Layden, though, said he took offense to Monge’s claim about his attendance, and reiterated that the crux of the problem is with administrative costs, which he said are bloated by 11 unbudgeted positions in the district. General leadership on the board, said Layden, has been lacking, which will result in a $3 to $4 million deficit in the 2016-17 school year.

“We must be diligent in how every dollar is spent, and more importantly, whether we are spending it on the right things. I have witnessed, under this current leadership of this board, runaway spending this year on administrative costs, especially in the central office, for various positions that have been created,” said Layden. “Vice president for elementary schools, the assistant superintendent position. We must ask ourselves, right now, are all of these positions really necessary? We always seem to be spending on unbudgeted positions.”

Monge, for his part, pointed out that Layden has been a part of the board, as well as the finance committee, and said he’s a “veteran that’s allowing this budget to spiral out of control.” The problems with the school’s budget are numerous, added Monge, who said something needs to be done to overhaul the system.

Cole said he was getting his wish for a “lively discussion,” which continued with the following question, “what changes would you make to the board?” Proposed changes included implementing air conditioning, more after-school activities, an increase in technology — a point heavily emphasized by Francis, Williams and Cole — spending more money on infrastructure, and improving working relationships with local PTAs.

As the debate portion of the night ended, candidates moved onto their closing statements, where they made some of the evening’s most compelling statements. Francis, for example, talked about his disenfranchisement with the board, and how his current campaign has been drastically different than his last.

“Three years ago, I ran with the Democratic Party,” said Francis. “I have first-hand experience of the politics that plague the school board, politics that undermine the authority of the superintendent. I, in good conscience, cannot become a political puppet, so I decided to run as an Independent. I couldn’t vote for the good of the party, I had to vote for the good of my children and for the good of everyone else’s children.”

The board needs to allow the superintendent to “do what he’s been hired to do,” said Francis, and work as a unit with integrity, according to Arminio. Anyone elected to this position, said Arminio, needs to be an independent thinker who makes decisions exclusively for the benefit of students, a mindset he’s helped create as Board President that’s “different from the established pattern.”

The last member of the “Partnership for Change” ticket, Monge, didn’t pull any punches, either. Monge said that the politics of the board, including giving favors to contractors, are making families re-consider moving to Union.
“Strong communities are built on strong school districts. What’s happening is our property values have gone down.
Folks are going to Cranford. And then the people that are trying to step up, look for better lives and come here, well, they come here and the first thing they look at is the school district,” said Monge. “We have people, good people, who because of the nepotism and the cronyism, have left Union. My wife and I ask this all the time, should we stay or should we fight? And we’re fighting.”

The ticket of Leyden, Sanagustin and Williams, for their part, reiterated their goals of improving academic achievement, school infrastructure, the district’s use of technologies and non-traditional revenue sources, such as public-private partnerships. They want more money going to students in the classroom, and they want to control the budget while doing so.

“My oldest son is a recent Rutgers graduate, he went through the engineering department. He graduated with his engineering degree on May 17 and he started working in his field on July 6, and he makes more money than I do,” said Williams. “So I get it. These types of success stories require commitment, and they require hard work, and they require teamwork. As a board member, I would work with our educators and our neighbors to keep education dollars in the classroom, creating more success stories like my son’s and making a better education future for all of our children.”

Both unaffiliated candidates, as well as Williams and Sanagustin, agreed, pointing out they’ve had their own success stories coming out of Union Public Schools.