HACKENSACK, N.J. — As the lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic continues, the voting process for this year’s school board election, which state officials announced last month would be delayed and conducted entirely via mail-in ballots, has now begun. 

Vote by mail ballots began arriving in the mail yesterday; completed ballots must be postmarked by election day, Tuesday, May 12, in order to be counted.

There are three, three-year seats up for grabs on the nine-person board, which are being vacated by Board Members Leila Amirhamzeh, Johanna Calle and Robin Coles, who are not seeking re-election.

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Michael Oates, Anthony Rodriguez, and Chris Coleman are running together as Hackensack Smart Schools Team, aka, “The Three Dads.”

Oates is a lieutenant with the Hackensack Fire Department with three children in the district; Coleman is an attorney by trade with three children in the district; and Rodriguez is a sales manager with two children currently in the district, and one who graduated. 

The Three Dads will challenge “Champions For Students,” which are comprised of Jennifer Maury, an education management professional; Monica Pelaez, a surgical assistant at Hackensack University Medical Center; and Dave Dungey, a Hackensack High School alum who is employed at Honeywell Corp. as a principal IT designer and currently working towards his PhD in Urban System (infrastructure, health, and schools) from Rutgers University.

Both slates of candidates have had to adapt to dramatically different circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as traditional campaign tactics like door-to-door canvassing and public events were banned by social distancing orders put in place by the Centers for Disease Control. The candidates have taken to using digital organizing tools such as social media posts, text messaging and video town halls to connect with voters, along with more traditional methods like mailers and phone banking. 

The Three Dads say they are committed to improving school facilities, student test scores, and safety together with the Hackensack Board of Education. Oates’ inspiration to run for the board came after a board meeting in December. He attended with his wife and his daughter Gigi, who said she was harassed by a fellow student at Hackensack Middle School and did not feel safe going to school. Since the December incident, she wore a whistle around her neck to sound that she sounded to keep potential bullies at bay and encouraged her friends to do the same. 

Gigi’s heroic efforts to take matters into her own hands following the incident spurred media attention, which began on TAPinto Hackensack and grew to major news organizations including CBS News, the New York Post, and a French publication championing female empowerment.

In the last week, the Hackensack Mayor and Council announced their endorsement of The Three Dads for school board. In a recent Facebook post, Mayor John Lacrosse expressed his support for the trio.

“The Labrosse team is proud to endorse the Three Dads,” he stated in a Facebook post on April 26. “These Three Dads are all fathers of Hackensack Public Schools students who understand the challenges we face as a district. They plan to work with the entire city to push for school safety, the expansion of after-school programs, and better curriculum standards to give our kids the best chance to succeed.” 

Meanwhile, Champions For Students say they are running a campaign to enrich the culture of the school district, enhance academic rigor, and plan for the future needs of the community. While the team said they’d carry this promise out with in-person visitations to neighbors and engaging in student-focused dialogue with the community, the social distancing guidelines have made that more challenging. Late last month, Champions for Students held a virtual town hall streamed via Facebook and was attended by more than 250 people and garnered about 1,000 views to date. The public was able to submit questions to the comments section during the live stream.

“We know this is a tough time and respect all that everyone is going through,” said Pelaez in a news release. “We hope every Hackensack voter will get a chance to watch before voting, because our schools are such a critical part of our community.”

The Board of Education will hold a reorganization meeting tentatively scheduled for Thursday, May 21, Schools Superintendent Robert Sanchez said.