By Ron Leir
When the Kearny Board of Education reorganizes in January 2014, it will feature a reversal of fortune, reflecting a new 6-3 majority voting bloc aligned with Bernadette McDonald, who had been ousted as board president in June by the old majority.
In the Nov. 5 general election, voters tossed out the current board president Robert O’Malley and returned McDonald to her seat, along with two newcomers – Barbara Cifelli-Sherry and Samantha Paris – who had aligned themselves with Mc- Donald. All were running for three-year seats. Incumbent George King opted not to seek a new term.
The unofficial tally, as recorded by the Town Clerk’s office, had Cifelli- Sherry leading the pack with 1,743 votes; Paris garnered 1,687; McDonald, 1,641; and O’Malley, 1,087.
Daniel Esteves – appointed to the board a year ago in place of Deborah Lowry when she was declared ineligible to serve – ran unopposed for the lone two-year seat and was credited with 1,161 votes. A write-in drive for Judy Hyde fell well short of that total.
So the new majority will look like this: McDonald, Cifelli-Sherry, Paris, Cecilia Lindenfelser, James Doran and Sebastian Viscuso on one side, and John Leadbeater, John Plaugic and Esteves on the other.
In an interview last week, McDonald, who’ll be starting her fifth consecutive term as a board member in January, said she was “thrilled” by the vote tally. “I’m glad people came out,” she said.
McDonald – whose campaign team had placed “over 250” lawn signs asking residents if they’d “Had enough?” with what she characterized as a divisive board – said the team’s goal is “to have a board that works together,” that the board should be focusing on “staff, students and [school] taxes.”
One immediate priority, she said, should be to “get Midland Ave. done,” referring to the recent undertaking of the long-awaited conversion of the old tire factory and later private school at Midland Ave. and Elm St. into some classrooms and new offices for central staff and board meeting rooms, which should free up the old board offices at Franklin School for additional instructional space.
Cifelli-Sherry, who served 14 years on the Town Council through 2009, has been an outspoken critic of the board at its meetings and was so dispirited by what she called the “air of adversity” that pervaded the board sessions, that she decided to get involved.
“We need to remember we’re all on the same side when it comes to the students, teachers and parents,” Cifelli-Sherry said. “We’ve got to get past special agendas.”
Instead, she wants to “get input from teachers and administrators” on how students’ performance levels, as measured by mandated proficiency tests, can be improved. And she’s hoping the board can get moving again to complete the high school reconstruction project. “My granddaughter is now a student there and I’m hoping she’ll see a complete school by the time she graduates,” she said.
Paris said she got into the race because “the board is now out of control.” Its members have been more concerned with “who did what to whom” in the past, instead of educational issues, she said. “We should stick to the task at hand and do what we were elected to do. We should be focused on curriculum and things that kids need, like better technology.”
And, Paris said, “All kids should have access to textbooks. In some classes, teachers don’t have enough books so they have to make copies for the students. … There’s no standard instructional policy or attendance policy.” Since the district has been without a truant officer for a few years, “there’s no real enforcement of attendance and if a child isn’t in class, that can effect test scores.”
With a 4-year-old child at Roosevelt School and another one, 19-months-old, soon to enter the school system, Paris wants very much to foster a new attitude on the board.
“I went to Kearny High School and I’m a CPA,” Paris said. “Many of us who are Kearny graduates are successful and we’re proud of where we came from. We want the same for our children.”
Elsewhere in The Observer coverage area, there were contested races for school board in Lyndhurst and Nutley, with mixed results.
In Lyndhurst, two incumbents – Christine Melleno and James Cunniff – lost their seats and a third, James Hooper, didn’t run. The three newly elected board members – Joseph Abruscato, Ronald Szwec and Susan Alcuri – aligned themselves under the slogan “Experience, Leadership and Accountability.”
Abruscato, a former township commissioner who previously served one term on the school, works as a school counselor for the Sayreville public schools. Alcuri is a retired Lyndhurst educator. Szwec is an accountant.
The unofficial vote tally, as reported by the Township Clerk, was: Alcuri, 1,604; Abruscato, 1,419; Szwec, 1,186; Dennis Jankowski, 787; Cunniff, 598; Melleno, 537; and Jeremy Guenter, 506.
In Nutley, incumbent Charles Kucinski, the board president, retained his seat while incumbent James Kuchta lost his. Newcomers Daniel Carnicella and Kenneth Reilly will occupy the other seats. The unofficial vote tally was recorded as: Kucinski, 3,543; Carnicella, 3,209; Reilly, 2,738; and Kuchta, 2,571. Incumbent Ryan Kline didn’t run.
Kucinski, who has served six three-year terms on the school board, is operations chief for a national security firm. Carnicella is an insurance and financial service broker. Reilly, a former board president, is sales director for a commercial flooring distributor.
The newly elected board members have talked about focusing on such issues as remedying school overcrowding, improving students’ test scores and expanding technology.
In North Arlington, school board incumbents Stanley Titterington and Joseph Ricciardelli, who ran unopposed, were returned to their seats. Belleville continues to hold its school election in April. Harrison and East Newark have appointive school boards.