Voters can choose three candidates for three-year terms on the nine-member North Bergen Board of Education on April 17.
A whopping 23 candidates have filed petitions to run, although at least two said they are dropping out.
Candidates include the three incumbents running on the Our Children First Slate backed by Mayor Nicholas Sacco. Opposing them is Sacco adversary Larry Wainstein’s Save Our Schools ticket.
The incumbents are: Haissam Jaafar, Claudia Rodriguez, and Ruth Shaw.
The Save Our Schools slate includes: Zeneida Larios, Viviana Salcedo, and Adelaida Rivera.
Other candidates who filed by the Feb. 26 deadline include as follows: Jose Santos, Yesica Birritta Andrade, Dawn Gelpi, Kastirene Almanzar, Shannon Salazar, Rosa Fernandez, Diane Pinto, Kathleen Lagomarsino, Katlyn Lopez, Donna Cieckiewicz, Glenda Vega, Hector Lopez, Mikhail Lvovsky, Benigno Garcia, and Michael Appell.
Most of the candidates did not respond to letters seeking interviews. And when reached by a reporter at their homes, candidates Jeanne Wesly and Lorenza Flores claimed they’d dropped out of the race. However, the Board of Education later said that it had not heard of anybody dropping out.
The district has nine schools. Under a district reconfiguration plan, the town will purchase the High- Tech High School campus on 81st Street and Tonnelle Avenue, after High-Tech moves to Secaucus this fall. The building would then become the district’s new middle school, freeing up classrooms in the other campuses. The plan is not currently in a budget because officials are still unsure how much it will ultimately cost. But they hope to finish it by 2020.
Incumbent Jaafar was first elected to the board in 2015. He has three kids in the North Bergen school system and says he is running for their best interest. “It’s on me to make sure my kids have the best education going on,” he said. Being on the board keeps Jaafar abreast of the school budget, and lets him make recommendations as needed, he said.
Residents will also vote on the budget that day as well.
Jaafar said he feels the board is already “addressing every issue as needed, and doing corrective action as necessary.” Because North Bergen is not a former Abbott “special needs” District, it does not get as much school aid as other towns in the area. With Gov. Phil Murphy greatly increasing state aid to schools in his proposed 2018 budget, Jaafar is hopeful the district can do more.
Jaafar currently works as manager of operations for Morgan Advanced Materials, a global engineering company.
This will also be Rodriguez’s second run. Like Jaafar, she wants to make sure North Bergen kids have “the best education that they can have.”
Rodriguez’s two sons are North Bergen High School graduates, and her granddaughters go to kindergarten and second grade in the district.
If reelected, she wants to work on improving communication between parents and students. “As a parent and grandmother, I see the need of parents to be more involved in education,” she said. Another issue she sees in the district is lack of air conditioning in the classrooms. It’s one the district is working to fix, she said.
Overcrowding complaints are the main issue Rodriguez hears from parents, she said. The district is working to alleviate that with its school reconfiguration plan.
Ruth Shaw is the group’s veteran, first elected in 2006. She cheered the school’s reconfiguration plan. “Everybody always talks about overcrowding,” she said. “We’ve been working on that for a while.
“I grew up in North Bergen, and have seen firsthand the failings of the school system.” – Viviana Salcedo
Save Our Schools
The Save Our Schools slate alleges that the current board is corrupt and takes orders from Mayor Sacco, whom they refer to as “Boss Sacco.”
The candidates did not comment or respond to letters mailed to them, and Wainstein declined to comment. But a promotional SOS flyer was available at the North Bergen Concerned Citizens Group headquarters, founded by Wainstein, last week.
It said that Larios has three children in the school district. She wants to focus on building more athletic and academic programs for North Bergen students.
Salcedo previously ran on the SOS ticket last year. “I grew up in North Bergen, and have seen firsthand the failings of the school system,” she said on the flyer. As a result, she and her husband send their kids to private school.
She also noted in the literature that Public Safety Commissioner Allen Pascual sends his children to private school as well.
Town Spokesman Phil Swibinski admitted that “the claim is accurate,” as two of Pascual’s kids attend private school and a third attends High-Tech. However, he added, “Whatever his personal family decision is, it’s not relevant whatsoever.”
“It’s really disgusting that Larry Waintstein’s candidates continue to trash North Bergen schools year after year, just to try to further his own political goals,” Swibinski said.
If elected to the board, Salcedo said she will use her school system knowledge, and her managerial experience heading a trucking company, to improve the schools.
Rivera’s third child is a special needs student. She said that the district hasn’t adequately helped her child. When she began looking for help, she said the district “offered no solutions,” according to the flyer.
She said she is not alone. She said she will be a “voice” for all mothers who want a better education for North Bergen kids.
Jose Santos, independent
Candidate Jose Santos–who ran on the SOS ticket last year, but not this year–is running independently because he feels the current school board does not represent the town’s minorities properly.
“They’re not sensitive to the needs of the minority kids in schools and families,” Santos said, referring to North Bergen’s majority Hispanic population.
Santos, who teaches martial arts to kids for free at Wainstein’s headquarters on JFK Blvd., also said that he wants to bring more sports to the schools if elected. “I believe that sports will give a balance,” Santos said. He also said that he would look for ways to bring more money to the district, for teacher equipment and books.
When asked the extent of his relationship with Wainstein, he said that Wainstein offered him his office for his martial arts classes.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org