Endorsements: It’s business, not personal

UNION COUNTY — Although endorsements for municipal and board of education races usually show up in an editorial on the opposite page, this year LocalSource is breaking with tradition.

It would be difficult for a countywide weekly newspaper to adequately cover every municipal and board of education race. We simply do not have the resources to provide the in-depth coverage readers deserve, which includes interviewing every candidate on the ballot in every town.

However, as the reporter of record for LocalSource, there were several municipal and board of education races that we felt compelled to follow closely from the beginning. It was evident the outcome of these particular races could result in significant change, and for that reason a decision was made to endorse candidates in these towns.

This included the Linden mayoral and city council president seats, three open seats on the Union Board of Education, and two open seats on the Cranford Township Committee.

While in the past candidates were asked to come in for interviews prior to endorsement, this is not always possible.
However, decisions can reached based on many other factors, including how candidates responded at forums, knowledge of a municipality or school board history on important issues, how accessible they were, and informal telephone interviews and conversations. The election is Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Union Board of Education:
Vote for Hackett, Zuena and Nufrio
For several years parents and residents alike have expressed a troubling disconnect between the Union Board of Education and community. Over the last year, this unease appeared to increase, coming to a head when Superintendent Patrick Martin resigned in June.

From declining test scores and school ratings, the abrupt cancellation of the very popular after school and Saturday Academy, to a lack of transparency by the board, the frustration of this contingent of parents and residents was palpable at meetings. So, it did not come as a surprise that this discontent fueled six challengers to run for one of the three seats up for grabs.
Although two of these newcomers decided to drop out of the race to ensure votes would not be spread too thin among the challengers, this left four challengers in the pool against three incumbents.

Although on separate slates, both challenger duos are advocating similar platforms for change. This includes instituting a culture of collaboration on the board that is needed to ensure all members are working together to achieve the highest student levels possible.
They strongly believe the incumbents have presented a rosy picture of a school district whose test performance is rising, but they suggest actual test scores in some of the schools cast doubt on this picture.

There is little doubt the current sitting board of education has exhibited an “us against them” attitude toward the public when the question of transparency surfaced at meetings or they are asked about school test performance. This is troubling and a strong indication the board has stagnated and needs a fresh perspective in order to reestablish openness with the public

With that in mind, and based on the inability of the current sitting board to recognize change must occur for ratings and test scores to rise, we believe two challengers, Christopher Hackett and Nancy Zuena, would be the most effective on the board.

Hackett, who shows an honest, forthright, fair approach to being a board member, will be a strong catalyst for change while still willing to work cohesively with the full board. His fair and mature approach to handling difficult situations in statesmanlike manner is evident on the Union, N.J. Residents Forum, which he created this year.

This forum has over 3,000 members in a short time and although forums have the potential to go off in the wrong direction, this has been respectfully controlled by Hackett. For these reasons we believe, if elected, this candidate will be able to bring not only a much needed perspective, but innovative ideas and transparency without dividing the board in a way that would be unproductive, and instead benefitting the 8,000 students in the district.

Zuena, the mother of three sons, two of which are students in the school district, has been an active member of the sports and school community through volunteerism. Because of this experience and a level headed, logical approach to education, she will bring a much needed parent’s perspective to the board. The current board seems to lack true empathy and understanding about building bridges with parents, which Zuena will be able to do without rancor.

This was evident at the League of Women Voters forum when debate centered on test scores. In a sea of candidates responding with complex answers, Zuena had no problem voicing her belief that while test scores were important, student’s performance should be based on their overall educational achievements, which does not just include test scores.

Zuena will also be able to hold her own on a board that can be intimidating and cliquish. She has a strong sense of self and will not shy away from standing her ground and ensuring the changes parents have brought to the forefront are addressed. Like Hackett, she will seek change without divisiveness, which will be needed if change is to occur on the board and in the district.

The third endorsement for Union Board of Education did not come easy. It was, in fact, especially difficult based on the pool of candidates this year. While it would have been easy to endorse another challenger, we believe this would be a disservice to a board that needs a strong educator’s experience and presence in order for the board and public to clearly understand testing mandates facing school districts in the state.

This cannot be taken lightly or left to new board members to grasp as they hit the ground running. For that reason we are endorsing incumbent Vito Nufrio, who has a 40-year career behind him as a teacher, vice principal and principal.

While he does have the tendency to shoot from the hip without considering how harsh his words sound to the public, his educational background and ability to stay on top of complex educational issues facing the district is an asset to the board and public. That knowledge cannot be discounted or taken lightly. This is about what is best for the entire school district, which should be the priority.

Nufrio will provide valuable insight to parents who often do not understand the mechanics of testing and the constraints the board must work within. This is especially true when clearer heads must prevail. On the other hand, Nufrio has to remember that parents ask questions because they are concerned about the education of their children. By working together, instead of at odds, many issues could be resolved easily.

