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  • Writer's pictureThis Is Rutherford

Event Recap: Board of Education Candidates Night 2022

By Jennifer Ersalesi

Chris Conti, Laurie Corizzo, Nancy Wallace, Dennis Mazone and James Sprayberry

On Tuesday, October 18th, the Rutherford Board of Education Candidates Night took place in the Rutherford High School Auditorium. The evening was organized and presented by the Rutherford High School PTSA. Ms. Nancy Wallace, President of the Bergen County PTA, was the Moderator. Audience members were given the option to write out questions for the candidates that were asked by the Moderator while responses were timed by PT Council Board Member, Maria Schymko.

First, four out of five candidates who were in attendance were given an opportunity to introduce themselves.

Chris Conti explained that he is not a politician, has no secret agenda, believes the school district should focus on inclusivity, is pro-science, pro-LGTBQ, believes in facts not fear, and as a Board of Education member aims to represent everyone.

Laurie Corizzo told the audience that she and her husband moved to Rutherford because education was their top priority. She has been involved in the PTA’s and is the current PT Council president. She was recognized as the 2020 Best Counselor in Bergen County and has experience with anti-bullying, 504 plans, etc.

Dennis Mazone thanked the PT Council and PTSA for hosting the evening. He wants our schools to be inclusive and welcoming environments that promote social-emotional learning along with competitive academics, athletics, etc.

James Sprayberry is proud that he and his BOE colleagues have overseen a successful referendum. He believes that he and his fellow BOE members need to continue to be receptive, responsive, and transparent all while supporting the amazing staff and administrators in the district.

1). How would you as a BOE member support the LGBTQ community?

Chris Conti said, “Inclusivity in the curriculum makes everyone better”. He thinks we need to continue to support our current programs. Laurie Corizzo agreed with Chris and added that the new State Health/ PE standards encourage exposure to books that help introduce children to different families, etc. and older students have opportunities to be part of groups, clubs, and counseling groups that provide support. Dennis Mazone said, “This needs to be a place for everyone. Our LGBTQ students are a valuable part of our community.” He believes the tenets of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion also run through the curriculum and help support all students. James Sprayberry also believes that the BOE represents all students and he has seen increased awareness in the schools and will continue to encourage open dialogue.

2. What will you do to help ensure school safety?

Laurie Corizzo explained that there is an incredible amount of security in place already. As a school professional, she is no stranger to drills and how important they are. She believes that continued teacher training, the district’s strong relationship with the local law enforcement, and our school district’s Resource Officer, Detective Al Anderson, are all important in ensuring safety in the schools. Dennis Mazone currently works in a role where he is responsible for ensuring the safety of students at Pratt University. He spoke about how infrastructure is a high priority, as well as training drills with the Rutherford Police Department. He is proud of the effective plan that is already in place in our district and believes it is important to continue to focus on mental health, James Sprayberry explained that the school district is constantly evaluating the security measures in place, works closely with the RPD, and as part of the referendum, there have been even more updated security measures. He also commended the efforts of our Resource Officer, Detective Anderson. Chris Conti also wants to make sure that the staff is trained and the district works closely with local and state police. He spoke about how the schools have strong harassment and bullying measures and the staff does a good job of keeping an eye on students’ behavior.

3. Have you read the new NJ Health standards, do you support them, and do you think they are age appropriate?

Dennis Mazone said that he has read them, supports them, and believes that are taught at age-appropriate grade levels. James Sprayberry explained how he has heard teachers talk about how they implement the standards while attending Back to School nights and he believes that they are age appropriate. “When difficult subject matter comes up, teachers tell their students to go home and talk to their parents,” he said. Chris Conti agreed with the others and added that the state takes a long time to develop standards and policies and they are fully vetted by the time they get to the BOE for approval. He reminded the audience that parents do have the option to opt-out if they have issues with the Health curriculum. Laurie Corizzo said she has read them and teaches some of the topics as well. “There are some standards that can be misinterpreted as not age appropriate, but it depends upon how the district handles them,” she said. She thinks it is important to be transparent with parents.

