At a time when elections are a blood sport, a debate devoid of vitriol is oddly refreshing.
Six candidates vying for three seats on the Morris School District regional board were models of decorum at Thursday’s League of Women Voters forum in Morristown. No trips to the vice principal’s office, here.
The lightly attended two-hour session at the Alexander Hamilton School was so polite, it was hard to differentiate the candidates. They agree on so many issues that voters are left to compare their credentials, which look impressive.
Video: Opening remarks, Morris School District 2019 candidates forum:
Morris Township voters have four contenders for two seats on Nov. 5, 2019. Incumbents Peter Gallerstein, a veteran of 18 years on the board, and Melissa Spiotta, appointed to a vacancy last year, face challenges from newcomers Susan Pedalino and Chris Crean.
In Morristown, Nancy Bangiola, who has 15 years’ experience, is challenged by former town Administrator Michael Rogers, who has served with Bangiola on the board of the Morristown & Township Library.
Rogers did not attend Thursday’s forum because of the death of a close friend’s child. His opening and closing statements were read aloud by moderator Toni Zimmer.
All terms are for three years. All the candidates in attendance pretty much agreed that:
- Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast, a finalist for the title of New Jersey’s top super, is … well, super.
- Board members should follow Pendergrast’s lead, and not micro-manage daily operations of this district, which encompasses 10 schools with 1,000 employees and 5,200 students.
- Things generally are going well financially (debt-free!) and academically (tests indicate steady improvement at most levels, even as the district absorbs an influx of immigrants with limited educational backgrounds and English skills).
- The district has made strides to close the technology gap, providing Chromebooks to all students in grades 6-12 and partnering with the Morris Educational Foundation to supply home WiFi to students in need.
- Student smartphones, on the other hand, are a mixed blessing–distracting in the classroom, yet a lifeline to working parents, and to parents understandably jittery in post-Columbine America.
- Fostering inclusion and a sense of belonging for all students, striving to help each one achieve his or her potential, and embracing diversity, are paramount goals for the district.
- Municipal governments in Morristown and Morris Township should stop allowing developers to avoid paying school taxes, an inducement called a PILOT (Payments In Lieu of Taxes).
Video: Closing remarks, 2019 Morris School District candidates forum
EXPERIENCE OR FRESH FACES?
Not surprisingly, Gallerstein, a cardiologist at Morristown Medical Center, and Bangiola, executive director of the Morris County Bar Association, stressed their experience and leadership on a board that has added five newcomers over the last couple of years.
They claimed their share of credit for the achievements acknowledged above, and for hiring Pendergrast from Mendham in 2015.
Bangiola, a past president of the school board, pointed to her role leading district contract negotiations with the teachers’ union.
She provided pro bono legal counsel for talks she characterized as amicable, resulting in a four-year deal with increases she described as below the Morris County average.
Gallerstein said he reads vociferously about educational matters and considers himself a liaison between parents and the superintendent.
He purposely delayed running for the board until after his children graduated from district schools, to avoid potential conflicts, he said. Bangiola’s children also have graduated from schools here.
Others candidates said they are in tune with parental concerns because their kids presently are enrolled.
Spiotta highlighted the fact that she’s the only candidate with a child in Morristown High School. She’s also the only MHS graduate (’85) in the pack, and is the former head of a school parent teacher association.
She spearheaded a drive for tougher local regulation of sales of vaping devices, and for greater public awareness of the dangers of vaping.
Crean said he brings an intimate appreciation of special needs students, and of youths grappling with emotional and addiction issues, as the parent of a child with autism and as vice chairman of emergency medicine at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Somerset.
Pedalino, who has three sons in district schools, emphasized her perspective as the only educator in the race. She taught 3rd graders for 16 years in Hanover, where she now works as a school librarian.
She and Rogers, via his prepared comments, suggested it’s healthy to introduce fresh faces to the board.
“At the end of the day, this election is simply a choice between policies of the past and differing achievement outcomes, and a candidate for change with a positive strategic vision of the future,” Rogers said in his statement.
Now employed as city administrator in Summit, Rogers has cited his fiscal expertise, noting he helped hold the line on municipal taxes during 10 years in Morristown’s government. His daughter goes to school in the district.
THE FUTURE: BY THE NUMBERS
Pedalino and Bangiola differed somewhat in response to an audience question about the importance of separating municipal and school governments. It was an apparent reference to last year’s forum fireworks over the board candidacy of Morristown’s town attorney, Vij Pawar. (He was elected.)
“School governance and town governance should remain completely independent of one another. The simple reason is, politics don’t belong in schools… We should all be focused as a board on what matters most, which is the education of the children in our charge,” said Bangiola.
While Pedalino agreed that local and school governments should remain distinct, she added that “open dialogue is always a good thing. We are part of the same community, and there’s nothing wrong with having communication and discussions” with the sending towns, in a transparent way.
Asked about the biggest challenges ahead, the candidates offered some interesting statistics.
Eighteen percent of the district’s pupils are learning to speak English; one-in-six students at the high school falls into this category, and one-quarter of them arrive with “no meaningful prior education,” according to Gallerstein.
“Someone coming from Honduras at age 15 doesn’t really care about (Advanced Placement) Physics. What they care about is, let’s learn English, let’s learn skills. That is the challenge of this school board, and it will increase year by year. We welcome it. That’s why you live here, and that’s why I live here,” Gallerstein said.
The economic and cultural diversity that pose the district’s biggest challenges also are its greatest strengths, said Bangiola, noting the student population is about evenly split between whites (47 percent) and minorities (LatinX 40 percent, African American 8 percent, 5 percent other groups).
“It is an extraordinary experience for our students to be among people who are not like themselves, and to learn to live in the real world every single day, where words like equity and inclusion have real meaning,” Bangiola said.
Spiotta said the national rates of suicide and depression among children between ages 10 and 14 are “absolutely staggering. It takes my breath away.
“For me, it’s literally the reason why I want to be on the school board,” to advocate for schools that are safe spaces, physically and emotionally, she said. “I feel like we’re on the verge of a crisis. This district is doing so much, but there is so much more to do.”
Crean said 5 percent of 8-year-olds in New Jersey have autism, and the number is rising. The district must remain attentive to each student’s situation, he said.
“We need to be able to accommodate children and meet them where they need us to meet them… we need to make sure there’s not going to be winners and losers, and everyone’s getting what they need,” Crean said.
“Mental illness is a real issue,” said Pedalino. “It’s impacting everyone, everywhere, and that includes the Morris district… I know the district is making many strides in this area, but there’s still more to do.”
A major challenge in public education, Rogers said in his statement, is not focusing so heavily on academic ability and testing.
The consequence, he said, “is that many highly talented, capable people think they are not, because the thing they are good at is either not valued or quantified in a traditional school system. Creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”