Eight candidates are running for three open spots on the nine-member West New York Board of Education on Nov. 7. Each term lasts for three years.
Registered voters can pick any three candidates, although two sets are running on slates: Children First and Save Our Schools.
This year, board member Damarys Gonzalez – the race’s lone incumbent – will run on the Children First ticket with Jose Mendoza and Maite Fernandez. Current Board President Adam Parkinson was previously elected as a member of that slate.
Mayor Felix Roque has endorsed Children First. Jonathan Castaneda, Roque’s chief of staff, is a current board trustee elected on the Children First ticket in November, 2015.
They will face off against the Save Our Schools slate of Nicholas Behncke, Alex Navas, and Melinda Saunders. Both Navas and Saunders unsuccessfully ran on the ticket in last year’s elections.
Rounding out the candidates are independent John Smith, who also unsuccessfully ran last year, and Johanna M. Ortez.
Outgoing board trustees Steven Rodas and Dennise Mejia are vacating their seats.
In a press release, the Children First slate – the one led by an incumbent and backed by the mayor — touted their work in the district. “Since 2014, the Children First Team has led the West New York Board of Education and has invested in world class facilities for our students, including the renovation of Harry L. Bain/Public School, Number 6 Elementary School, and the opening of the Freshman Academy for our Memorial High School,” said a release from the group. They also worked to modernize classrooms including implementing a new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) initiative.
Gonzalez, the incumbent, is a Memorial High School graduate, first elected to the board in 2014. Since 2016, she has served as its vice president. In addition, she is the administrative assistant for the West New York Department of Public Safety.
“I am excited to run for reelection because of the incredible things our team has accomplished over the last three years, I am certainly excited to continue fighting for the children of the town of West New York,” Gonzalez said in the release.
According to the release, Mendoza is the owner of The Ingenio Marketing LLC, a marketing company located on 6035 Boulevard East. He has a child in the district.
“I am excited for the opportunity to give back to a community that has embraced me and has helped me and my family thrive,” Mendoza said in the release. “I am privileged and blessed to work with the current leadership to move West New York forward.”
Fernandez currently serves as president of the West New York Little League, in addition to being a Memorial High School graduate. She does not work for the town.
“As a former student in the WNY school district, current parent, and lifelong resident, I have an understanding of the challenges that our children face day in and day out,” she said in the release. “As president of the West New York Little League, I continue to feel and share in the passion for academics and sports that our children illustrate daily, on and off the field.”
“I am excited for the opportunity to give back to a community that has embraced me and has helped me and my family thrive.” — Jose Mendoza
Save Our Schools
The Save Our Schools banner was first used by a slate of candidates last year. They have, in the past, presented themselves as a grassroots alternative to Children First.
A press release from the team’s 2016 campaign, available on Facebook, indicated that they’d like to “increase parent engagement” and “widespread use of letters and robocalling” to invite town residents to PTA and Board of Education meetings.
During last year’s campaign, the slate pushed for independent, third party inspections of water, mold, and asbestos testing in the district’s schools. This came shortly after officials found elevated levels of lead in multiple school buildings nearby in Newark last year.
Another key platform for SOS was bringing in “responsible budgeting” to the board. Shortly after the WNY Board of Education passed a $1.5 million shared-services agreement with the town in July 2017, current Save Our Schools candidate Nicholas Behncke attacked it as “another public display of corruption by the Roque administration” in a letter to a different press outlet.
Behncke has a daughter in the district, according to candidate Navas.
This past summer, the Hudson County Board of Elections removed Behncke from the ballot, claiming he had an insufficient number of signatures for nomination. That decision was reversed soon after, as it was determined he had the minimum number of signatures required to stay on the ballot.
With at least two past and present candidates for the board working for the town, Roque obviously pays attention to school district matters.
A May 2013 report by the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance alleged that Roque hired family and friends for school jobs and placed them in better positions. The report also alleged that Roque retaliated against people who did not support him in his 2011 election campaign against former mayor Silverio Vega, considering them for demotion or reassignment. The report was not a law enforcement investigation or judgment, and no followup was ever released to the public.
In response to the report at the time, Roque alleged that the Vega administration sicced the officials on him.
“All I have to say is that the old political corrupted machine has been trying to use the arm of the law to eliminate me from the beginning,” he said. “The fact that I beat them and won by a landslide victory must have pissed them off very much.”
When asked on Thursday if he feels it’s okay to stay involved in school elections, considering the report, Roque argued that he’s bringing new blood into the fray.
“As the mayor, I can endorse anyone I want,” he said. “It’s actually good for me because I’m bringing a lot of good individuals to Town Hall. Adam and John are very bright people. What I’m doing is bringing in a new workforce to make it better.”
West New York elections always bring controversy. After an April board meeting, former Children First candidate Jose Alcantara – who had lost his bid last year — told a local news outlet that one of the current Save Our Schools candidates was not living at the West New York address he claims to be living at. In fact, Alcantara filed a complaint with the county Board of Elections making the allegation about Navas.
However, when a reporter went to the address last week, Navas and his significant other – current board member Lorena Portillo – were there.
“As far as those questioning us being residents of West New York, we have never left West New York,” Navas said. “We love West New York.”
Portillo is currently in litigation with the town of West New York over her daycare’s closure in 2014. It was closed allegedly over safety violations.
The couple had strong allegations against the Roque administration. “They’ve been trying to destroy our lives,” Navas said. “They’ve been trying to hurt us economically. They shot down our day care, because they did not want us to be successful.”
“We’re here, we’re fighting, we’re working hard for the election,” Navas said.
In lawsuit documents Portillo provided, her lawyer claims her day care’s safety systems had passed third party inspections.
Hannington Dia can be reached at email@example.com