4. Do you support the NJEA and Collective Bargaining?

James Sprayberry explained that he has been through three rounds of negotiation over the last six years and the district has never needed a lawyer during negotiations. As a union member, he understands the importance of collective bargaining. Chris Conti supports both and as a union member he knows how important they are. Laurie Corizzo supports them and has been involved in action teams as a union member in her own district. She believes in collective bargaining and the level of protection that the NJEA provides, so she thinks it is important to work with the NJEA to resolve any issues. Dennis Mazone also was part of several negotiations and is also a union member. Throughout negotiations he said, “There has always been an equitable give and take…our goal is to retain quality teachers through a fair process.”

5. As a BOE member, how would/will you address parents who are to exert pressure to change the previously approved curriculum?

Chris Conti reiterated that the Board must be compliant with the State and parents have the right to advocate at the state level if they wish to challenge the standards used to develop the curriculum. Laurie Corizzo spoke about the need to get input from parents and create focus groups to discuss changes. Dennis Mazone said he always refers parents to the building administrator and/or Superintendent. James Sprayberry agreed with the others and re-explained the need to go through the chain of command when it comes to reviewing the curriculum.

6. We have seen a big push for book bans in school libraries. Where do you stand on this issue?

Laurie Corizzo said she does not support book banning and believes school libraries should contain a “large array of materials reflecting the population.” When it comes to books that are curriculum required, she thinks that the district should be transparent and when there are moral or religious conflicts, alternate literature should be provided. Dennis Mazone does not support book banning because “Students are motivated differently.” As for books in the curriculum, if parents do not feel comfortable with their children reading them he would suggest they speak with their child’s teacher(s). James Sprayberry agreed with Dennis and added, “Books are chosen by our qualified staff whom I trust.” Chris Conti said “Access to information is critical to become better people”.

7. How much of a say should parents have on the public education system?

Dennis Mazone explained that education starts at home and the curriculum is developed at the state level. He believes parents have a say when it comes to engaging with the teachers and administrators, but he would encourage them to “respect the process.” James Sprayberry spoke about how this has been a hot topic, but the foundation is laid at home. “I’d prefer that my children learn from trained professionals rather than from using their phones,” he said. Chris Conti spoke about how public education supplements what parents do at home. “Public education is not a buffet, it is meant to be inclusive for everyone,” he said. Laurie Corizzo explained that the state does engage parents in the process of developing standards through parent, NJEA, and community panels. At the district level, she believes parents should have a say and be able to participate.

8. As a BOE member, will you support SEL programs at school?

James Sprayberry talked about how Covid affected Social Emotional Learning because students were isolated, so now there is a need for extra support. Chris Conti supports SEL 100%, “When I was in school and my parents were in school, SEL existed, it has always been a part of public education, but Covid focused our attention on it. SEL is a critical part of education; always has been and always will be,” he said. Laurie Corizzo “This is what I do every day. I utilize a curriculum to help students learn and grow and have those ‘ah ha’ moments. SEL is a passion of mine,” she explained. She has seen that the pandemic has created a host of mental concerns that need to be addressed. Dennis Mazone also fully supports SEL. “Although it has been politicized, it is a part of holistic education…it teaches everyone how to deal with other humans.”

9. If you have children under 18, what schools are they in, what do you like about those schools, and what could use improvement? If your child is not in Rutherford public schools or in Bergen Academies, why not?

Chris Conti explained that his children, one in Pierrepont and one in UMS, have been in the Rutherford public schools since kindergarten and he could not imagine them being anywhere else. “Even though my children are very different, they’ve always gotten what they needed,” he said. “As for improvements, maybe some paint in this RHS theater (smiles). Laurie Corizzo explained that her son is nineteen and graduated from RHS and her twelve-year-old daughter is not currently in the school district, which was a personal, family decision that she did not wish to discuss. She said that her daughter will be returning to the district in September. “I cannot think of any improvements, except for maybe needing some heat in here (laughs),” she said. Dennis Mazone said he “loves the energy” in all of the schools and that he has two children at RHS and one at UMS. He explained that it is a privilege to have his children attend schools in this district and couldn’t think of any improvements. James Sprayberry has a child at Pierrepont and a child at Bergen Tech. He spoke about how the Referendum enabled the district to improve the schools and he loves to see how excited the students are about the new and renovated spaces. “My son TJ has asked for one improvement; he asked me for more snow days (laughs),” he said.

