BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Berkeley Heights Board of Education Candidates, Mr. Paul T. Beisser, Dr. Gerald J. Crisonino and Mr. Ron Davison, came together Monday evening in the Governor Livingston High School Auditorium for a Candidates’ Night hosted by The League of Women Voters of Berkeley Heights, New Providence and Summit, and The Berkeley Heights Area Council of PTOs. After each candidate made his opening statements, the moderator, Diane Gallo of Summit, invited audience members to ask the candidates questions.

The first question posed to the candidates cut straight to the issue of having to make tough decisions that at times may be in opposition to what is desired by the voters. Mr. Beisser, the current Berkeley Heights BOE President, spoke about his experience and the fact that the Board regularly makes difficult decisions. In his opening statement he discussed the issue of class sizes and proposed the need to seek out other avenues of improvement because class sizes cannot presently be reduced. He characterized this as “wildly unpopular” but stressed that at times it is necessary to stand behind what is unpopular to achieve the greatest overall benefit for everyone. Dr. Crisonino, another current Board member and long time Berkeley Heights resident, echoed this sentiment, stating that he would “never compromise a student’s education regardless of what might make someone happy.”

The majority of the questions thereafter related to the recently adopted 2011/2012 budget. Having both worked on the budget, Dr. Crisonino and Mr. Beisser described the budget as ”very prudent and fiscally responsible” and according to Dr. Crisonino, with the students’ best interests in mind.

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Mr. Davison, the only candidate of the three who has not previously served on the Board, said that he would not have voted for “a budget that supports run-away spending.” In particular Mr. Davison was opposed to the fact that, “We spent wildly when we gave a 12.2 salary increase.” Mr. Davison was also against the budget cuts and the request to increase the taxpayer contribution for the second consecutive year. Davison feels that he could have done a better job in preparing the budget and would not have cut, for example, funding for middle school sports programs.

While he assures his opponents that he is aware of all the challenging work that they have done, Mr. Davison feels that there is a definite need to find options other than raising taxes and cutting the budgets. He suggests looking into what can be reduced and/or reorganized in terms of Central Administration and some staff benefits such as tuition reimbursement.

Beisser and Crisonino assured Davison that there is little to no room left for cutting back in other areas, especially in terms of Central Administration costs, which they claim are among the lowest in the area. Beisser also pointed out that the schools are currently at the lowest student to administrator ratio.

Mr. Davison stood firm on the issue of the budget and mentioned more than once that it is important to look to other school districts to determine why they have not raised taxes or “jeopardize[d] delivery of instruction to students” by cutting programming. Dr. Crisonino responded by explaining that other districts may have made some reductions in union costs, an option that Berkeley Heights explored but declined. Mr. Beisser, however, was adamantly opposed to the implication that the Berkeley Heights budget could in some way jeopardize the education of the schools’ students.

Further division was evident among the candidates on topics like funding for the libraries and the transparency of Board budget meetings. As part of his platform, Dr. Crisonino has expressed that he would like to focus more on infusing technology into each grade. As such, when the candidates were asked about funding for the public library, Dr. Crisonino said that while he would like to see the public and school libraries receive more funding, he acknowledged that children are now learning differently and probably do not attend libraries any longer. Stating that many children and youth now read using technology like the Kindle, he feels that it is important for the schools to, “catch up.” To this, Mr. Davison replied, “It’s nice to have a Kindle,” but also reminded his opponent that many families do not have Kindles and that it is important to think about funding for the libraries and the media center.

Transparency at the Board meetings was also a topic of contention. Mr. Davison felt strongly that Board members should publicly state their opposition to or reservations about a given issue, especially when it is passed unanimously as was the budget, for example. A former BOE member in the audience asked specifically about these unanimous votes. Mr. Davison stated that if he were a member of the Board he would share his opposing ideas with the public even if a vote was passed unanimously. Dr. Crisonino and Mr. Beisser stated that anyone who attends the Board meetings knows that all of the meetings are public as are the discussions and votes.

Some tension was palpable among candidates regarding these issues, but each candidate was asked as a final question by a woman in the audience to say something positive about the Berkeley Heights school system that made each man want to run. All of the candidates agreed the school district is top notch but, like everything else, could be improved upon.

Dr. Crisonino, the first to answer, referred to Berkeley Heights as, “One of the premier school districts in the state,” with excellent students, teachers and administrators. He feels the budget is a reflection of “the reality we have to live with.” “Can we improve?” he said, “Everyone can improve.”

Mr. Davison agreed that the school system is one of the best and shared that he worked hard to be able to move his daughters to Berkeley Heights so they could benefit from such great schools. Mr. Beisser agreed and noted that it is most important to, “Ensure that everything we offer adds value” because “when adults fight, students lose.”

During the closing statements, each candidate thanked the League of Women Voters and the PTOs for sponsoring the event and then shared his main reason for running. All of them spoke of the importance of the students and the need to ensure that each student receives the best possible education. Mr. Beisser said that he wants to reach out to each student, “from the popular class president to the quiet student who eats his lunch by himself,” because making connections with individual students helps to ensure success.