BOE Candidates' Forum Turns Contentious Over Seitz Contract, Transparency and Respect
Incumbent Andrew Choffo one of three who didn't attend session at the old firehouse.
A Board of Education Candidates' Night was held Wednesday night at the old firehouse on Centerton Road. Six of the nine candidates on the April 27 ballot came out and gamely answered residents' questions during a cordial event that, by its end, turned contentious.
Moderator Jim Walls set the ground rules at the beginning: Candidates were allowed two-minute opening statements and then would accept questions from the audience. These questions were written on index cards to be read by Walls.
The controversy over Superintendent LeRoy Seitz's contract came up numerous times in questions from audience members near the conclusion of the forum. Most candidates appeared to share township residents' anger over the contract and over the BOE's maneuvers to get around Gov. Chris Christie's $175,000 salary cap for superintendents.
Particular ire was reserved for a lawsuit the board filed against the state over Christie's refusal of that contract. The school budget was not approved by the county superintendent until the $204,125 line item for Seitz's salary was cut by $2,462.
So far, a reported $9,000 has been spent on pursuing the lawsuit, and most candidates expressed outrage that Board President Anthony Mancuso appeared to make a unilateral decision to start the legal action. BOE candidate Carol Trapp defended Mancuso and the contract, calling any attempt to limit the president's activities or spending decisions "extreme."
Christie's office recently announced that the issue was "resolved'' when the $204,125 line item for Seitz's salary was reduced by $2,462.
The moderator asked the candidates if they would support the Seitz contract and Mancuso's re-election as BOE president. Only Trapp said yes, explaining that she believed the president acted in a manner that was "legal and legitimate." On the matter of the budget that also will be on the ballot April 27, every candidate said they considered the spending plan a responsible one.
Before candidates' closing statements began, Walls permitted members of the audience to ask any final questions they might have.
Ray Vigano, a Parsippany resident, stated his belief that a board president should not have the right to make unilateral decisions. Trapp countered that phone calls were made to other board members prior to the decision to file suit against the state over the superintendent's contract.
"We aren't privy to the content of those discussions," she said. "It appears the $175,000 cap, which happens to be the amount of the governor's salary, was an arbitrary number he chose to ensure that no superintendent made more money than the governor. Perhaps the governor should get a raise.
"But when you take a job of that caliber [as superintendent], merit pay is to be expected. And sometimes, you get what you pay for. We don't want to end up like Wayne, which is still operating without a superintendent after two years."
Resident Roman Hoshowsky countered, "I asked Dr. Seitz and Mr. Mancuso whether, as required by law, all administrative remedies had been exhausted before filing the suit and spending the money, and they wouldn't answer the question. "
Candidate Joseph Raich said, "Mr. Mancuso doesn't deserve to be re-elected to the office of president of the Board of Education. Conducting votes over the telephone, if that is what he did, violates the Open Public Law Act."
Vigano had enough. "I am tired of discussion after discussion about the superintendent and his contract," he said angrily. "I am tired of this board taking action without going through proper channels and in view of the public.
"If there are board members who cast a vote in favor of the lawsuit, why don't they step up and tell us? Calling people is not getting approval. It is ridiculous the amount of discussion this man has caused this town. We keep hearing these allegations, but this board has not been forthright. Getting a consensus by phone is not an appropriate way to spend funds."
Board member Michael Strumolo, a vocal critic of the contract and the lawsuit, stood to speak. "It was a violation of the Open Public Law Act," he charged. "The vote needed to be taken in public."
A heated exchange continued, exacerbated by audience members who wanted the candidates to begin closing statements so that the forum could end and they could go home. As the moderator urged people to refrain from becoming angry, Strumolo loudly pointed out that board member Andrew Choffo, who is running for re-election, was not present at the forum.
"He didn't want to face tough questions from citizens," Strumolo insisted emphatically.
