Three seats are in contention in this year’s Board of Education election.
The board has nine members in total, each serving a three-year term. Every year, three of those terms expire. This year the terms are ending for board members Luis Diaz, Elaine Nicoliello, and Kanaiyalal Patel.
All three are running for reelection, with backing from Mayor Nicholas Sacco’s administration. Six challengers are also vying for the available seats, including three candidates endorsed by the North Bergen Concerned Citizens Group: Luis Gutierrez, Carmen McKinney, and Mary Luz Munoz. The three other candidates are Veronica Castrillon, Juana Maria Dilone, and Odemaris Ramirez.
Luis Diaz has has lived in North Bergen for close to 40 years and has been a US citizen since 1965. He was born in Cuba and retired from the United Nations where he worked in editing and translating for over 30 years.
Married with two grown children who attended North Bergen schools, he is 74 years old.
“Through my work at the United Nations, I was able to meet leaders from all over the world, which helped shape my views on the role of local government in education,” he said. “I am proud that North Bergen schools are an open, accepting place where students from any racial or ethnic background can feel comfortable and can get an outstanding public education.”
Asked about his priorities going forward, Diaz said, “North Bergen is one of the most underfunded school districts by state aid anywhere in New Jersey. As a board we must keep advocating for more school funding and my experience as a longtime trustee and voice for public education will help us make that case.”
Running against three incumbents backed by Mayor Sacco are six challengers, including three candidates endorsed by the North Bergen Concerned Citizens Group.
Elaine Nicoliello was born and raised in North Bergen and has lived here her entire life. She is 89 years old and divorced with two grown children who attended North Bergen schools from kindergarten through high school. Her daughter currently works in the Health Department and her son is a firefighter in New York City.
Last December Nicoliello retired after working 30 years at the North Bergen Health Department as a clerk.
“I am running for re-election because my experience as a board member for almost 15 years gives me a valuable perspective on educational issues and I want to continue serving the people of North Bergen,” she said.
Her proudest accomplishment as a board member was “working with Mayor Sacco to establish a pre-school in the township and seeing it flourish into something that is beloved by both parents and students.”
“I would like to work with the superintendent and administrators to revive the plans to build an additional wing on North Bergen High School and seek state funding to make this possible,” she said of her future plans. “We need additional classroom space and adding to the high school would be a cost effective way to create space.”
Kanaiyalal Patel immigrated to the United States from India in 1981 and has lived in North Bergen since 1987. He has one son who attended North Bergen schools.
Patel, a 48-year-old, self-employed software developer, said, “I have brought my knowledge of technology and my experience as a small business owner to the board and helped the district stay up to date with the most recent technological advances available.”
“I want to continue serving on the board to help the district advocate for greater state funding,” he said. “North Bergen schools are approximately $25 million below adequacy and I want to work with the superintendent and administrators to improve that situation.”
With his background in software and tech, Patel said, “We must continue to utilize new technology as it becomes available to us and make sure that our children have access to the latest computer systems and software to make sure they are competitive in an increasingly digital economy.”
Luis Gutierrez immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1993 when he was 7 years old. He has lived in North Bergen ever since, other than about a year elsewhere.
Gutierrez worked for the Perth Amboy Board of Education as a school official helping troubled children, and at the Chubb Institute where he helped students plan their educations to suit their future goals.
A 28-year-old entrepreneur, Gutierrez owns a bail bond company in Union City and a cigar shop in Hoboken. His young daughter will attend school in North Bergen when she is old enough.
“The reason I’m running is because I don’t agree with the things that the Board of Education of North Bergen does,” said Gutierrez. “I believe the school system is corrupt because the administration has too much control over the board. They’re supposed to be independent and shouldn’t have anything to do with politics.”
Improving the quality of education would be his priority as a board member. “The grades are completely down,” he said. “The school system doesn’t prepare the kids properly for college. It starts all the way down from grammar school; it doesn’t start in high school. We need to have a plan to make sure that these kids are passing the minimum requirements of state testing. A lot of kids are failing.”
“I’m concerned for my daughter,” he concluded.
Carmen McKinney is a 44-year-old mom who has been living in North Bergen for 23 years. Currently she volunteers for the Cuban Legion Society, where she has served as a translator and provided assistance to the elderly for over 20 years. McKinney previously worked for the North Bergen school system for three years as a clerk, and is a certified Spanish teacher.
The mother of three, she has a grown son and daughter who went through the North Bergen school system, and a 4-year-old daughter in pre-school.
“Our system doesn’t have any new schools in the 23 years I’ve been in town,” said McKinney. “We have crowded classrooms, a very high number of students. More classrooms would mean more opportunity for teaching not just the whole class but individuals.”
She would also like to see more after school programs for kids so that parents can work later. “There’s nobody to take care of kids after 3 p.m.,” she said. “That creates unemployment. If we had programs, parents could work till 6 p.m.”
McKinney feels the school board needs to be separated from politics, and she perceives a salary inequality among educators.
“Salaries are not equal,” she said. “Some have a high salary but there are no minorities in that part of the administration.”
Mary Luz Munoz was born in Colombia and arrived in the United States in 1992. She has lived in North Bergen for about 18 years and graduated from High Tech High School. A licensed medical assistant, she worked at Englewood Hospital for three years and at the Hudson Milestone Child Development Center caring for children with special needs.
The 39-year-old single mom has a 12-year-old son in the Harrison School.
“There are a lot of problems in the school system,” said Munoz, citing overcrowding issues. “There’s a lot of kids in each classroom. The kids have a right to have a school where they’re going to be safe.”
Security is a major concern for Munoz, who feels the guards are lax and children are not treated fairly. “I know they need discipline, but if you show respect for them, they’ll learn better,” she said.
“I want to be part of the team looking for solutions,” she added. “To have a voice, to tell them what I think is better. I would like to be in all my son’s activities, everything having to do with my son.”
The other three candidates, Veronica Castrillon, Juana Maria Dilone, and Odemaris Ramirez, did not respond to letters from the North Bergen Reporter and could not be reached by phone.
The election will take place on Wednesday, April 23. Normally elections occur on the third Tuesday of April. This year Gov. Christie postponed the elections due to the religious holidays.
Polls in North Bergen will be open from 2 to 9 p.m. Poll locations can be found online at https://voter.njsvrs.com.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.