Certainly parents who have advocated change have valid concerns, many of which can be addressed in time. However, change does not happen overnight nor does it happen because a group feels a school board does not have their children’s best interest at heart. Change happens when everyone works together for a common goal and the old adage of “it takes a village to raise a child” is also true when it comes to school districts.

Everyone — board members, parents and residents — must take down the walls that have divided them and work towards a common goal of improving the school district for the sake of the students, who should be the only focus. Unless they do, the changes that could help the district move forward in a positive direction will not be achieved.

Linden mayor and council president:
Vote for Gerbounka and Alvarez
For many years Linden has been fighting to regain the tax base that fell away when large industrial companies shut their doors. Make no mistakes; it is a war that is being won step by step and with a great deal of thought to the future of the city. This is due in great part to the consistent and steady hand of Mayor Rich Gerbounka, who manages to keep things moving in a forward direction.

Gerbounka had two strikes against him when he won the seat eight years ago and took over the reigns as the country was struggling to get out of one of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Despite this, one of the first tasks this mayor took on was a quest to bring ratables to Linden so taxpayers would not have to shoulder the entire burden of an eroding tax base.

While there have been detours along the way, few would disagree that this mayor has the interest of the municipality he leads at heart. We believe Gerbounka deserves a third term in office because of his consistent, steady dedication and tenaciousness in restoring the city’s once lucrative tax base.

To upset this momentum would certainly take the city off track and quite possibly cause a setback that taxpayers would end up paying for in the end. This is not the time for a radical change in the city. Gerbounka has proven his mettle when it comes to staying the course and losing this momentum could throw the city in a downward spiral.

There is little doubt this mayor, a former member of the police department, has many irons in the fire, but he still manages to lead with confidence and determination that is admirable.

More importantly, Gerbounka is a visible presence in the community, and easily accessible by everyone because he is in the mayor’s office every single day from morning until night. That too is admirable and something that needs to be carefully considered by voters in their decision making process. Anyone can talk the talk, but Gerbounka has walked the walk.

For city council president we strongly believe Jorge Alvarez deserves the seat and, in fact, will lead the council with experience and professionalism that has been lacking for past four years.

There is little doubt the position of city council president is one that determines the tone of the council and its ability to move forward in a positive direction. Alvarez is quietly confident and more than able to hit the ground running. He pointed out that as council president he would not be working for the Democrats, Republicans or Independents but rather the community and that is to his credit. He offers assured leadership during a time when the city is still climbing out of a difficult financial situation.

He readily admitted the garbage tax was “a quick fix,” and believes there is a lot of money being wasted in the budget.
However, while many candidates running for an elected seat have no solutions, Alvarez is quick to point out its time to sit down and look at every department to see where money is being wasted. The fact that Linden pays many of its municipal department heads considerably more than other towns gave him pause, and it should. He also believes the mayor should have a more active part in the budget, something Gerbounka himself has argued for over the years.
During an interview with this candidate, he admitted the city did not need a change of government as “its time to start cleaning house,” and we agree.

If the city has problems meeting the 2-percent cap year after year and has to resort to threatening to lay off police and fire personnel in order to introduce a budget in a timely manner, it is time to reduce staff that is being paid large salaries.

Finally, Alvarez does not appear to have an agenda of his own. He has no axe to grind, no platform he is trying to convey. He will bring not only a fresh perspective but also a mature and much needed guiding hand to a council that has floundered without a strong leader.

Cranford Township Committee:
Vote for Kalnins and Adubato
Cranford is coming off more than a decade of poor decision making, flooding issues, constant change, inept employees and a storm three years ago that debilitated the community and left it with $100 million in damages. The last year saw the first real steps towards changing that instability and it is in part due to the steady leadership of Republicans Andy Kalnins and Lisa Adubato.

Although both Kalnins and Adubato are only finishing up their first three-year term on the governing body, it has been a trial by fire. They came aboard right after the township was hit by Irene and also had an interim township administrator who was doing double duty as the police chief.

This learning curve has not been easy but both have shown the maturity and level headed thinking required for this municipality to get back its footing. This can be attributed to decision making that enabled the township to go in a new direction.

One example of this steady hand was the appointment of Jim Wozniak as police chief. Not only was he the ideal person for the job but he has brought together the force, implemented new ideas and quickly laid groundwork to ensure that community public safety is at the top of the agenda 24/7.

There is little doubt that both Kalnins and Adubato took the air out of the beast in their approach to the Birchwood development and flooding issues. They managed to approach both issues logically and without a frantic rush to judgment that usually was the mindset previously on the governing body.

Helping here was not playing the political card, which more than defused the situation.
Kalnins, while more than concerned about the need for flooding relief in the township, points out that Cranford cannot tackle this issue alone because it is a regional issue.

Both Kalnins and Adubato offer the experience, maturity and wise decision making that the township needs in order to rebuilding what broke down over a decade of neglect and poor management. A vote for these two candidates will ensure that this trajectory does not go off course again, because Cranford deserves strong leadership and sound decision making at this juncture.