Organizer Pat Petaccia jumped in to apologize for not announcing earlier that three candidates would not be in attendance: Richard Gerstl, who told organizers he was in the process of moving; John Harrison, who was caring for his ailing mother; and Choffo, who was celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary and could not attend. Choffo did attend the first Candidates' Night on March 30.
As the verbal melee ensued, a woman rose and walked out of the forum, which caused a stir throughout the room. Walls then asked the candidates forum to begin their closing statements.
The forum, however, began much more cordially.
In a nod to upholding the spirit of democracy, Walls opened by saying that he would make every effort to ask any question a citizen wanted—about 30 people attended the gathering. Candidates had three minutes to respond to each query asked.
The questions began with "softballs," according to the moderator, and became more complex—and controversial—as the evening progressed. As the queries flowed, pictures of each of the participating candidates emerged.
Alison Cogan touted her 15 years of experience as a certified public accountant, business owner and mother of five school-aged children. Her focus, she said, was to maintain quality educational programs, to improve the board's communication with the public and to promote diversity and independent thinking.
Joseph Raich, a limousine driver, said he is running to serve the children of Parsippany. He wants to "lower tax rates and get the most bang for the buck" in the schools. Raich is also a District 26 Democratic New Jersey General Assembly candidate. He stated that he will wait until after the elections to decide what post he will take.
Gary Martin, a retired police officer, said he is running to give back to the community. The $129.8 million school budget is of great concern to Martin, who says his biggest priorities will be to keep the BOE accountable to taxpayers, to ensure the public is fully informed of board activities, and use teamwork to raise academic standards. "It's time for a change in the Board of Education," he said.
Susy Golderer, a 15-year Parsippany resident with four children—two grown and two still in the school system—said her love for kids and education fuel her desire to run for board seat. A human resources specialist, she said her goal is to see the BOE make sound fiscal decisions and to be the best steward she can be. Golderer said she finds it "incredible" that the school budget is twice the size of the town's spending plan.
Sharif Shamsudin, who is running on a ticket along with Martin and Golderer, is a real estate executive and married father of two who grew up in Parsippany. "There is a need for textbooks and supplies, but the children can't go to board meetings and speak" for themselves, he said, declaring that he wants to be a voice for the students and for the taxpayers.
Carol Trapp, a veteran high school English teacher and administrator in the district, announced that she is running to support Superintendent LeRoy Seitz and to maintain continuity in the management of Par-Troy schools.
A few recurrent themes emerged as dominant ones throughout the evening.
Several candidates—Cogan, Raich, Martin, Golderer and Shamsudin—stressed a need to consolidate board functions and administrative positions in an effort to save money and boost efficiency.
Golderer addressed curriculum issues, specifically her concern that students receive unbiased information in classes and that teachers stray from teaching to standardized tests. Martin discussed maximizing student achievement by enforcing tough academic standards in mathematics. Trapp endorsed expanding the use of technology in curriculum and providing educators with more opportunities for professional development.
Respect was another theme: Many candidates voiced a concern that the BOE has not listened to residents' ideas or taken constituent complaints seriously, while Trapp underscored the need for citizens to respect the board and the superintendent. Raich indicated a need to end polarization and to encourage people to embrace similarities rather than political divisions.
The primary themes of the night, however, were the budget and board transparency. Trapp called for cuts and/or freezes for unionized school workers such as secretaries and custodians. Cogan and Golderer recommended a line-by-line analysis of the last five budgets to see where spending cuts can be made. Raich reminded the assembled that the 0.8 percent tax increase included in the budget approved by the BOE and the county superintendent "is still an increase."
Most candidates called for increased monitoring of all expenditures. Trapp supported trusting the board to set policies.
This second Candidates' Night was sponsored by the Lake Hiawatha Property Owners Association. Petaccia was the primary organizer of the event.
Petaccia said she decided to put on the forum after the March 30 event because "one debate is not enough. I'm trying to get people involved and informed about what's going on," she said.
The school election will take place April 27, when voters will vote to fill three Board of Education seats and decide whether to approve the $129.8 million school budget.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Ray Vigano instead of Roman Hoshowsky.