Six candidates are running for three open spots on the nine-person Secaucus school board. The election takes place Nov. 7.
Change has come to the district recently. Last fall, the district completed the expansion of the town’s high school/middle school complex. As a result, sixth grade students are now part of the middle school. This freed up space at the Clarendon Elementary School, and the school board moved its operations into that space in September. This came after a nearly 20-year stint at a house behind Town Hall, at 20 Centre Ave. However, the town needed the house back.
Another change is the addition of a new superintendent. Next month, Haworth Superintendent of Schools Jennifer Montesano will replace Interim Superintendent of Schools Kenneth Knops.
This year, there are two incumbents, trustees Ruby Pantoliano and Lance Bartletta. Board member Joseph Lewis is not running for reelection.
Challenging them are Kathleen McFarlane, Enrico Bolognino, Georgios Tsirogiannis, and former board member Tom Troyer.
Efforts to contact Bolognino for this story were unsuccessful.
“I feel very fulfilled with the work that we do here,” said Pantoliano, who is running a second time. She has two sons in the district. She praised the board for keeping kids within the district and maintaining quality teachers.
“But one of the things we need to work on is communication between the parents and the school,” she admitted. “It could be better. I hear a lot of comments about that lacking.”
Her ideas for bridging that gap include holding separate meetings for parents, revamping the district’s website to be more informative, and improving social media use.
“It might just be that parents don’t know what communication is out there, or how to reach out,” she said.
“We would need to go out and speak to the parents. If you’re taking the kids to school every day, and you’re dropping them off, you want that communication open at all times.”
Pantoliano said her history volunteering for the district’s PTA and in different schools for her children was why she originally ran for the board.
“I just felt that I wanted to continue to be a part of it in a bigger way,” she said. “Not just the school, but to be involved in other things. I think parents should be on the board because we bring a different outlook.”
Kathleen McFarlane first ran for the board in 2002, when her two daughters were in the district. When asked why she’s running again 15 years later, McFarlane felt it was time, given her current position in life.
“My goals haven’t changed, really,” she said from her home on Huber Street. “The advantage now is that life has phases, and at that time, my children were little. Now I have two wonderful grown daughters. It’s my phase now. I have a lot of free time.”
Her daughters, now ages 24 and 27, are both teachers, following in their mother’s footsteps. McFarlane previously taught at the town’s now-shuttered Immaculate Conception School, and was a substitute teacher in the district. She is now retired.
She is running on a platform of student empowerment, creating safe havens in the district to boost their confidence, and keep them safe from bullying.
“I see schools as a microcosm of the community,” she said. “So I think we have to instill in our students at that level the things that we want them to carry on later in life.”
Explaining, she said, “One of those things is teaching them respect for each other, and themselves, a building of their self-confidence. Some students today, they have trouble and difficulties with other students, and I want to do everything possible to make every student comfortable going to school. If children aren’t in a comfortable setting, they can’t perform to their fullest potential.”
To combat that, McFarlane feels more people need to step up in bullying situations.
“If you see that a child is struggling or might have a problem with another student, you have to be diligent about reporting it,” she said. “We have to teach our kids that it’s not snitching, it’s protecting each other.”
She’d like to have teachers meet weekly to discuss student interactions.
“One incident might not seem like a problem, but if another teacher saw something else, and you put everything together, it might bring light to something that’s going on,” she said.
Another issue McFarlane sees is with standardized testing. Last August, the state Board of Education approved new regulations putting more emphasis on such testing for high school graduation. Current gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy has insisted they should be deemphasized as graduation requirements.
“Standardized testing has its place,” McFarlane said. “But it should not carry the weight that it does, for either evaluation of the students or evaluation of the teachers.”
Students might have external situations, where they may be unable to deal with the exams, she said.
“What if that student, on those particular days, just broke up with their girlfriend?” McFarlane asked. “Doesn’t feel well? Their mind is not in the right place to take a test. And that test carries so much weight for them.”
“To me, more important is grade point average, their resumes, service projects their involvement in school,” she said. “That is a better determinant of what a child is accomplishing every day in school.”
But “when we teach to a test,” McFarlane said, “we lose those teachable moments, we lose those activities.”
She said she would advocate for less emphasis on testing in the district if elected. McFarlane also believes the district should work on establishing a vocational-technical program. “Not everybody wants to go to college,” she said. “So I think we need something to motivate the children who are not college bound. Where would we be without out electricians, our plumbers, our carpenters?”
She would also love seeing mandatory community service hours for all district students.
Never one to shy away from the board, former trustee Tom Troyer is again running, because, according to him, he’s the only candidate who can “keep politics out of education.”
Troyer has repeatedly alleged that Mayor Michael Gonnelli has been pulling strings behind the board, while denying he does in public. “The mayor gets away with saying that he isn’t endorsing anyone this election, but of course he is,” Troyer alleged.
One of the issues Troyer sees this year is with the incoming superintendent.
“They [the board] picked someone with [little] experience,” Troyer said. “Nice girl, from what I gather, but she doesn’t bring too much to the table. Why not promote from within? She’s just keeping the seat warm until the politicians put whoever they want in there.”
Another issue Troyer sees is students who don’t actually reside in town. “When I was on the board, we hired someone to go and check these cases out,” Troyer said. “We would catch those people, and [their parents] would have to pay. They would have to pay for the months [their kids] went to school here. I don’t know if we’re doing it now. Is it enforced?”
Mike Makarski, the district’s coordinator of security, residency and truancy, later confirmed the district does expel kids who do not reside in town.
A third issue Troyer sees is poor transparency on the board. “They won’t answer you,” he said. “At the end, they speak and you can’t speak, and if you say something, they’re rude, and they don’t give answers.”
He said, “I know there’s no chance on hell of me winning the election,” but “I hope that the people just give me a shot.”
Tsirogiannis is a physician with three children in the district. He was previously a coach for recreational and traveling soccer teams in town, and says he wants to run for the board to give back to the town he grew up in.
“My practice is in the town, and I’ve been a resident in town forever,” he said. “I’m very family oriented. I’m always picking up my boys from school, sports practices.”
Tsirogiannis said he has established relationships with many principals and teachers in the district, another built-in advantage he brings.
“I’m able to speak to a lot of parents and students” he said. “I can bring that to the board. He also said he is “very accessible,” living and working in town, and wants to “make this education system the greatest it can be.”
“I just feel that I’m not done with what I need to accomplish here,” incumbent Lance Bartletta said, as to why he is running for the board again. “There’s still a lot of work to improve on in this district. To leave now, it doesn’t make sense to me.”
Bartletta believes the district had made great strides in years past, but can always be better. “I want to make sure that we can get the best technology we can,” he said. “We’re doing our best, but nobody’s perfect.”
He also wants to address class size in the district, making sure they don’t have too many students, and that every teacher and student has whatever they need.
Bartletta has a son and daughter in the district. He also serves as an audit and financial liaison to the board, meaning he sits in on all budget meetings and meets with auditors for the board’s annual audit.
Hannington Dia can be reached at email@example.com