Event Recap: Board of Education Candidates Night
By Jennifer Ersalesi
The General Election will take place on Tuesday, November 5th and on the ballot are three seats for Rutherford Board of Education. Four candidates are vying for those three seats: Dennis Mazone (incumbent), Christopher Conti, James Sprayberry and Frank Wilson. Mazone, Conti and Sprayberry are running together as a team under the Building1Rutherford ticket.
To prepare for this upcoming election, the PT Council of Rutherford hosted a Board of Education Candidates Night in the Rutherford High School cafeteria on Monday, October 21st. All four candidates were present and approximately 22 adults and 5 children were in attendance. Liz Forte, Rutherford PT Council President, organized the event and timed the responses. Nancy Marie Whitchurch from the Bergen County PTA was the Moderator. Each candidate gave his opening speech outlining his qualifications. Questions were submitted by community members in attendance at the event.
The first question to the candidates asked what they might do to increase the number and effectiveness of after school programs. James Sprayberry and Christopher Conti, both coaches in town, spoke about field space and the need to work with the Recreation Department to determine the best way to schedule sports programs. Frank Wilson recommended working with St. Mary’s, Felician University and the Recreation Department to determine other spaces available for after school programming, especially sports activities. Dennis Mazone, current Board of Education member, explained how the new construction that will take place now that the Referendum has passed will afford additional space.
Next, the candidates were asked how they believe student and faculty safety can be improved within the district. Mazone spoke about his experiences in the field of Public Safety and as an EMT and how he believes increased security systems should be directly linked to the Rutherford Police Department. Mazone, Sprayberry and Conti all believe that the school systems should have facial recognition safety devices and have seen these used effectively in their own careers. Frank Wilson spoke about the importance of having a School Resource Officer in all of the buildings.
Candidates were asked whether they would vote to demolish the Rutherford High School pool in the future. All of the candidates said that they would not vote to have the pool demolished. Each candidate expressed his satisfaction with the Rutherford Swim Association and all of the improvements they have already made, as well as the programming they are providing. Current Board member Mazone explained how the Board of Education listened to the community and decided in favor of a five year contract with the Rutherford Swim Association, of which they are very proud. Wilson suggested finding ways to incorporate the use of the pool into the school curriculum and the need to “utilize the pool to its max.”
Next, the candidates were asked if they support adopting a later start time for students in 7th through 12th grade. All of the candidates agreed that they would need to do further research to determine whether a later start time would work best for the community, as it would impact after school activities and families who would need to adjust their own schedules. Conti explained that the state is looking to start pilot programs in schools in New Jersey and he believes it is worth listening to the recommendations made based upon those pilot programs.
When asked to outline the qualities of a high functioning Board of Education, each candidate spoke of the need to have open communication. Sprayberry said, “Nothing bad comes from collaboration and Board members must listen to the community and present solutions.” Sprayberry also expressed the need for all Board members to respectfully challenge one another and the community. Every candidate believes it is important to involve the whole community in Board of Education decisions, not just the parents of the children that attend the Rutherford public schools. Both Mazone and Wilson agreed that diversity is also an important quality of a successful Board of Education. They referred to ethnic diversity, as well as diversity in backgrounds, experiences, and employment.
The next question referenced Rutherfordians who are concerned about the school district fully completing all of the Referendum projects. Mazone assured audience members that the Referendum plan has been determined along with the Borough Administrator with whom the Board meets monthly. He explained that all projects have been specifically planned and money has been allocated for each project. Sprayberry added to what Mazone said and explained how he feels confident that he can look at the timelines that the contractors provide and determine whether they are accurate based on his professional experience with construction. Wilson expressed the need for the community to have faith in the management team and Board office and that if a citizen wants to see where money is being spent, they can ask for that information. He also explained how his professional experience in opening and closing facilities will be an asset if he is elected to the Board. Conti talked about how the order of operations will be important to the process and in his own profession (show business) he also has to work within the restraints of budget and timing.
There was a question regarding whether eligible administration and staff members should receive performance based bonuses with money set aside for the Referendum. All candidates agreed that money set aside for the purposes of the Referendum could not be used for bonus pay. There were differing opinions regarding performance based bonuses. Wilson and Mazone were not in favor of meritorious pay and Conti and Sprayberry said that they might possibly consider the idea in the future.
Finally, candidates were asked what their highest priority would be as Board of Education members. Wilson said being empathetic and transparent. He expressed the need to pretend you are walking in others’ shoes. “We should look at the students and see our own kids and establish the same trust.” Conti said that he believes he should stay informed so that he can make effective decisions on behalf of the teachers, administration and the public is a high priority for him. Mazone explained that being an effective communicator with the Board, Superintendent, administration, teachers and the public is one of his main priorities. “Being a Board member is an unpaid position and it takes up a lot of time and requires a deep commitment,” Mazone told the audience. He also expressed the need to have integrity. Sprayberry said, “I hope to be a true voice for the students, teachers, staff, and administration." He wants his own children to be able to say, “Good Job Dad.”
Each candidate presented their summations at the conclusion of the evening. All of the candidates thanked the PT Council and citizens of Rutherford for the opportunity to participate in Candidates Night. Wilson explained that all of them believe in “Rutherford First”. Sprayberry expressed how each of the candidates care enough to be running for a Board position. Mazone said that he is proud of his efforts on the Board thus far and hopes to continue serving on the Board. He thanked all of the Board candidates and the audience for their civility. Conti reminded everyone that the questions should not stop after Candidates Night. He believes that the community should speak up with their concerns. He concluded by saying, “I feel fortunate to live in Rutherford where we have a great school district.”