Although the number of potential candidate shrank sharply in the month since paperwork for petitions was drawn, the five remaining candidates present voters with hard choices over philosophy. While the two incumbents, Anthony Rinaldi and Michael Schlemm, bring with them a string of accomplishments that include the ongoing expansion of two elementary schools and numerous upgrades to the infrastructure of the schools, they also both bring to this election responsibility to the highest increases in a proposed school budget in a decade, as well as the stigma of raises to administrators that were criticized by town officials as excessive.
The choice by Douglas MacCormack not to run for re-election guarantees that at least one of the three challengers will take a seat on the board.
From among these three, voters must choose the very differing philosophies presented by Michael Harper, Thomas Troyer, and Kathleen McFarlane.
In selecting the makeup the board for the next year and electing three of these five candidates to office for three year terms, voters will be selecting people who will be making additional hard choices such as the financing for the expansion of the high school/middle school complex and the probable selection of a new superintendent of schools.
In the last year of Rinaldi's current term on the board, Rinaldi, as chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, has been responsible for shepherding the expansion of the two elementary schools, a duty that would shift to someone else in mid-construction if he was to lose his seat on the board.
As part of the school board over the last three years, Rinaldi helped approve the financial and construction plans that allowed the school district to meet the needs of student enrollment that had plagued the elementary schools since the early 1990s.
Rinaldi said he brings to the board experience as a businessman, someone who has dealt with budgets as well as people, and can help make the system work as a business.
Saying he wanted to give back something to the school system that had provided him with an education, Rinaldi was elected to the board in 1998. Rinaldi graduated Secaucus High School in 1983, and is among five current board members who came through the Secaucus educational system.
The father of two, Rinaldi also claims pride in his own family attending Secaucus schools, giving him a strong interest in keeping up the quality of the schools. He said that his education allowed him to take on his career. He is a partner in Crane Construction Company.
Rinaldi said going through the school system here has allowed him to see the school district, not only as a board member, but also as a student. He knows many of the teachers and many of the concerns these teachers have. Rinaldi said that since being elected in 1998, he has been part of one of the most active and productive boards in Secaucus history, a board that has accomplished many of the things other boards struggled to address. The installation of technology into the schools is one of the big accomplishments of this board, he said, and so was the expansion of the two elementary schools. He said the board managed to get one of the best architects in the state as well as one of the best contractors, getting them as lowest bidders.
"The big challenge right now is making sure the schools are done on time," he said, noting that Huber Street School is due to open its new wing in August, and Clarendon School, in January, 2002. "It has been a rough winter, and yet the contractor has agreed to bring both projects in on time."
Because there is a chance the current superintendent of schools will retire during the next three years, each board member was asked what kind of person he or she would like in a future replacement. Rinaldi said he would like someone who knows the school system well.
"I would like someone who is as hardworking as Gus Scerbo is," Rinaldi said, "someone in tune with the many changes going on, and someone who understands issues like advanced placement, block scheduling, and technology. That person would also have to have a good relationship with the community as well as the school system."
Like Rinaldi, Schlemm was elected in 1998 - after being appointed earlier that year to fill a vacated post -- and he has helped shape the $6.5 million bond package that allowed the elementary schools to expand. Yet his claim to fame goes deeper in some ways as he helped to significantly alter the technological landscape for students in all the schools. Schlemm - as a member of the board's technology committee - helped guide the school district's computer upgrade, providing additional and more modern computers in each of the classrooms, helping to network the school district, providing an information resource anyone anywhere in the school district can draw from at need.
Schlemm, like Rinaldi, was part of a board of education that helped deal with many of the smaller, yet nagging capital improvements, providing repairs and replacements of ailing facilities. Under the watch of the current board, the heating system at the high school/middle school complex was changed from an exorbitantly expensive electric power to a system based on gas. And though utility costs have risen sharply over the last year, without the change, the school district would have faced an even more significant hike.
