After serving on the school board five separate terms, long-term incumbent Thomas Troyer was soundly defeated in last week’s school board election, while newcomers Robert Anderson, Kelli D’Addetta and incumbent Gary Riebesell were elected to the board.
After tallying absentee ballots with 943 voting no to 941 voting yes, residents rejected the school budget tax levy by two votes but provisional ballots could shift the outcome. The Hudson County Clerk’s office did not release numbers by press time.
“I am not an old soldier that is going to fade.” – Tom Troyer
Troyer loses but vows to return
“I am not disappearing,” said Troyer. “I am not an old soldier that is going to fade.” A former educator who has also run and lost political campaigns, Troyer was not deterred by his loss, and said that he will run again next year.
After Mayor Michael Gonnelli waged a public campaign against Troyer with newspaper ads and flyers paid for by Take Back Secaucus, the chances of the incumbent winning were slim and it was no surprise to many that he lost.
“When the machine comes out against you, you are not going to beat them,” said Troyer. “My whole goal was to keep politics out of education.”
Troyer, who spent $1,200 on his campaign, said he didn’t anticipate the mayor would spend thousands of dollars to campaign against him and said that he was flattered by it.
“Why would they go through all of this stuff to get rid of me?” said Troyer.
Gonnelli said that he spent no more than $2,500. He said that the attacks against Troyer began after he came out against his administration and admitted to cushioning last year’s budget.
“I wasn’t going to get involved until Mr. Troyer began his nonsense blaming our administration,” said Gonnelli. “He admits that he cushioned the budget…He started this.”
Last year voters defeated the school budget by a wide margin. The mayor and Town Council were then obligated to review the budget and propose cuts, which came to $1.1 million. Ever since then Troyer and Gonnelli have had public disputes over a number of issues that stem from the cuts, which Troyer said were too severe.
“Gonnelli and I were on good terms until [last year’s] budget,” said Troyer. In regard to the cushion, he said that the $850,000 in last year’s budget was for wish list items such as repairs and cosmetic items. “You have a wish list [and] things to fix… [Gonnelli] didn’t like the word we used – ‘cushion’.”
Mix of politics
“I am very disappointed…I don’t understand why Mike didn’t take the higher route,” said Board Trustee Dora Marra. “I thought he would be different.” Marra said that she contributes to the mayor’s political fund Take Back Secaucus, and was disappointed that her money was used to campaign against a fellow school board member.
“If you have an agenda with someone, you use your money,” said Marra. She said that the election would have been fair if the mayor had never gotten involved.
“It is not about the kids. It is about power, jobs, and politics.” Marra said that she fears individuals won’t run in the future unless they have the backing of the mayor.
Gonnelli defended his actions and said that mayors of the past have been vocal about who they support in the local school board elections but he did admit that he may lose a few supporters based on principle because of the negative ads.
“I don’t think I will lose supporters because I went against [Troyer],” said Gonnelli. “I think I will lose supporters based on the principle.”
Stance on superintendent
Troyer has been an outspoken supporter of the Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Randina and said that Gonnelli’s negative campaign stems from that, which the mayor disagreed with.
However, Anderson made the superintendent’s leadership a major issue in his campaign. As union president, he recently led the second vote of ‘no confidence’ in her leadership in two years’ time. He presented the school board with a list of 27 issues in January that the union said led to a hostile working environment.
Anderson said after the election he would oppose her contract renewal in October.
On April 17, voters approved proposed budgets in 63 (or 90 percent) of the 70 New Jersey school districts that placed proposed 2012-2013 base budgets on the ballot, according to unofficial results compiled by the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Budget votes in Secaucus, however, were less decisive. The votes were nearly split on the budget 943 no to 941 yes after the absentee ballots were counted on April 17. Once the Hudson County Clerk’s office adds in the provisional votes there is a chance that the budget will pass. The total operating budget proposed for the 2012-2013 school year was almost $35 million. The tax levy portion represents $31.6 million, an increase of $620,320, which is within the state’s two percent mandatory cap. The budget imposes an average increase of $74 per household in school taxes.
Superintendent Randina said that the votes against the budget are “not a mandate to cut.” She had been optimistic that the budget would pass before the poll tally.
“We were down to the bare bones,” said Marra. She said she can’t imagine the administration will make significant cuts to the budget and said that there is very little room to trim.
A defeated budget goes to the mayor and council for revisions. A final budget, including the amount to be raised from tax dollars, goes to the county board of taxation and Hudson County Schools Superintendent by mid-May.
“I can ensure you that no programs, no teachers, no classrooms will be cut,” said Gonnelli.
“I’m shocked,” said D’Addetta about the slim margin on the budget. “I voted for the budget.” She said that she thought the votes against the budget represented that “a lot of people did not have faith or confidence in what was being presented to them and that is sad.”
She is not concerned about the budget going to the mayor and the council for revisions.
Union president Joan Cali voted yes on the budget. She felt that this year’s budget was much better than last year’s. Anderson also voted in favor of the budget.
Local political volunteer Dan Amico said that he voted against the budget because he felt that last year’s administration did such a good job in trimming it after it was rejected that he wanted them to review it again this year.
Reverend Richard Patterson voted against the budget because he said that the state teacher pilot program, which Secaucus is a part of, lacks goals and he was unhappy that the school district is spending time and money on the initiative.
Local resident Fred Vogel also voted against the budget because he said that he “didn’t agree with it.”
“I still think that there is some distrust,” said Gonnelli about the votes against the budget. “I think the board has to work to get that trust back.”
Winners want to work together
All of the newly elected board trustees echoed the sentiment that they want to work together and get to the business of the board.
“To ensure we all work together as a community,” said Riebesell in regard to his plans. He thanked all of his supporters for their votes.
“I am ready to get started,” said D’Addetta. She plans to tackle classroom size, the food service company, and that there are not enough textbooks for the children.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at email@example.com.