With one of the largest candidate fields in recent memory, seven people filed petitions last week to run for three slots in the Secaucus Board of Education (BOE) election to be held April 27.
The three winners will each serve three-year terms on the nine-member board. Board members vote on district policy and draft the annual school budget, which is approved or rejected by voters each spring. Board members also select a new schools superintendent when there is a vacancy or can negotiate a contract extension with the current super.
The new board members will be coming onto the board at a particularly challenging time for the Secaucus School District.
The remaining candidates in the BOE field this year are Patricia Belenski, Joseph Lewis, Jules Carricarte, Lisa Snedeker, and Mark Gutmann.
The candidates would be joining the board at a particularly challenging time for the Secaucus school district. Last year Secaucus took a funding hit as a result of education cuts made by Gov. Christopher Christie. This year, some of that money – about $300,000 – has been restored.
But under the state’s new 2.0 percent tax cap, school districts must cap annual tax increases at 2 percent, which will be a challenge to achieve without cutting back on educational programs.
“I feel the board needs to have somebody that’s going to question what’s going on, how money is being spent, and not be a rubber stamp,” said Lewis, a school teacher in Union City. “There’s got to be somebody that’s going to ask the tough questions and look for the answers and not just say, ‘Okay, this is what was proposed. This is what we’ll accept.’ It’s all about saving taxpayers’ money and doing what’s right for the children. I don’t think that’s being done right now.”
Last school year, Middle School and High School teachers began integrating SAT prep skills into the ongoing curriculum. The district’s learning academy program added an internship component and laid the groundwork for the Future Teachers Academy, a learning academy the Board of Education launched recently. And since 2009 Interactive “white boards” have been installed in every classroom.
“I know it’s hard now, given the financial situation in New Jersey,” said Snedeker, who works as the town’s director of Senior and Community Services. “But we have to continue to be creative. We have to keep finding creative ways to direct funding and resources to the classroom, where the money belongs.”
Strife led to candidacies
In addition to the funding issue, a number of programmatic and personnel changes made over the last two school years have also created tension within the district, often pitting the school board and Schools Superintendent Cynthia Randina on one side and faculty on the other.
Since Randina was hired in 2008, parents and teachers have railed against the school board’s spending priorities, class size, online lesson plans, and what they perceive as a lack of communication between Randina, the board members, and the teachers. Many teachers were also critical of some hiring decisions that have been made within the last two years and the reassignment of three of the district’s four principals in 2009. Since then, the teachers’ union, the Secaucus Education Association (SEA), and some parents have called for Randina’s ouster. Last June the SEA took a vote of no confidence in Randina’s leadership. The BOE swiftly held its own vote of confidence in the superintendent.
Randina created a Communications Committee to improve relations between her administration and teachers, which has eased some tension. But many teachers and some parents continue to be critical of the direction she is taking the school district.
“Our children are being tested to death,” said Belenski, whose son is a sophomore at Secaucus High School. “No one is addressing their emotional needs as people, their needs as children. The morale of the [teachers and school district staff] is low. But the morale of the students is very low as well.”
Carricarte, a retired school teacher, agreed.
“I volunteer at the teen center and these kids talk to me because they feel they can trust me,” he said. “I can tell you, a lot of these kids are hurting. All they hear is how we want the school district to be the best in Hudson County. I want it to be the best in Hudson County, too. But at what cost? We can’t sacrifice our children just because we want to be No. 1. The wrong things are being emphasized in the district.”
Randina is currently in the middle of the third year of her five-year contract with the school district. The three candidates elected next month will be among the BOE trustees who will either negotiate a contract extension with Randina or search for her replacement.
Since one incumbent is not running for reelection, this means one newcomer will be added to the school board, continuing a trend that started three years ago. Since 2008, the school board has almost completely changed its composition and a number of fresh faces have been elected.
While Belenski and Lewis are each running their second campaigns for the BOE, this year marks the first time for Carricarte, Snedeker, and Gutmann, an employee at the Secaucus Public Library and Business Resource Center.
Dora Marra, who won her first term on the board in 2008, is running for her second term. Fellow incumbent Eleanore Reinl, a retired executive assistant, has been a BOE trustee for more than three decades.
Makarski, who also won his first term on the board in 2008, along with Marra, stunned many by not seeking a second term.
“I am very proud of the many accomplishments that I’ve had while serving on the Board of Education – spearheading the addition of interactive white boards to every classroom, fiber optics installation, and enhancements to our school security systems, among others,” Makarski said in a statement released after last Tuesday’s filing deadline for the BOE had passed. “I have dedicated myself during my term to working with teachers, parents, administration, and the community to make our school district an even better place. Now I will be focusing on other opportunities, but I will always remember my time on the board fondly and hope to see it continue to operate in a positive manner in the best interests of the students and taxpayers of Secaucus.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.