MADISON, NJ - The four challengers seeking to unseat  incumbent Madison Board of Education members questioned Wednesday the board’s ability to protect education programs during difficult budget times.

The challengers also said if elected they would pursue opportunities to increase the school district’s income through non-tax methods like charging higher rent for the use of school facilities. They also called for more open dialogue between the board and voters.

The candidates addressed about 25 voters at a forum held in the Madison High School library sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Chatham-Madison Area.

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The candidates are: Incumbents David Arthur and  Shade Grahling; and challengers Brenda Catalanello, Thomas Haralampoudis, Carmen Pico and Karin Szotak.

There are three open 3-year seats.

Voters on April 27 will also vote on a tax levy for the 2011-12 school year of $32.5 million that calls for a tax increase of $118 for the home assessed at the borough average of $410,600. The budget was rejected last year.

Haralampoudis said the district’s budget has been hit by a $1.3 million drop in state aid and the loss of a $300,000 federal grant.

He insisted, though, if elected he would “not let the district’s standards drop. Clearly, I would work to maintain Madison’s quality of education.”

Arthur said the board made changes in how some core curriculum programs would be delivered, especially world language, but said that the state law does not allow the district to just cut the core curricular programs.

He said curriculum reviews will  always be a part of the budget process and said it is time for Madison to consider such new approaches as virtual learning and master teachers. He also called for the district to reach out to Drew University  and Fairleigh Dickinson University for help in many areas.

Arthur said the school board needs to more actively pursue shared services with the Borough of Madison and other school districts.

Madison and Harding have such arrangements, he said, but with shared services,  “the question is what  you have to give up  when you share.”

The question of sharing top administrators, Arthur said, was not simple, and called for the ability to find a partner district that shares Madison’s educational philosophy and goals.

Pico said that as a member of the Randolph school board he learned that sharing services and undertaking efforts to reduce energy costs saved significant amounts of money.

Catalanello said her chief concerns were maintaining educational quality “in the most fiscally responsible way,” and  safety in the schools.

Szotak said she would put education first and work to maximize the talent of the staff, administration and teachers. She called for additional training for  teachers, especially in the area of technology. Szotak said she was concerned that new technology would be brought into the schools and teachers would be unable to take advantage of it.

In a statement read by the moderator, Grahling (who was not present) said her three years on the board had convinced her of equality of the teaching staff and the education the borough’s children were getting, and cited curriculum improvements made over the past five years.

Her concerns focused on the budget and the rising costs of salaries and benefits.

Two issues that prompted longer discussions were the district’s policy on bullying, based on a question from the audience, and the board’s decision to offer tenure to business administrator Gary Lane after seven months on the job.

The bullying question was an issue because of an apparent incident at a district elementary school.

Pico said as a former bus driver he saw a lot of bullying among students. He said the district should  have a clear policy.

Szotak said the district’s policy should  be “adhered to from the top administration down.”

She said it should be understood that parents of the “bully and the bullied” must understand the policy.

“If my child is the bully, I want to know,” she said. “If my child is the bullied, I want to know.”

Haralampoudis said  bullying has been a problem for generations, but must be dealt with by making sure all parents understand that the problem exists today.

Catalanello said clearly the problem was not addressed last year, and the children doing the bullying feel they can act out without repercussions.

Arthur said the district has a clear anti-bullying policy that is enforced, and staff is trained to understand the policy.  “Bullying can not be tolerated,” he said.

Szotak said Lane should not have been given tenure after only seven months on the job. State law says tenure for teachers is given after three years and one day, she said.

Catalanello said she would not have approved “a lifetime position after seven months.”

Pico and Haralampoudis said they were not part of the board’s discussion on that issue, but felt tenure policy as a whole needed reform.

Arthur said he voted to approve Lane’s tenure because at the time the district was facing the resignation of its superintendent and the board was concerned about  maintaining administrative stability especially regarding the budget,.

Lane, in his seven months in office, had saved the district at least $100,000 through his budget control, Arthur said.

Further, he said, with the change in superintendents and  the state’s cap on top administrator salaries, the district was going to be spending  less on administration salaries.

“Tenure is not a lifetime contract,” Arthur said. “I voted for this for all the right reasons.”