As with Rinaldi, Schlemm also graduated from Secaucus High School in 1983, after having moved up through the Secaucus school system. He went on to attend Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, where he got his degree and is currently involved in helping organizations with the infusion of technology into their systems.
Among the things accomplished by the board over the last three years, Schlemm lists greater financial accountability through new systems for tracking money, purchasing through cooperative agreements with other school districts, and the hiring of the current school administrator. Foresight by the board allowed the district to take advantage of a state refund for expansion, saving local taxpayers over half the projected $6.5 million construction cost.
Schlemm is particularly grateful for the public's trust three years ago when it passed a special referendum to allow the school district to upgrade its computer technology. As a result, the schools currently boast 251 computers and computer labs. Schlemm said that he is seeking to take that technological advance to the next level.
"We have the technology in place; now I would like to see higher usage," he said. "This means providing teachers with training."
He said projects on the horizon include teleconferencing and advanced use of the Internet for homework assignments, web page programs and e-mail.
The future also presents the board with additional challenges, Schlemm said. Although the district has managed to begin expansion on its two elementary schools, the increased student enrollment that created the need for this expansion has begun to move up into the Middle School, and he foresees the need for expansion at the middle school/high school complex to handle these students.
If reelected, Schlemm will likely be a member of a board charged with having to select a new superintendent of schools when the current superintendent retires. Schlemm said he would look for many of the same qualities in a future candidate for the job as the current superintendent has now.
"Gus Scerbo is very good at balancing the interests of the community and the schools," Schlemm said. "He is always involved, always attends school functions and is always there when someone needs him. That's the kind of person I would like to see as his replacement."
Harper has been criticized for seeming too political, as he has many connections to professional politicians. Harper hides none of his connections, and, in fact, boasts of his old-fashioned definition of politics. He says that political means serving the community, and that those charged with political duties must be held to a higher standard than ordinary people. In seeking a seat on the board, Harper hopes to fill the seat vacated by MacCormack with someone who will maintain the board's unity in addressing the needs of the students in the school district.
In running for office, Harper brings to the election a desire to serve the community, lending his abilities and experiences to the community for the public good.
Harper currently serves on the Secaucus Housing Authority as a commissioner, but has been involved in the local political scene for years. At age 15, he served as former Mayor Anthony Just's campaign manager, and as the Youth Officer for the town, a post that helped him enhance communications between kids and town officials. Harper attended local schools until high school, after which he attended St. Peter's Prep, following the tradition of other family members. He later went on to get his degree in political science from the University of Scranton. Harper has a remarkable range of experiences in government, serving as a legislative aide in Trenton for state Democratic legislators, as well as serving on the staff of the assembly's Consumer Affairs & Regulated Professional Committee, Education Committee and the state's School Construction Act - something the local school district benefited from this year. Harper currently serves as chief of staff for Assemblyman Albio Sires (D-33rd Dist.).
Harper said he foresees the expansion of the middle school/high school complex as one of the challenges facing the new board.
"I think we have an excellent school system and I would like to see it continue to improve," he said. "This means we must continue progress in technology and other areas."
Good schools, he said, maintain the middle class quality of life of Secaucus.
One area Harper would like to emphasize if elected would be a stronger emphasis on character education, and a focus on a person's rights and responsibilities in the overall society.
"I know character education is a buzz word these days, but I think it is an important area," Harper said. While Harper does not go as far as candidate Thomas Troyer in criticizing large raises given to school administrators this year, he said he would rather see money invested more directly into classrooms where they might have the most impact on students. He also said he will not advocate voting the budget up or down. "That is something that is up to the voters to decide for themselves," he said.
As far as qualifications for a possible future superintendent, Harper said he liked to hire people for higher positions from within the school system.
"People who have been in the system for a while have an insight into the school and community outsiders aren't likely to have," he said.
