With 10 Candidates on the Slate, Stafford Board of Education Race Could Be a Hot One

Aug 09, 2017

As the summer heat starts diminishing next month, the race for three open seats on the Stafford Township School District Board of Education could be the next thing to cause potential blistering.

Following the July 31 filing deadline with the Ocean County Clerk’s office, 10 candidates have thrown their hats into the ring and are set to join the fray in what should be a hotly contested election, according to the clerk’s website. The list of candidates includes incumbents Michael Benson and Deborah M. Lyons, along with challengers Gerald “Jerry” Simonelli, Patricia Formica, Michael Dunlea, Michelle Weiss, Steven E. Derion, Joshua Smith, Suzanne Caporrino and Erin Sharkey-Coxen.

As is the case with Benson and Lyons, board member Wendy Cotter’s term is expiring at the end of the year, but Cotter has opted not to seek re-election. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.

The long list of candidates likely has grown during recent months as the result of some harsh public criticism toward the board. In May, Superintendent George Chidiac came under fire for recommending the transfers or changes of assignment of 49 individuals that included 25 teachers, 19 cafeteria/lunch aides, and a pair of secretaries and principals – a maneuver the board unanimously voted to impose, save Joe Mangino, who abstained – despite a lot of appeals, from teachers and members of the public, during the May 11 board meeting. Dunlea was one of the teachers slated for a transfer, but after the board’s vote he resigned and has since taken a teaching position elsewhere.

Last month, the board received more criticism after it voted to extend Chidiac’s contract through 2022, effectively replacing the previous contract even though it wasn’t due to expire until June 2019. Following the board’s approval of Chidiac’s contract, dozens took to social media to voice their displeasure.

Also adding to the recent tension is the fact that negotiations for a new contract for Stafford district teachers have stalled during the past year, as they continue to work under their old contract, which expired at the end of the 2015-16 school year.

Derion, who publicly spoke to the board during the May 11 meeting, said he chose to run for one of the BOE seats because of his “unique background as both a parent and teacher.”

“I have become concerned about the current climate at the school district, particularly the relationship between the parents and the upper administration and board, as well as the relationship between the staff and upper administration and board,” said Derion, a Southern Regional teacher with 16 years of experience and a parent of two children in the Stafford district. “I think my unique background will allow me to give a different perspective on how to improve those relationships.”

Smith, who also has been vocal at meetings during the past few months, said the district has “great teachers and wonderful students,” but he believes some things have gone awry.

“Some of the recent decisions by the administration have raised questions,” he said. “It’s hard to know if they’re making the right moves when we as parents and taxpayers have little visibility into the process nor any explanation behind their decisions. I’ve been involved and asking questions to better understand their motives and direction. As I haven’t been happy with the answers, running for a seat on the board was the next logical step.”

Sharkey-Coxen, a Southern Regional graduate with deep family ties in the area, said she’s most interested in making a positive impact within a school district that one day will be home to her daughter.

“I chose to run because my passion in life is adding value to families’ lives,” she said. “I work with students in both education and home settings, and I see, firsthand, what a valuable impact education has on our kids. I want to make sure we make our schools the best they can be for each of our little ones, while staying cost-effective and being conscious of our taxpayers.”

With 10 candidates in the hunt for the board this fall, Stafford’s race is the largest in the county, ahead of Toms River Regional Schools (9) and Barnegat (8). In comparison, the two seats open for the Southern Regional Board of Education have only two candidates in the mix, both of whom are current board members – Tom Serpico and Heather Tatur.

— David Biggy

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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