Will politics rear its head in Union BOE elections?

UNION, NJ — As Union school board elections draw near, tensions are growing as one grassroots movement speaks out against what they describe as a politically-charged school district.

Parents for Change, a movement started by concerned parents and residents in Union, is speaking out against what they describe as Union’s political machine continually muscling its way into Union’s classrooms, citing what they describe as unsavory tactics on the part of local politicians and endorsements by several local political players that the movement says they experienced in last year’s BOE elections. Now, with BOE elections around the corner, independent BOE members are worried that they’ll face some of the same this year.

Jeff Monge, one of PFC’s co-founders and a current Union BOE member, who spoke to LocalSource as a private citizen, said that the movement was started by parents, including himself, who did not like some of the things going on in the Union school district. “In the summer of 2014, as parents in the township of Union were frustrated with the progress of the public schools, many began to wonder if maybe it was time for a change,” said Monge. “In a short period of time, parents in Union grew frustrated after they watched the district-led summer and after-school academy get shut down and a well-respected superintendent get pushed out.”

Monge said that as the summer rolled around and it was time for petitions to be submitted to run for the BOE, an unprecedented six community members — which included five parents — submitted petitions to challenge the three incumbents for positions on the BOE.

Monge said that in order to fight against what he calls a “politically motivated group” controlling the school board for close to 20 years, he, along with another founder of PFC, Paul Casey, dropped out of the 2014 race in order to facilitate a successful run for two other parent-candidates, Nancy Zuena and Ronnie McDowell, who both won seats on the board. All four decided to start the movement in what they refer to as a “grassroots effort against the political machine for the betterment of our children.”

In 2015, PFC members and independent BOE incumbents Guy Francis, David Arminio and Monge were reelected.

The mission of PFC, said Monge, is to develop a community of parents in Union to support individuals, organizations, activities and programs to create positive change to ensure the community is the best one possible for children and families. “This includes a community where all children have the opportunity to excel academically in a safe, positive environment with a commitment to high-quality programs and services,” said Monge.

But both Monge and Casey said that their movement has been stymied because of what they believe to be a politically charged climate in Union. Casey, who has two kids in Union schools, told LocalSource in a phone call that former Union Superintendent of Schools Pat Martin was a good superintendent, but that he was unable to implement positive changes because of political pressures. “We were happy with him, but his hands were tied,” said Casey.

According to Monge, the push to “free” the BOE of political control into a majority of independent-thinking members has been a two-year process. “The fight was ugly and hopefully will not get uglier,” said Monge. “This is ongoing. It is old-school politics supported by political committees.”

Casey said that as a parent, he wanted to get involved in his kids’ education. “I wanted to see what I could do to improve things and help educators have more flexibility to do things,” said Casey. “I didn’t feel like the decisions that were made by the BOE were in the best interests of the kids.”

Casey cites the closing of the Academy Program — a learning initiative held on Saturdays — as one of the many issues that inspired him to get more involved. In addition, Casey said that there was also no recognition of community input, a generally dismissive attitude toward the public at BOE meetings and a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the BOE. “Children were not the priority,” said Casey. “The superintendent wasn’t supported by the board president who had been on the board for 19 years.”

According to Joseph Cryan, Union’s Democratic Municipal Chairman, as well as a sheriff with the Union County Sheriff’s Office, Martin had implemented the Saturday Academies without notifying the board. “He was a guy who was out of control,” Cryan told LocalSource in a phone call. “If he thought it, then the BOE was supposed to do it.”

Cryan said that although he had no problem at all with the concept of Saturday Academies, they were expensive to run, and that when they faded out, the board let them go.

Cryan also said that when Martin, who was the district’s superintendent for five years, left for another district, the board did not try to stop him. “When he left, no one voted to keep him in,” said Cryan.

Casey charges that in Union, it’s all about following the money. “They’ve made a great effort to run against independents and have spent a lot to unseat independents.”

Casey and Monge said that the Democratic Committee to Elect Union Mayor Manuel Figueiredo and Union councilwoman Michele Delisfort, chaired by Union County Sheriff Joseph Cryan, raised more than $73,000 in support of Democratic BOE candidates Steven Le, Mary Lynn Williams, Tom Layden and Maria Sanagustin in 2015, compared to the independent candidates who had a less-than $6,500 budget, along with $3,800 from individual contributions. “The political machine is trying to politicize the greatest asset that we have in this town, and that is our children,” said Casey.

According to records, some of the contributors to back last year’s Democratic-backed candidates include political committees, private citizens, and local businesses. Monge questioned why these businesses would be involved at all in BOE elections. “Why would Deep Foods contribute to their campaigns?” he said of a local manufacturer of Indian food.

