I have lamented in the past how difficult it is to learn about candidates’ positions on issues for local races. Very little is known, not much is reported, etc. Millville First sought to bring the public and the candidates for Millville’s Board of Education together last evening for a forum. Unfortunately for the public, after hearing from the seven candidates, we are not much better off.
The American Legion hall on the bottom floor was the venue for the event. I estimated there were about 40 spectators. Two long tables were placed side-by-side for the candidates. This was along the entrance wall instead of in front of the stage. The event began five-10 minutes late. Robert McQuade and Michael Santiago arrived after that. First impressions, gentlemen . . .
Each candidate was provided up to five minutes for opening remarks. I learned a little about Robert Donato’s background, Ali Edwards works for Sunoco, Santiago’s son plays baseball, etc. Next, Mr. Porreca, the evening’s moderator, began questioning the panel. Questions were submitted by the audience. Porreca lumped some of them together. About 75-80 minutes later, the event was over. Lots of talking had happened, but not much was said.
There are three seats up for vote on the BOE this year. Incumbents Kelli Nedohon, Charles Flickinger, and Robert Donato are seeking re-election. Four challengers, Michael Santiago, Robert McQuade, William Opperman, and Ali Edwards, would like to unseat the incumbents.
Last week I wrote about Mr. McQuade. I have not been impressed with his candidacy. McQuade did absolutely nothing last evening to bolster that impression.
Is this a man who should be charged with leading the education of the city’s children? I will pass on voting for Mr. McQuade.
Santiago is a retired police officer. He seems to be an affable man. Unfortunately, after introducing himself during his opening remarks, he said little. He is not in favor of opening up negotiations, admits knowing nothing about the school budget, and has not attended any BOE meetings. Other than wanting to run, Santiago brings nothing to the plate.
Santiago provided no reason to cast a vote for him.
Ms. Edwards is a young lady who moved to town three years ago. She commutes to Philadelphia for her job. She has no children. She did not present herself as being particularly knowledgeable about Millville or education.
She stumbled in telling us why she was running for office. She almost said, “to find something to do.”
She caught herself, but she didn’t present anything that would have a voter decide this is a candidate he should support.
When asked about whether she would consider cutting courtesy busing, she stated that was “insane.” As the one who wrote the question, obviously that was not the kind of answer I was looking for.
It is easy for me to dismiss the above three candidates. None of them gave me any reason to vote for them. If I am not voting for them, then let’s consider someone else.
Mr. Opperman is a candidate I want to vote for. He is concerned about his property taxes. He is willing to not accept the status quo.
Yet, Mr. Opperman appears to be the classic one-trick pony. It’s about taxes and only taxes with him. Safeguarding the public’s money is a big part of why I will vote for a candidate. It is short-sighted, however, to think that is all a school board member is supposed to do. The role is to approve policy. In other words, provide the guidance to the educational ship so that the students have the education they should. Money is a part (a big part), but he should be able to make a decision with educational considerations too. Opperman is not alone in being bereft of that skill.
While I was pleased to hear his passion for not squandering tax dollars, there was a bit of McQuade to him as well. He claimed there were six vice principals in one school. That was countered. He claimed it was on the district’s web site. I looked at the site last evening; I saw no school listing six vice principals. Something that is so easily disproved does not lend credibility to his argument.
An incumbent for 10 years, Nedohon is the talker of the group. She makes a strong case for the limitations that the BOE has in controlling spending. There is much mandated. The unions are strong. Yet, it seems to me that we elected her to do this job. Telling us how difficult it is and what little can be done does not instill confidence.
Nedohon claimed in answering a question of mine that the negotiated contract precludes Millville Public Schools from lengthening the school day or the academic year. My understanding is that anything between 1 September and 30 June is fair game. Obviously, there has to be some sort of limit or else how would a 24/7 school day be prevented? Perhaps she is correct. I spoke with her after the forum more about this. She said the contract’s language in this area has been in place since before she arrived on the BOE. That’s a decade. A couple years ago, I know Vineland lengthened its school day. I find it difficult to believe Millville cannot. My search of the contract has not found that language yet.
Nedohon is not for transparency. Her actions demonstrate that. She stated negotiations of $100 million of public money should be done behind closed doors. Try finding that negotiated contract on the web site your tax dollars fund and you’ll strike out. Why isn’t that document available? Surely during Nedohon’s decade tenure, contract language hasn’t precluded that.
Nedohon’s responses highlight the theme of the evening: the BOE is handcuffed from doing much of what the public wants it to do (and what the incumbents claim they want to). Yet when presented opportunities to address things that the Board could address such as food service and courtesy busing, incumbents either pass or state they wouldn’t change the way things are.
Of all the candidates, Flickinger impressed me the most this evening. It wasn’t so much for his policy insight; there wasn’t much. It is just that Flickinger sounded more credible than I had ever heard previously. He backed up what he had to say, as little as it was.
Flickinger was nestled between two incumbents who are verbose. To his right was Nedohon, who dominated the evening. On his left was Donato, who when he spoke was lengthy as well. Over the years I have learned that Flickinger is a man of few words. That is not a handicap. But because Porreca did not alter the pattern of who responded, Flickinger always followed the long-winded Nedohon. She covered the topic. a man of few words does not spend his time repeating what others have said. I can respect that.
Flickinger did step out to indicate that he votes against high salaries. He also seems to have a decent command, from the little one can glean through this forum, of the educational structure.
The BOE’s financial guru is accountant Robert Donato. As the money man, he was able to speak a bit more matter-of-factly than the other six. He has a calm demeanor, which suits him well. Unfortunately, Donato presents himself as the one in power, rather than part of a team.
When discussing the budget, Donato talked about how despite raising taxes the last two years, he wouldn’t go for it this year.
It is true that the public’s opinion means nothing in New Jersey when it comes to school board elections. For those who don’t know, should Millville’s school budget be voted down, it does not mean it would be defeated. The budget would then be sent to the City Commission. Is there anyone here who thinks the Commission would not support the budget “for the children”?
Voters do not matter. But Donato shouldn’t be so cavalier with that. We may not matter, but he is not the kingmaker either. That arrogance was displayed whenever he spoke. He was quite dismissive of entertaining cutting courtesy busing claiming safety. As the financial man, he neglected to discuss how many millions of dollars would be saved with eliminating it. He flat out dodged the food service question.
Donato has an arrogance about himself. He stated he wished he was paid to serve on the Board of Education. He claimed multiple times that he remains confidential about negotiations and then hammered the teachers for not being, even yelling at one point.
He seems capable, but it is unclear to me what he has done.
I have stated previously that incumbents have an advantage in a setting such as the one last evening. Incumbents have done something. Incumbents have seen the budget. They have been in the schools, attended the meetings, been briefed on the issues, etc. Joe Public who wants to be part of the scene isn’t privy to all that. Incumbents look better. Last evening was no different in that regard. Yet, the incumbents did not overwhelm. All three have been part of the Board for nine years or more (Donato’s time has been fractured). If the public is displeased with the BOE, then the incumbents up for re-election are definitely the target. If one is pleased with the job the school board has accomplished, reward these three as they are responsible.
Me? I am unimpressed or lukewarm with all seven candidates.