A Board of Education Candidates' Night sponsored by the Par-Troy Council of Parent-Teacher Associations was held Monday night at Central Middle School. Five of the six hopefuls vying for the three open board seats on the Nov. 6 ballot were on hand to answer residents' questions during a spirited event that clearly evinced a heated battle not between individual candidates, but between political tickets representing the old guard and a new one.
Moderator Kathy Damerel of the Morris County Council of PTAs set the ground rules at the beginning: Candidates were allowed three-minute opening statements and then would accept questions from the audience. Each candidate was given a strict two minutes to answer each question. At the end of the forum, the candidates were allowed two minutes for a summarizing statement.
The event offered another requirement for the candidates, who were seated at a dais in ballot order: Each was expected to state how many Board of Education meetings they had attended, whether they had children in the school district, whether they had relatives working in any school district and whether they had any personal affiliation with a union that would preclude them from voting on contracts.
In addition, the moderator posed a question to the hopefuls: What changes do you see the district making without compromising the education of the children?
James Carifi, in his opening statement, came out strong against stacking, stating his belief that too many non-Parsippany children are attending township schools. The Parsippany Police captain blasted the school district for denying his Open Public Records Act requests to learn the number of students unlawfully registered in district schools.
"They told me that as a resident of Parsippany and as a stakeholder that I didn't have a right to see the numbers," he said. "That's unacceptable to me.
"I'm for holding people accountable," he continued, reiterating that he was "aggressively" against students "who don't belong."
He added that he had no union ties that would affect his voting as a board member, has no relatives working in the district and has attended "several" BOE meetings.
Frank Calabria, the current school board president and a retired school principal, said that his four grown children graduated from Parsippany schools, adding, "I consider all the children of the district to be mine."
Calabria noted that he has two daughters and a daughter-in-law working in the school district and listed their accomplishments as educators. He added that he had no union affiliation that would prevent him from voting.
He floated the potentially money-saving idea of using online textbooks, which he said would save the district around $250,000 per year. He also suggested sharing services between the district and the township and between Parsippany schools and neighboring districts. Another way to save money, he said, would be to stop paying summer stipends for teachers to work on curricula in exchange for adding curriculum work to teachers' contracts.
Regarding how many school board meetings he had attended, Calabria quipped, "I stopped counting at 8,000."
Alison Cogan, who is running on a ticket with Calabria and Frank Neglia, said her five school-age children, who range in ability from gifted to special-needs, give her "a vested interest in keeping quality programs in the Parsippany school district."
She touted her experience running a child care center for more than seven years and working as a certified public accountant. She added that she has no family working in education and no conflicting union affiliations. As to her BOE meeting attendance, she said she has been present at "all but a few" sessions over the past two years.
Cogan said her primary goal is to be part of a board that "communicates well with the public" and benefits from having "independent minds with differing perspectives" who "keep the children and taxpayers in mind with every vote."
Frank Neglia, the school board's current vice president, an area youth sports leader and a 30-year facilities and security manager, spoke directly to the issue of cost-cutting. He echoed ticketmate Calabria's idea regarding online instructional texts and praised the district's energy saving initiatives (being done "at no cost to local taxpayers") and relationships with money-saving consortiums, adding that in bidding on transporation vendors, he has helped save the district money. He highlighted the need to reduce the costs of employee benefits while noting that Parsippany has one of the lowest administrator-to-teacher levels in New Jersey.
Neglia also mentioned Parsippany's No. 15 ranking on Money Magazine/CNN's list of the best small towns to live.
"This feat was driven by the reputation of our school system," he said. "There is always room for improvement, but we're doing something correctly."
He stated that four of his children are Parsippany school graduates and that he has one child who is a current student. He said he has a nephew, stepdaughter and stepdaughter-in-law working in the district and noted that his wife is an educator in Rockaway.
"None of these relations preclude me from voting once a memorandum of agreement is approved," he said, adding that he had no conflicting union affiliation and that in the past 6 1/2 years, he has missed only one board meeting.