Union Mayor Manuel Figueiredo told LocalSource that prior to his involvement in government, he spent 25 years as an educator, some of which were spent in Union. Figueiredo, who has four children that went through Union’s public school system, also noted that he has always had a vested interest in the success of Union’s school system and its students. “I take the accusations made by your source very seriously, and feel compelled to reiterate that I am in support of any change that would yield a positive end result for the young people that we are tasked with educating,” said Figueiredo in an email. “Based on that, I or any of my colleagues whose children have also gone through our school system, have never tried to “stymie” the progress of any group seeking this type of change.”

Monge cited Cryan as leading the campaign to get the opposing candidates onto the board. “He’s the kingmaker,” said Monge. “His campaign provided the bulk of the money to get his folks in.”

But Cryan said that the charges of PFC seem nonsensical. “We have a broad base of support, and there’s an election coming up,” said Cryan. “We raised money for the election, and we used it for the election.”

Williams and Le will be running again this year, two of three candidates vying for three available seats on the school board. Other candidates include PFC members Casey, Nellis Regis-Darby, and Misael Guzman.

Casey and Monge cite spending on BOE elections as a prime example of politics playing an unwelcome role in the classroom. “The Democratic Club of Union did not just donate to the campaign, they endorsed the opposition without meeting with Arminio, Francis and Monge,” said Casey of the 2015 election. “They were also endorsed by the PBA, and many other local political individuals. In addition, vendors that were working for the district made campaign contributions to the opponents’ campaigns. It seems to us that it is unusual for the Campaign Committee to Elect Figueredo and Delisfort to have all this extra money to contribute to the Committee to Elect Williams, Sangustin, Layden and Le when it would be better served donated to an organization like the Boys and Girls Club or the Education Foundation so the children of Union can benefit directly.”

Casey said that in the 2016 election, Parents for Change will support the Committee to Elect Casey, Darby and Guzman, and that any balance remaining from campaign contributions will go to the Union Education Foundation.
Susan Lipstein, who is head of the Township of Union Education Foundation, but spoke with LocalSource strictly as a resident and taxpayer in Union, told LocalSource that the BOE has seen positive change over the past two years. Lipstein, who had children go through the Union school system, has been attending BOE meetings for more than 20 years, and in the past has acted as a liaison between the BOE and PTA. Lipstein said that she saw things that disturbed her, and that she felt change was necessary. “I always felt that real change started at the top,” said Lipstein in a phone call. “I have seen what happens when a BOE is controlled by a political party. The board is supposed to be non-partisan and not controlled by a political party. I’m thrilled that we have independents that have no allegiance to political parties.”

Casey has criticized the Democratic Committee’s endorsement of candidates, as well their spreading negative rumors about independent candidates. “They tried to tell people that Arminio, Francis and Monge would raise taxes, and bring in charter schools and that they were anti-union,” said Casey.

In addition, Casey claims that the township refused to televise last year’s debate because Steven Le was not participating, and that robo-calls from the mayor were made right before the election to vote for Williams, Sangustin, Layden and Le. “They also had township employees advocating for them at polling sites on election day,” Casey said. “We have effectively overcome each of these potential challenges through hard work, individual volunteers who have knocked on doors for us and who have volunteered at polling sites, and by framing a message of improving our schools and the development of a platform for change. It’s a grassroots effort that clearly has the best interest of the children of Union at its heart, so people are excited to be part of it and aren’t going to be bothered by the false information from our opponents.”

But Figueiredo said that there was a last-minute change of format with regard to the debate, and because TV 34 is a public access channel, there are rules that must be adhered to when it comes to this specific type of programming. “Because it is a public access channel, they have an obligation to their viewers to ensure that all parties are represented and have been given a chance to participate,” said Figueiredo. “In essence, the issue was not specific to Steven Le, but rather would have happened had any of the candidates — regardless of affiliation — not been given the opportunity.”

As for PFC’s claims regarding township employees stationing themselves at polling sites on election day, Figueiredo said that if any individuals chose to visit polling sites, it was not connected to the township. “Election Day is typically observed as a holiday here at the township, and as such any individuals that may have been out supporting any of the candidates were doing so of their own volition and on their own personal time,” said Figueiredo.

Casey and Monge allege that most of the players who they claim are trying to thwart their progress can be found by looking at campaign reports. “The Union Township Democratic Club was a very vocal supporter of the opposition, so much so that they coordinated endorsements from a variety of top Union County democrats to endorse the opponents without meeting with Parents for Change candidates,” said Casey.

But Cryan said that there has been no effort on the part of PFC to talk. “I’ve never had a request to meet with them or have had any kind of open dialogue with them,” said Cryan.

Casey said that he and other parents who support the PFC movement believe that things are changing for the better. “Union Schools have turned a corner in a positive direction,” said Casey. “The BOE now has transparency and accountability to the public. There has been a new commitment to bringing advanced technology tools, some summer programs are back, a new director of technology has been hired, and the BOE has cracked down on residency issues.”

This article was updated Oct. 31, 2016.