10. In regards to the school budget, would you object to raising the budget by 2% if not needed? How do you feel about requiring that the budget be read line by line at a BOE meeting?

Laurie Corizzo said that she would hope that if taxes didn’t need to be raised, they wouldn’t be, since she knows that the BOE tries to be fiscally responsible. Since the budget is accessible online, she does not believe it should be discussed line by line. Dennis Mazone told the audience “The 2% is not added on a whim. The Finance Committee and Board Administrator works on the budget in February, March, and April.” He also believes that since the public has access to the budget online, it does not need to reviewed line by line. James Sprayberry said he does not support going over the budget line by line since it is already made available for public review. With ever-changing costs of healthcare, maintenance, etc, he explained that it is difficult not to need to add that 2% each year, but they try their best to avoid it. Chris Conti agreed with the others and added that “no one wants higher taxes” and that the Board of Education understands that and works hard to make responsible decisions.

11. Coming out of the pandemic, can you acknowledge the damage it did to our children educationally and emotionally?

Dennis Mazone said that the district and BOE have been looking at assessment results and there has been less learning loss than they originally thought. He believes that the impact on students’ mental health must be addressed. James Sprayberry spoke about the need to develop plans to make sure “no child is left behind” now that information from assessments has been gathered and reviewed. Chris Conti said “Imagine the pandemic without Chromebooks for every student. We are lucky that the Strategic Planning Committee had enough foresight to provide 1:1 technology prior to the pandemic,” he said. He also explained that the district applies for grants, for example, there was a grant received for the IXL program, which has been an important educational tool. Laurie Corizzo said, “I live this every day and the impact is three-tiered - educational, familial, and mental. We need a plan for this, we have to stop plugging up the leaks. It is time for long-range planning.”

12. What is your view on the Implicit Bias professional development for teachers and staff?

James Sprayberry and Chris Conti both said that they did not have enough information about it to give an answer. Laurie Corizzo spoke about how professional development is usually relevant to the teachers and staff within the district and that within her own school district where she works, she has seen that. Dennis Mazone explained that he believed “implicit biases are the biases that we bring to the table in our own workplaces.” He continued by connecting the ways in which DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) are also relevant to this topic as it helps make teachers aware of their biases.

13. What are your thoughts regarding how the current BOE always votes 9-0 (unanimously)?

Chris Conti explained that work is done in committees and debates take place at that level and a consensus is reached before public meetings. There is dissent and a healthy back-and-forth between all of us. Laurie Corizzo spoke about how she has learned from her experiences on the PTA that most of the work takes place in the background during Executive Board meetings where “they are hashing out behind the scenes.” Dennis Mazone built upon what Chris Conti explained and said that there is a lot of discussion during their committee meetings and that when they need clarity they speak with their BOE President, Sergio Alati, or Superintendent Jack Hurley. “We seek out information when we need it before making important decisions.” James Sprayberry agreed with the others and said that if he didn’t support something, he wouldn’t vote for it.

14. There is a growing national trend where politics are interfering with the integrity of Boards of Education. Have you taken endorsements from any political groups or lobbying groups? How will you uphold the integrity of the Board of Education and remain apolitical?

Laurie Corizzo explained that she has not accepted any money from any organizations, although she was approached by many once she announced that she was running for the BOE. She had attended zoom meetings to learn more about those groups but has not worked with any of them. She also said that her name was recently included on a website where she was endorsed without having given her permission. She was told that they did not need her permission to include her name. Dennis Mazone explained that he is not connected to political organizations. “National politics have cluttered the landscape…There is a reason that we are at the bottom of the election ballot; we are non-partisan,” he told the audience. James Sprayberry restated that they are not a political board and said, “My personal and political beliefs do not supersede my BOE role.” Chris Conti agreed with the others and laughed when he said, “Well my youngest son did try to bribe me to get homework reduced.”

