RANDOLPH, NJ- The League of Women Voters of the Morristown Area and the Randolph PTO co-hosted a forum for the Board of Education (BOE) candidates on Tuesday at Randolph High School. The five candidates who are running for three BOE seats are Ron Hadley, Allison Manfred, Eliza Schleifstein, Robert Soni (incumbent), and Anne Standridge (incumbent).
Current BOE director Tammy Mackay is running unopposed for an unexpired one-year term, and therefore did not participate in the forum. Hadley was unable to attend, but provided a statement that was read by League moderator Louise Murray.
Four candidates addressed an audience of about 60 community members that included current BOE members, town council members and current candidates for the town council, as well as many other community members. Each candidate had the opportunity to present two-minute opening and closing statements. The discussion was otherwise guided by questions submitted by the audience and vetted by the moderator.
The candidates are all Randolph parents, with children currently in or graduated from the district schools. Although they each offer a unique perspective based on their background, experience and goals for the BOE (see the candidate statements), the four were often in agreement across a broad range of topics.
Forum Gets Under Way with Financial Focus
The first set of questions focused on the district budget and related issues. All of the candidates voiced support for identifying potential revenue opportunities, such as public-private partnerships, rentals and naming rights, and for avoiding tax increases beyond the current cap. The new Field House was of particular interest, both as a possible revenue generator and also as a maintenance requirement in the future.
The candidates all noted their support for the recent referendum, but there was less consensus regarding maintenance of school facilities going forward. Manfred noted the importance of getting quality work done at the start, and Schleifstein pointed to the need to establish a “rainy day fund,” as well as the criticality of planning now for future maintenance. Soni responded with an explanation of the existing $4 million capital reserve fund, part of which is being used to pay for new parking lot construction behind Dasilva Field. He also noted that there is a master plan in place already. Standridge elaborated further on the facilities inventory conducted by the BOE and how that information is used currently to guide project decisions.
The topic of overcrowding at Fernbrook Elementary School, especially with a new 96-unit apartment building coming to market, also drew more varied responses. While Schleifstein and Manfred mentioned redistricting as a potential solution, though with the goal of minimizing disruption as much as possible, Soni and Standridge were less supportive of this option.
Improving Communications with REA is Key Theme
The next set of questions explored the relationship between the BOE and the teachers’ union. All of the candidates agreed on the need for more consistent communication between the two. Both Soni and Standridge pointed to the new four-year contract as an important milestone, though Soni noted that there are still “friction points.” He commented, “I think there is an opportunity with a new board, with a new set of folks, to engage more directly with them (the union). I think we know what their biggest concern issue is at the moment, and we look forward to resolving that fairly quickly.”
Schleifstein emphasized that she had already reached out to the REA to initiate a “positive dialogue.” She sent an “extensive letter” to the union, followed by discussions with some of the officers, with the ultimate aim to “improve communication and abandoning the traditional adversarial relationship of labor vs. management.”
Manfred took an optimistic tone, saying “if I was on the Board, I would be more than happy to be an advocate for the teachers, and hopefully make the relationship between the two as perfect as it can be.”
On the topic of the no-confidence vote, communication continued to be a central theme. Standridge said, “I was disappointed that teachers took a no-confidence vote in our superintendent and administration. I think some of that stems from communication that could have been better between the Board, the administration, and our teachers and union…I think some of that is being rectified now as the union leadership is taking a more active role meeting with the administration and our superintendent.”
Soni commented, “I think the key thing to discuss about the vote of no-confidence is the word ‘team’. No individual board member has the authority to set and define a negotiation with the union…We have to provide a unified direction and a unified face to the union because we represent the district and the residents and the students in that negotiation.”
Here Schleifstein highlighted her professional experience in public relations and the value it could bring, noting that PR is “building a dialogue between organizations and their stakeholders, so that accurate info is there and people can feel like they can have a dialogue.”
Candidates Address Educational Options for all Randolph Students
On the final set of questions addressing general education topics, there was more agreement than discord. All four spoke enthusiastically about the district’s extensive extracurricular activities, as well as the variety of academic offerings for students with different educational needs. Manfred voiced her support for the current approach at the elementary school level, and Standridge spoke about the extensive curriculum reviews she sees each year as Education Committee chair.
One of the last questions focused on the possibility of creating a magnet school in Randolph, and here the opinions were more varied. Although all four candidates would be willing to look at the option, with the costs of establishing a program and the potential for revenue among the factors for consideration, Standridge commented that Randolph already offers a well-rounded educational experience and a magnet school may not be best for the district. Schleifstein took a very different position, calling it an “excellent concept” and suggesting that Randolph could be a “trailblazer.”
Hadley, not in attendance, said in his written statement that the Randolph schools have been "highly effective" for all four of his children, and his family is thankful to have moved to the town 25 years ago. In particular, he praised Randolph's teachers and noted the many benefits of its extracurricular activities. However, accordingly to the candidate, "We are now facing issues that are concerning. The most obvious is the vote of no-confidence that was passed earlier this year...I will not pass judgment without a full set of facts, But the fact remains that this has occurred and demonstrates serious issues in our school system that didn't exist even a few years ago." He also mentioned "unresolved issues across the music department" and the rise in the number of freshmen electing to attend Morris County School of Technology.