BY JOHN DUNPHY
EDISON – There was a Board of Education Candidates Night last week?
There are Board of Education candidates?
There’s a Board of Education?
No matter how unlikely the previous statements may sound, one or all of them may hold true for some of the 100,000 residents of Edison Township.
Yes, there was a Candidates Night last week. And there are candidates for, yes, a Board of Education.
Ten prospective board members fielded questions from the audience, which were written on index cards and read by Pam Simone, the moderator and organizer for the April 4 event held at Woodrow Wilson Middle School to give voters a chance to learn more about who will ultimately fill the three available seats.
The head count that night was 53 in a cafeteria that normally holds hundreds of students on any given school day. And that included Mayor Jun Choi, Superintendent of Schools Carol Toth, school Business Administrator Daniel Michaud, the Edison TV Channel 22 cameraman, Candidates Night coordinators, several board members, various relatives of the candidates, and even the 10 Board of Education candidates.
“I have been to maybe four or five of these meetings, and I think this has been the largest turnout,” candidate Fred Landrum said. “In one, there were four candidates and five people in the audience.”
The issue of low attendance would return throughout the two-hour event, as question after question was written by the small audience.
Another popular topic was the ever-present dilemma of overcrowded schools and how any future board plans to deal with it.
“The five- to 10-year range is where problems will begin,” said incumbent David Dickinson, who has been on the board for 12 years. “Ultimately, we’re going to have to build another school.”
First-time candidate Gopala Kovvali also said overcrowding was a major issue.
“We don’t have control over how many people are moving in; … our own prosperity is turning into our number one problem,” he said.
Taxes were also a widely asked topic. The Board of Education recently introduced its $182,528,257 budget, up $9 million from last year. Under the proposed budget, the school tax rate would rise 10 cents, from $2.08 to $2.18 for each $100 of assessed valuation. That equals a $174 hike on the average house in Edison, which is assessed at $174,200.
Voters will go to the polls April 18.
“I think we have to find ways to balance quality with a reasonable amount of taxation on our citizens,” said 71-year-old Bob Kertes, the oldest candidate running, who noted he “reluctantly” supports the budget.
“We need to do more creative financing here in Edison; we have to squeeze our politicians and stay together as a community,” he added. “We have to work on the political level whether we want to or not.”
Candidate Peter Cerrato, a professional stamp collector, suggested the possibility of hiring a grant writer as a way to obtain additional funds.
“There is a lot of grant money out there,” he said. “There are tons of students in our schools [who could benefit].”
Some have suggested all three seats be filled by new board members, including Kertes.
“If you stand still and do the same thing in and out, you’re obsolete in four years,” he said.
Candidate Joseph Romano, however, bucked that trend.
“The people here do a great job,” he said. “People out there need to understand the people here are doing the best job they can with what they have. How do we improve and do it for less? I think that’s what everyone is asking here.”
Eighteen-year-old Matthew Truppo, the youngest candidate running for the board, was unable to attend the meeting.
Several audience members noted what they said was a typical lack of attendance at school board meetings.
“Everyone complains, but then they don’t want to come out to the meetings,” said Donna Dinkelacker, a Herbert Hoover Middle School PTA member. “It’s sad.”
The dearth of faces in the crowd could also have been a matter of poor advertising, resident Lois Wolke said.
“It wasn’t publicized,” she said. “I think they should have sent a notice home, or something. All I kept seeing on the [Edison Schools] Web site was ‘roast beef for lunch, roast beef for lunch.’ “
Darlene Dellipaoli, president of the John Adams Middle School PTA, said she understood not everyone could make every meeting because of prior commitments. She said she would like to see more participation in the schools in general.
“We’re not asking for a lot,” she said. “If everyone did just one thing, even one small thing, it would go a long way.”
Dellipaoli’s fear was that for many, it would be easier not to vote or to vote against a budget, or a candidate, simply because they’re not informed.
“When I come here, I leave here knowing who I’ll vote for,” she said. “You’re definitely more informed. If not, they’re just names on the ballot.”
Candidate Deborah Anes suggested people encourage nonvoters to get out the vote on April 18.
“You can’t expect people to just come; you have to give more effort to get them to come in,” she said.
“Post signs, send out fliers, get everybody we can to get up and vote,” said incumbent candidate James Kukor. “Wherever we can get in touch with the public, we should, and keep our fingers crossed more than 10 percent of them come out.”