Troyer has been called "the anti-school budget candidate." He previously served on the board for two terms, once from 1973 to 1976, then again from 1979 to 1982., and ran as a candidate for the board in 1998. Troyer also ran for mayor in 1999, and served for five years as a commissioner on the Secaucus Housing Authority. Troyer says he led the movement that brought about the change from an appointed school board in the 1960s to an elected school board.
A graduate of Montclair State College (now a university), he taught in various schools in Union City, Park Ridge and Secaucus.
Troyer claimed the label as the anti-school budget candidate misrepresents his position. He said that students must get the best education possible, but not at the expense of senior citizens and others with fixed incomes in the community.
If voters elect him to the school board, Troyer said he will act as a watchdog over spending to make certain that taxpayers get their money's worth. Although a retired teacher himself, he believes that the school board often fails to see the full impact of its decisions on the wider community. As former member of the Secaucus Housing Authority, Troyer said he's witnessed this impact on senior citizens whose retirement packages do not equal those granted to those in the schools, and yet, these seniors have seen their own limited incomes dwindle year after year as school costs rise.
Troyer said he knows how negotiated raises for teachers can seem deceptive, how even a 3 or 4 percent raise may actually amount to a much higher percentage than first appears. Teachers, he said, are paid in steps (depending on educational achievements and years of experience) and these can drastically change. A 3 percent change one year could amount to a much more significant percentage increase the next, and negotiations, he said, must take this into account - especially considering the fact that the salaries of supervisors, administrators, principals and even the superintendent often increase in proportion to those of the teachers.
Troyer says that someone needs to monitor the school board's spending with an eye out for the taxpayer. While he believes kids should get a good education, this should not be done in a way that would bankrupt the people paying the bills. He says the board needs to strike a balance between providing a quality education and keeping Secaucus affordable to those people living here.
In looking ahead, he said these issues must be considered when the board comes to issues like upgrading the middle school/high school complex and hiring the next superintendent of schools.
Although she previously thought about seeking election to the Board of Education, McFarlane said this is her year to run. As the parent of a student in Huber Street School, she says she wants to take a bigger role in shaping the educational process, to make certain that the school district continues to prove its children with a quality education. She said she wants to be certain that the schools help prepare its students for the challenges of an uncertain future.
Normally a quiet woman, McFarlane expresses surprising passion when she talks about her future role as a member of the board
McFarlane, a teacher who retired to raise her family, still works as an occasional substitute in the public schools and an active member of the PTA at Huber Street School. She also served on the Principal's Advisory Board. A graduate of St. Peter's college, McFarlane has lived in Secaucus for 38 years, and has taught at St. Anthony's school in Jersey City, Corpus Christie School in Hasbrouck Heights, and Queen of Peace school in North Arlington.
McFarlane said she believes in a traditional education, something that relies more strongly on textbooks and basic education techniques than on technology, although she admits technology has a place in education today. She said by emphasizing read and writing, a child learns how to learn, literary skills, which can be carried out into life.
She said she wants to promote a program of building self-esteem and self-motivation for students, and would like to expand the DARE program to include instruction to parents on how to recognize drug use in children. "A lot of students lack respect for themselves," she said. "That's part of the problem that has caused violence in schools around the country. Kids reach a boiling point and don't know how to react."
She said many people fail to understand the powerful forces at work in kids' lives while at school and how deeply students feel abuse by other students. She said the schools need to offer alternatives before violent acts occur, perhaps seminars for all children to encourage respect.
"We need to react warning signs," she said. "And perhaps hold seminars for parents as well, so they might able to recognize signs in their children."
She would also like to expand arts and literature programs in the schools. She said that these help shape children's lives and keep them from seeking more destructive activities. She wants in addition to promote community service among students.
McFarlane said - in selecting a new superintendent of schools - she would look for someone who have a love of children, and respected children.
"I would want someone that understands the role parents place in the lives of their children," she said. "I would also look for someone who is organized and understands the nature of our community, and would bring to the job a commitment to education."