15. What do you think are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?

Dennis Mazone believes that his strengths are his experiences in the district and in his professional role at Pratt, his leadership roles, and the fact that he has children attending Rutherford's public schools. He explained that he always felt his weakness was understanding the finance part of being on the Board however, Greg Recine, assures him that is not the case. James Sprayberry believes his strengths are being a dad, being involved, his industry experience, and being approachable. He said his “weakness” is that he has no tolerance for politics. He believes that his work on the BOE is “all about the students.” Chris Conti believes that his strengths are that he is a parent and volunteer and that he has children in the schools. He explained that he learns a lot by listening to his children and his children’s friends. He says his weakness has been learning all the policy and legal “stuff” that they have to do. “Those policy packets are dense and epic,” he said. Laurie Corizzo believes that her strengths include her ability to communicate, collaborate, and her involvement in the community. She said that her weaknesses might be working through the financial components of working on the BOE.

16. What are your views on religion in public schools?

James Sprayberry said that the school district is “mindful of cultures and religions and supports educating students on differences” and focusing on inclusivity. Chris Conti agreed with James and repeated the need for inclusivity. Laurie Corizzo said that the school district and instruction should reflect its community members and that students should have the opportunity “to explore and study different religions…and celebrate others and their different cultures and religions.” Dennis Mazone agreed that there should be opportunities to “teach about the different religions within our diverse community at all grade levels.”

Board of Education candidates were given the chance to give any rebuttals after all of the questions had been answered.

Dennis Mazone wished to revisit the question about the budget. He explained that the impact of not increasing the budget by 2% could be a reduction of staff and programming. “We go through a painstaking process not to make cuts to our programs and staff.” Also, he wanted to point out that the Rutherford BOE “didn’t cause the pandemic” and all of the decisions they made were "based on science." He explained that he was proud that Rutherford students were in school just about every day for the 21/22 school year, which was more than many other school districts in the state. James Sprayberry wanted to clarify some recent statements regarding food insecurity. He explained that the school district works closely with social services and the food pantry. He stated that the district and the BOE believe that it is unacceptable for kids to go hungry.

Chris Conti wanted to point out the need for collaboration and teamwork on the BOE. “I do not know everything, but there are nine other individuals on the Board I can reach out to and the Superintendent who all have experience and depths of knowledge,” he said. He explained how Greg Recine is “the man” when it comes to understanding finances and Diane Jones has a “tremendous wealth of experience”. Laurie Corizzo wanted to explain that all financial information regarding the 2022 campaigns can be found on this website, where anyone who would like to see who might have contributed financially to her campaign or anyone else's campaign can search for that information on that site. She thanked her mother and husband for purchasing the lawn signs she has been able to give out to community members who have requested them.

Lastly, each BOE candidate provided closing statements.

James Sprayberry thanked the PT Council and RHS PTSA and thanked all of his fellow candidates for showing up for a great night. “We are not political. We didn’t have commercials or door hangers,” he said. He reminded everyone to get out and vote. He concluded by saying “The four people who showed up tonight are here because of our community.”

Dennis Mazone thanked everyone for this opportunity. He spoke about how his fellow running mates, Chris Conti, Dennis Mazone, and James Sprayberry, are all professionals with a track record of success. “We are not affiliated with a political party and have not received any financial backing. Politics has no place on the BOE or in our district,” he said. He asked for everyone’s support and asked people to vote 1,2, and 3 for him and his two running mates who are “Hard working and working hard to Build 1 Rutherford.”

Laurie Corizzo thanked Liz Forte for mentoring her (PT Council)and thanked everyone who came out for Candidates Night. She said, “I only disagree with Dennis Mazone on one thing; vote for spot 4 (laughs).” She continued to explain that she cannot complain about anything in the district, “the teachers have been amazing and the administrators are incredible.” Finally, she said, “Regardless of the outcome of this election, this has been an incredible journey for me.”

Chris Conti also thanked the PT Council and RHS PTSA. He expressed that in the last three years, as a BOE member, he and the other BOE members, have dealt with Covid, virtual learning, reopening schools while keeping everyone safe, working with three unions through the collective bargaining process, and major construction that stayed on or under budget. “I cannot imagine having done all this without Dennis Mazone and James Sprayberry. They are always relied upon when tough decisions need to be made.”

Mail-in ballots have already been received and all other registered voters can vote at their designated polling site on Tuesday, November 8th.

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