‘She won fair and square’: School trustee congratulates newcomer who unseated him in Morris Township

Morris Township candidate Susan Pedalino at the 2019 Morris School District candidates forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Susan Pedalino won “fair and square.”

So says Peter Gallerstein, a physician whose 18-year tenure on the Morris School District board was ended Tuesday by Pedalino.

Board member Melissa Spiotta of Morris Township was the top vote-getter in Tuesday’s four-way race. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

In a four-way race for two Morris Township seats on the regional board, Melissa Spiotta, appointed last year to an unexpired term, and Pedalino, a newcomer, finished one-two.

Gallerstein was a distant third. Chris Crean, the top fundraiser ($9,250) and biggest spender ($6,746) in this group, according to the most recent disclosure filings, rounded out the field.

“He did a wonderful job,” Pedalino said of Gallerstein. Yet the results show “people are ready for a fresh face. Maybe that was the takeaway.”

Pedalino becomes the board’s sixth new face over the last couple of years.

‘GRASSROOTS’ VICTORY

Board experience prevailed in a two-way contest for a Morristown seat.

Nancy Bangiola notched a sixth term with a 241-vote victory over former Morristown town Administrator Michael Rogers,  who raised just over $10,000 — about seven times more than Bangiola — and outspent her by about six-to-one, according to the candidates’ filings last month.

(Vote totals are unofficial until provisional- and last-minute vote-by-mail ballots are tallied next week, and funding figures could change when candidates file their post-election reports.)

Contested races and large campaign war chests are recent phenomena in the District, which has a $120 million budget and encompasses 10 schools with about 1,000 employees to educate 5,200 pupils from Morristown, Morris Township and Morris Plains.

Records showed that Morristown town Attorney Vij Pawar raised nearly $17,500 last year for his successful board campaign.

Pedalino raised $2,000, according to her last filing. She said she was proud of her “grassroots” victory.

Board member Peter Gallerstein of Morris Township, pictured at the 2019 Morris School District candidates forum, was defeated after 18 years on the board. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I wanted to show people it’s possible to run an effective campaign without spending an exorbitant amount of money,” she said.

During the race, Pedalino emphasized she will be the only trustee employed as an educator. She is a media specialist in the Hanover schools, where she taught 3rd graders for 16 years. (Board member Ann Rhines is a retired teacher.)

As a trustee, Pedalino said she intends to focus on helping the Morris District narrow the achievement gap between students on opposite ends of the economic spectrum.

NO REGRETS

Spiotta, a 1985 graduate of Morristown High School, was appointed to an unexpired term last year. She was the top vote-getter on Tuesday, her first election.

“I didn’t get appointed to be on the board one year,” she said, recounting an intense campaign that she launched at the end of July. She mixed old-fashioned, door-to-door stumping with social media skills honed over a decade of volunteer work and home school association leadership.

Spiotta raised $2,530 and spent most of it, records indicate.

She has crusaded against vaping, and said she will continue striving to ensure a safe, welcoming environment for students. She had kind words for Gallerstein.

“I feel for him,” she said. “He did a lot of great work for a long time. But I think Susan will be great on the board.”

Chris Crean, an M.D. with two children in the school district, finished fourth on Tuesday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The only board member with a child in Morristown High, Spiotta speculated that Township voters may have been looking for candidates with school-age kids.

Pedalino has three sons, ages 6 through 12, ranging from kindergarten to 6th grade in the District.

Crean is the father of two boys, one of whom has autism.  He praised the District’s special needs services during the race, his first campaign.

“I think I learned a lot about running for public office. I am most encouraged by the turnout, which by my estimation was around 1500 more voters than one would expect for an off-year election,” said Crean, vice chairman of emergency medicine at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Somerset.

“As I had been saying since I started running, I am just happy we were having a conversation as a town about what our school board should look like and where our focus should be,” he said.

Gallerstein’s children are grown.

Sometimes, Spiotta said, a district’s success can work against an incumbent.

“A lot of people on boards are faceless. When things are going well, that’s a good thing. It means things are working,” Spiotta said.

For his part, Gallerstein said he has no regrets.

“I felt I presented myself in the way I wanted to present myself,” he said of his campaign. It was an honor, he said, to serve a district that keeps improving — and providing a quality education for a diverse community that includes many immigrants with limited prior education and English.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s one that enriches our school system,” the cardiologist said.  “I’m very happy my children went through the school system, and I would be happy to send them to it today.”

Gallerstein reported raising $1,750–almost exactly the number of votes he garnered.

He said he congratulated Pedalino after her victory.

“If I can help her in any way, I will,” Gallerstein said.

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