Nine board hopefuls talk views on schools

School taxes, budget & $47M referendum among topics


Staff Writer

Credibility, communication and the need to find new ways to fund education were among the topics presented to Sayreville Board of Education candidates last week.

Arthur Rittenhouse Jr. and Ronald Van Tine, the two incumbents in the nine-way race for three terms on the board, sat side by side with candidates Phyllis Batko, Thomas Biesiada, Aniello Gaglione, Daniel Harning Jr., Pasquale “Pat” Lembo, William Lewis and Michael Macagnone during Candidates Night at Arleth School, Washington Road, on April 6.

Candidates fielded a number of questions from the audience, including whether they would support this year’s proposed $66 million school budget as well as the proposed $47 million referendum to renovate and expand the 40-plus-year-old Sayreville War Memorial High School, both of which will also be voted on as part of the April 19 school election.

“If you don’t [vote yes], who gets the short end? Your kids,” Macagnone said. “If you vote no for the referendum, who are we really getting back at? I can think of no better use of my tax dollar than to educate my kids.”

Of all nine candidates, only one, Lewis, said he would not support the proposed referendum. He was also unsure of the proposed school budget.

“My eyes have been open to the realities,” he said. “I don’t feel the increase in taxes are justified all the time. I think we need to sit down and find a way to cut our costs.”

Rittenhouse spoke of the federal government’s inability to cover its 40-percent commit-

ment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Title I as contributing factors to rising costs. He said the federal government currently only covers 19 percent.

“Our operating budget only went up 3-and-a-half percent,” he said. “If the federal government would pay 40 percent instead of 19 percent, you’re looking at almost $200 your taxes would go down [per year].”

Lembo, who lauded the current board for managing to do a lot in the district despite 85 percent of its budget being earmarked for fixed costs, said that the use of property taxes in funding public education has become far too burdensome for taxpayers and that other states, including Washington and Rhode Island, have been able to find other ways besides property taxes to pay for schools.

Harning, a teacher in Perth Amboy who previously taught in Sayreville, praised the audience of about 100 people for being involved in the education of the children of the borough, but said, in Sayreville, where there are over 40,000 residents, there needs to be much more involvement in education.

“Getting everyone else involved is extremely important,” he said. “Of 5,000, there is only less than 100 students represented here.”

Biesiada, Batko, who is a former Borough Council member, and Gaglione are the only candidates running on a combined ticket. Biesiada said he felt, like the other candidates, school funding was one of the biggest issues to be addressed and would seek to get the borough to implement impact fees on developers looking to build in Sayreville, easing the property tax burden.

Batko, Biesiada and Gaglione also spoke of their lack of trust in the current administration, citing the sudden retirement of former Superintendent of Schools Dennis Fyffe in December, only one year after he was given a 29 percent raise over three years that would have ultimately brought his salary to $178,000 a year. Fyffe is on paid administrative leave until his retirement takes effect this summer.

Rittenhouse said comparisons were made to similar school districts at the time and found Fyffe’s updated salary to be comparable.

He also said Fyffe was guaranteed a five-year contract and, by offering him a retirement package that would end his term early and allow for an administrative restructuring, the district saved $592,000.

“At the time [the board gave Fyffe the raise] we had no idea he was looking to leave prior to the end of his contract,” Van Tine said. “We thought at the time [the pay raise] was the right thing to do.”

John Bovery, an audience member who began regularly attending board meetings last year, said he has seen no evidence of a lack of ethics or trust with the current board.

“There is not one ethical issue with the current board,” Bovery said. “They made the best financial decision by settling [with Fyffe’s contract]. This should be behind us.”

Irving Tichler, a Board of Education member from 1991-94, said he hoped prospective board members wouldn’t be adversarial to the administration, nor would they be simply a “rubber stamp.”

“I want them to question everything, and I want them to challenge everything,” he said. “They should question the administration as far as the budget is prepared; it’s the most important thing.

“You have to have a balance. You have to address taxpayers as well as students,” Tichler added.

Next week, residents will vote to elect one-third of the nine-member board.

“There is a perceived notion of fiscal mismanagement,” Macagnone said. “And to too many people, perception is reality.”

Candidates agreed that a sense of trust should exist between the board and public.

Tichler said he hoped all candidates running in the election were up to the task at hand.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the end results are what counts,” he said.