In an election that only has four candidates vying for three open seats, the Secaucus school board race has been hotly contested. Two incumbents, Thomas Troyer and Gary Riebesell, face reelection after serving during three years filled with conflict between the local teachers’ union and Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Randina.
While former union president Robert Anderson is running for the first time, he is not a newcomer to education. He has come out strongly against Randina and said that he will not renew her contract when it is up in October if elected to the board. Newcomer Kelli D’Addetta enters the fray with four years of experience as the Clarendon Parent Teachers Association president and two years as vice president.
Four candidates compete for three seats in the local school board election in Secaucus.
On April 17, voters will be able to approve or reject the school budget in addition to voting for new board members. Polls will be open from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Incumbent Charles Krajewski chose not to seek office again.
Question of leadership
An issue at the heart of the school board election is whether voters will support any candidate that supports Randina’s leadership and the changes she has brought about to the school district since her appointment in 2008.
Her management choices were questioned from the outset in regard to hiring decisions, spending, and allocation of resources. Despite elevated SAT scores, technological enhancements, and leadership on anti-bullying programs, Randina has remained a target of criticism. Her most vocal opposition has come from Anderson, who has repeatedly questioned her decisions and most recently led the second vote of ‘no confidence’ in her leadership in two years’ time. Now retired, Anderson taught locally for 33 years, coached basketball, and has a daughter who is a freshman in high school.
He presented the school board with a list of 27 issues in January that the union said led to a hostile working environment. The school board has since met privately with the union representatives and Randina to address the issues. Randina has said publicly that the union undermined the school board by failing to adhere to process and procedure as it pertains to grievances.
“The leadership is supposed to lead. The leadership has been atrocious,” said Anderson. “She has divided the school district since she has been here.” He said that Randina often doesn’t tell the truth and constantly makes up excuses.
Troyer stands at the opposite end of the spectrum on this issue as a staunch supporter of Randina. “She wants the best; that is what I want,” said Troyer. A retired widower, Troyer has two adult sons. He has served five three-year terms on the school board. An educator for 45 years, most of that time in Union City, he is running on a platform to “keep politics out of education.”
“She has leadership skills that are unbelievable,” noted Troyer. He said that Randina held people accountable and tackled wrongdoing in the school system.
“She cleaned up decades of things that were wrong in the making.”
The teacher quotient
“We have never had these issues before,” said Kelli D’Addetta. A resident of 35 years, she grew up in the local school system. A stay-at-home mom, D’Addetta has three children, two boys in elementary school and a three-year-old daughter.
“Teachers are not happy…the superintendent and the teachers can’t seem to get on the same page.” While D’Addetta said that she did not agree with a number of external hires Randina made over internal candidates she said that she does not have any personal issues with her.
She said that since she hasn’t been on the board and had the opportunity to have an inside look at Randina’s work, she didn’t think it would be fair to take a position on whether or not to renew the superintendent’s contract.
Gary Riebesell would not comment on Randina. He said it was a personnel matter, but noted that she is working to better the relationship with the union. A resident since 1994, he has a daughter in high school, has served as a volunteer firefighter for the last 16 years, and is a captain with Engine Company 1. He also coached girls’ softball, basketball, and soccer.
Budget, classroom size, and textbooks
Troyer and D’Addetta support the budget. Riebesell was not available to comment on the budget, and Anderson said the paperwork is “all faulty.”
“She claims she has saved money but she has lost tons of educational experience,” said Anderson in reference to resignations and hiring decisions. He also said that he would reevaluate professional contracts.
Classroom size came up among D’Addetta, Riebesell, and Anderson. All three agreed that the classroom size had reached capacity. Anderson said that 25 students per classroom was unacceptable. D’Addetta and Riebesell supported expanding the middle school to create more space.
“There are not enough textbooks to go around,” said D’Addetta. “Some of the children are sharing books and not able to bring textbooks home to study.”
Campaign heat is on
Troyer has faced considerable opposition from Mayor Michael Gonnelli, who has come out in support of the other three candidates. Others like Tom Roarty said that Troyer was charged with insubordination for failing to submit evidence of a Masters of Arts Degree in a letter to the editor printed in the Reporter last week.
“It was political assault,” said Troyer regarding the incident. “They use it every time I run.” Troyer said that when he went to resign from his teaching position because he planned to work in Union City, he was told he couldn’t leave because he had falsified his credentials and he was asked to sign a document to agree to the claims, which he refused to do. He said that he did believe he had a Master’s because he had 32 credits from Seton Hall, which were considered a Masters equivalency. Troyer said the 32 credits were part of a certification process that was recognized by the Union City school district.
Liboro Marrotta, Troyer’s lawyer, told the Reporter that Troyer reached a settlement with the school district and was essentially cleared of the charges.
“I didn’t try to mask these things,” said Troyer. “They’ve had all my credentials.”
Accountability, children, quality, and honesty
“You destroy education when you put politics in education,” said Troyer, who wants to hold the mayor and town council accountable and keep political influence out of the school district.
“Things have gotten so far away from the focus on the children,” said D’Addetta, a proponent of finding ways for everyone to work together.
“We need to make sure that our quality of education does not get diluted,” said Riebesell.
“You may not like my style but you will hear the truth,” said Anderson.
The four candidates represent distinct backgrounds and bring various sets of skills to the table. Troyer is pushing to keep politically-driven appointments or influence out of the school district; Anderson is a proponent of greater transparency at the administrative level; Riebesell advocates for quality education; and D’Addetta promotes a return to focusing on children and educators. On April 17, voters will have to decide their top three priority issues and top three candidates.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.