SPARTA, NJ – The Senior Center at Knoll Heights hosted the annual Meet the Candidates forum on Saturday morning.  For two hours, the candidates for the Board of Education answered questions from the audience. There were 28 seniors on hand to participate in the only candidate forum this election season.

Board member Brenda Beebe and incumbent candidate Richard Bladek’s wife Paula were also in the room. 

There were four candidates in attendance. Incumbent candidate Richard Bladek and candidate Carey Anne Gluck-Bomensatt are running on their own, though the two have been linked through various endorsements. Melva Cummings and Doug McKernan are running together on a slate of three candidates. Kylen Anderson, their third running mate, was unable to attend.  She was visiting her daughter at college for Parents’ Weekend. 

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While several different topics were addressed, the discussion often returned to the impact that the issue would have on the taxpayer.

There was discussion of the state funding formula and its perceived inequity with the greatest share of state aid and grant money going to the districts formerly designated as Abbott districts. 

McKernan said, “The best thing a board of education can do for the tax payer is to retain the value of the properties by having a strong school system.”

Lamenting the inadequacy of the district’s screening process for identifying students with special needs, Gluck-Bomensatt drew a rebuke from an audience member who said the district has a long history of providing for the needs of the special education students.  

Gluck-Bomensatt said, “If we get the proper programs we can train them, we can fix them and this will help reduce costs.”

There was a lively discussion about full-day Kindergarten, just as there was during the budget process last winter. The board voted it down in favor of spend money on capital projects. 

Cummings talked about the value of additional instruction.  “Early literacy is important for success.  If you increase the program you will provide the chance for teachers to have more time to teach reading.”  She went on to say, “We should make the decision as a team.  But you need to understand this is not being proposed as a second question.  They are proposing it to be within the current budget, no extra funding.”

Several in the room made skeptical comments about her statement.  During the budget hearing last winter, however, the statements were made that the approval to spend the so-called banked cap on capital improvements this year would allow for a full-day program to be implemented in the 2015-2016 budget without impact to existing programming.    

Bladek said, “I have a track record.  I already voted no.  With 94% of our students hitting the mark, meeting expectations, we don’t need it.”

Gluck-Bomensatt answered, “I agree with Richard, as a taxpayer.  Kelly McEvoy, the vice president of the board said our children are meeting expectations.  I would say ‘no’ as a taxpayer.”

McKernan said, “If it can be done in a fiscally and responsible way, I would support it, especially with all of the changing and expanding curriculum requirements.   Last year I said I was not in favor of it but I have been reading and talking with people and I think we should consider it.” 

The topic of the state School Choice program versus a Tuition based program went around the table.  Both initiatives are intended to bring students and additional revenue to the district.  

Cummings was in favor of a tuition based program, “to bring students in to fill empty classrooms.”  She spoke about the difference between the programs; with tuition the district has a say in the student who will be admitted and retained whereas the state Choice program removes that opportunity.  “You have to keep them if they cause problems.”

Gluck-Bomensatt said, “It is possible that it is worth bringing these children in but we work hard to pay our taxes. Do we want to bring other people in?”

Common core and tenure reform were discussed but both issues are mandated by the state.  The board of education is required to oversee implementation of any state mandate. 

The role of a board member was discussed.

“We need to challenge administrators and provide the best programs and tell them they need to look at new things,” said Bladek.

“Our job is to question them but not dictate,” said McKernan. 

“I see administrators as much more fiscally conscious.  That is good for us and I am happy about that.  All board members need to trust our administrators.  We are paying them and they need to be trusted.  It is not our job to run the district.  There needs to be trust,” said Cummings. 

The board of education election is for three seats, each with a three year term.  The township council race is uncontested with only three candidates.  These contests will be decided on Tuesday, Nov 4 with the general election.