WEST ORANGE, NJ - The second of three West Orange Board of Education Candidate Events occurred tonight at Pleasantdale Elementary School. All four candidates for the the Board of Education: Michelle Casalino, incumbent; Ron Charles, Adam Kraemer, and Joe Sorbino, were in attendance, along with James O'Neill, the Interim Superintendent.
Candidates were given the opportunity by PTA Event organizers, Ella Lee Sutton, and Moderator Jennifer Dagma, to present themselves and their platforms, followed by a few questions that each candidate was allowed to answer.
The incumbent, Michelle Casalino, spoke first. Casalino underscored that as a lifelong resident and graduate of West Orange public schools, that she graduated with pride and continues to believe children should come home from school each day with the best experience possible. There have been 7 years of challenges, whether in funding, budget, or student achievments, and Casalino told the audience that she has worked hard to save the taxpayers money with her initiatives, which include re-registration, shared services, busing, and reduction of last year's budget by nearly 900K. Citing the search for a new Superintendent as critical, she related her personal experience in interviewing over 100 candidates for administrator positions in the district in a thorough, diligent manner.
Ron Charles focused on 'possibility' - that the greatest possibilities are available to every citizen in New Jersey and nationally, and especially for our children. He spoke of his family, his 25 year career in Law Enforcement and Public Safety, where he is now a Social Director managing a staff of several hundred employees with a 220 million dollar revenue source. His community involvement includes Mountaintop Baseball; Rec Wrestling, cub scouts and fundraising for various organizations. Charles agreed with Casalino that finding a new Superintendent was critical to the success of the school district, and felt that his skill set would be an advantage to the Board of Education.
Adam Kraemer described his educational background: two Masters in Education from Columbia University Teacher's College, his teaching experience, and current career track in Accounting in speaking to his qualifications. He said education was paramount, and though the tax base could not be changed, efficiency could be improved as to how the money is spent. He said he would focus on technology, communication with the Interim/New Superintendent; and having teachers write curriculum.
Joe Sorbino described himself as "a Dad that cares." As a 13 year resdient of West Orange, he felt that residents' concerns were not adequately answered and their 'voices should be heard." He spoke of his experience as Edison Middle School PTA president, volunteering for Project Graduation, the Community House awards dinner, and Men Who Can Cook. He was also a Marine and involved in Desert Storm. Also in Law Enforcement, he is studying for his Master's Degree in Public Administration. He stressed student achievement, fiscal responsibility, accountability, and transparency, with cooperation by all to "educate our children" as the goal.
James O'Neill, Interim Superintendent, got up to address the audience and remarked how impressed he was at how well the diverse student population at WOHS got along with each other, and how going through the West Orange School district provided that climate and culture. He said he has high regard for the staff in the district and was focusing on evaluating district initiatives and ensuring that the district spends its money wisely. He reminded residents that the funding formula is not perfect in New Jersey for public schools. Parents and residents may contact him with issues and hoped he would leave the district in a better place when he departs. (O'Neill is limited to a two year contract.)
Four questions were then asked, and each candidate responded.
The first question was "What do you believe is the biggest challenge you face in regards to education? Sorbino and Kraemer said student achievement; Casalino agreed, but added that redistricting and increase in enrollment, which included several Kindergarten students with no preschool experience, were major issues; and Charles said that "Quality + Value= Results, especially in the arena of doing more with less.
The next question was about the search for a new Superintendent, with a 175K cap now mandated by the state. Kraemer indicated part of the problem could be too many school boards and advocated hiring a new Super at a starting salary of below 175K but petitioning the state for a waiver to offer a bonus. Charles wanted to make the process more public. Casalino noted that experienced Supers were now either leaving New Jersey, becoming Interim Supers, or retiring, and wanted to include the state, West Orange principals and the Interim Superintendent for input. Sorbino spoke of the accomplishments of a younger Super in Hoboken.
The third questions had to do with the contract negotiations between the teacher's union and the school district. (The contact is not yet settled.) Charles said that 75% of the school budget is tied up in salaries, benefits, etc., and that negotiations are protected by collective bargaining agreement in New Jersey. Casalino, who is currently part of the BOE negotiation team, said that it has been a grueling two years of negotiation complexities and language issues. In speaking with Mr. Stern, the district's Labor Counsel, he said that no school district speaks about their contract negotiations in public, though she did state that in a meeting last night, an Agreement Memorandum was drafted, which would hopefully promise a resolution in the near future. Kraemer said that a real resolution would be achieved by reform in Trenton and in Congress, and that public employees had too much of an upper hand in contract negotiations. Sorbino questioned why the contract had not yet been settled, and asked where was the collaborative relationship between the Board of Education and the teachers.
The last question centered around "Transparency", especially as it pertained to the paid Administrative leave of Dr. Anthony Cavanna. Casalino said that according to New Jersey Law, as a Board member, she was not allowed to comment on personnel matters. She also said that in her first term she pushed then Superintendent Jerry Tarnoff to televise the budget presentation, and advocated for more televised board meetings. Charles noted that the decision to place Dr. Cavanna was a unanimous 5-0 vote and would respect the legal process and wait for the outcome. Kraemer criticized the online agenda and attachments posts on the BOE website, and would also respect the 5-0 vote. Sorbino said Cavanna should have worked through the end of his contract in 2013 and had an issue with the district currently paying two salaries. He said transparency should be improved by changing the structure of the meetings, noting that BOE members should be in the business of "customer service". He said parents and taxpayers were paying a lot of money and deserved more.
The meeting lasted approximately 90 minutes. Residents were able to talk to candidates after the question session.