Anthony DeIntinis, a retired police officer and school resource officer running on a ticket with Carifi, said he has two children in the school district and no relatives working in schools. He said he is running because he questioned how his tax dollars were being allocated.
Looking at the current school board—he said he has attended "numerous" meetings—DeIntinis said he did not like what he saw: "a divided board, the district in costly litigation [over the contract of Superintendent of Schools LeRoy Seitz], teachers working without a contract, and children suffering due to a political agenda."
He called for a forensic audit of all salaries, bonuses and stipends.
DeIntinis also mentioned the differences in statewide rankings for Parsippany Hills High School (No. 23) and Parsippany High School (No. 86) and wondered aloud if there was an instructional gap, whether there was a fair allocation of resources between the schools and if the superintendent was addressing the gap.
"I know enough that it's time for a change," he said. "I've observed reckless spending accounts and a lack of straight answers from the board. Changes have to be made, and changes should start at the top."
With the opening statements completed, it was time for residents' questions to be asked.
The first questioner, Hank Heller (reading his wife's question, he said), asked whether the candidates would keep the current nepotism policy in place. Carifi said he would strengthen it immediately. Calabria said the law already exists and that, according to attorneys with whom he has spoken, his familial connections do not prevent him from voting on contracts, though he has in the past recused himself. Cogan agreed with Carifi that even the appearance of nepotism was to be avoided and said the district must make sure everyone is aware of the policy. Neglia said the law could be strengthened. DeIntinis agreed with Carifi, saying the policy should be reviewed and made stronger.
Resident Stephanie Burke asked the candidates what traits each had to foster positive working relationships on the school board. Calabria said that despite disagreements, the BOE's voting record is "very good." Cogan said different viewpoints are necessary, adding that discussions should be civil.
She noted her experience running a business and successfully managing employees. Neglia said it is possible to disagree as long as the main focus remained "the community at large and the children." DeIntinis modified the motto of the wrestling team he coaches: "One Team, One Town; One Town, One Board of Education." Carifi mentioned his 25 years as a law enforcement officer and criticized the board's recent hiring of former Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein to mediate a board dispute.
Heller appeared again to ask his own question: whether the candidates were for or against retaining the services of Superintendent Seitz.
Cogan said that Seitz is under contract, which must be honored. She added that she believes he has "done a good job in bringing the district forward in technology and has a plan for the future" to improve the high schools. Neglia said Seitz was doing "a decent job" and has done "lots...to benefit the district." Calabria, alluding to the legal action underway, noted that the state will decide what happens with Seitz. DeIntinis railed against the superintendent, accusing the board of trying to circumvent the law by approving the disputed Nov. 2011 contract and costing the district thousands in litigation.
"If [Seitz] is not willing to take $177,500 [to comply with Gov. Chris Christie's superintendent salary cap], we'll definitely find somebody else," he said.
Carifi agreed with his running mate's accusation.
"The school board negotiated the contract a year before it was set to expire," he said. "Why don't teachers have a contract and settle it a year in advance?"
Resident Roman Hoshowsky asked: "Is it ever okay for a board member to lie to the public, and what would you do if one did?"
All the candidates agreed that lying was not acceptable. DeIntinis said lying was grounds for ethics charges and charged the board with showing a lack of transparency. Carifi criticized the BOE over the recent controversy surrounding the alleged circulation of secret emails between board members.
Resident Roy Messmer asked why the school board negotiated the Seitz contract a year before its expiration. Calabria said the law mandated doing so.
"There was no intent that we were trying to circumvent a rule or anything," he said. "We had heard about a $177,000 cap coming, that was rumored. But other districts were doing what we were doing, negotiating their contracts. We had an individual we knew who was very good.
"And if you think it's easy to find another superintendent, don't be too sure about that."
Neglia added that the board was also dealing with the prospect of losing four of its five top administrators.
"We followed all rules and regulations at the time in accordance with the law and the advice of legal counsel," he said, adding that he was the one who made the motion ultimately to rescind Seitz's contract.
DeIntinis scoffed at the incumbents' statements.
"Most of us saw the news when Gov. Christie made Parsippany the poster boy of greed," he said. "There are plenty of qualified individuals who would love to come to Parsippany as superintendent."
Carifi agreed, suggesting that the district promote from within.
"I'm sure there would be many happy to step up and serve," he said. "It took them four times before they rescinded—under threat of losing state aid."
Cogan declined to answer, saying she was not on the board at the time.
Resident Nancy Snyder directed her quesion to Calabria: "Can you specify why you have found it 'not easy' to bring someone [a new superintendent] into the district?"
"If you're looking for a superintendent, it's going to be tough to get someone with experience [at $177,500]," he said. "This is the largest school district in the county and one of the largest in the state. We have two high schools, two middle schools, a wonderful special-needs program...
"Can we find someone? Of course we can. But it's very difficult to find good ones."
Snyder asked Neglia, the other incumbent, for his thoughts.
"We were losing four out of five key administrators," he said. "In hindsight would we have done things differently? Probably, but we did what we did."
He added that he has no problem with the capped salary of $177,500.
The other candidates were then permitted to share their opinions. DeIntinis accused the current board of being "uninformed" and disinterested in the taxpayers. Carifi asserted that "everyone's replaceable." Cogan said that as a parent, she wants a qualified person to run a district of Parsippany's size.
The final question of the night dealt with smoking and drug use on the premises of Parsippany's high schools.
Carifi said the incidence of such activities is "not that bad." He suggested bringing in the Morris County Sheriff's Department's K-9 unit to "sniff out problems" and added that lockers can be searched at any time.
"Even if they don't catch anybody, kids will know they can't bring it to school and that people are checking."
DeIntinis agreed, citing his experience as a school resource in a high school with more than 3,200 students.
"The administrators are not being held accountable," he said. "If they were, we would not be having this discussion."
Calabria noted his experience as a high school principal and how he had an undercover state narcotics police officer pose as a student in his school for three months.
"A week after we initiated the program, I heard an officer in Texas was killed doing the same thing," he said, adding that strong administrators and vice principals could play a valuable role in reducing on-campus smoking and drug use.
Cogan admitted that this was not her area of expertise.
"There must be policies in effect ... to reduce the number of these incidences," she said. "People need to be held accountable."
Neglia called Carifi's plan to bring in dogs "a great idea," and agreed with Cogan that administrators "do need to be held accountable." He noted that the number of students caught with illicit materials is not high, but added that with resource officers and police, the district must remain vigilant.
"We cannot tolerate it," he said.
Candidates then presented their summations.
DeIntinis reiterated his goal to bring his wrestling club's "One Team, One Town" philosophy to the Board of Education.
Neglia talked of his "passion for kids and to give back to the community."
Cogan spoke of her belief in the power of public education and her desire to be an independent and informed voice for the board.
Calabria noted that education reform coming out of Trenton will have an impact for the next 10-15 years, which he said requires people with experience, knowledge and insight to bring positive change.
Referring to himself, Neglia and Cogan, Calabria said, "We three are the ones who will be able to deal with the issues coming."
Carifi reminded the audience that it took four tries for the school board to finally rescind the controversial superintendent's contract. He also reiterated his anti-stacking cry.
"We need to stop the children who don't belong in Parsippany from coming to our school system," he said.
Candidate Joanne Mancuso was invited to attend the forum, said the moderator, but never responded.
The five candidates will face off again next week at a debate sponsored by Parsippany Patch. (Mancuso has not responded to our invitation.) Township Council candidates Jonathan Nelson and Judy Tiedemann will participate in their own face-to-face debate as well. That event takes place Friday, Nov. 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the Lake Parsippany Clubhouse, 701 Lake Shore Drive. All residents are encouraged to attend and to listen to what the candidates have to say.