By Frank Fleischman III (FF3,) Lead Editor
Editor’s Note: Belleville Watch has a “no endorsements” policy. Specific mention of candidate’s names in this piece does not constitute an endorsement by Belleville Watch.
Last night’s Board of Education Candidate’s Forum was among the few “big events” held in this year’s (overall rather quiet) school board election season. For at least some of the candidates, the event seemed like the first time all campaign season that Belleville heard anything of substance from them. As we get closer to Election Day on November 7th, I wanted to reflect on the past few months of campaigning.
Not Every Candidate Presented Voters With A Consistent Vision
Another strange aspect of this year’s school board election was that not every candidate communicated a vision for what they wanted to do if elected. I can think of only two — Kenia Arroyabe and Michael Sheldon — who were specific in what they wanted to accomplish. BetterBelleville candidate Esteban Leon appeared on the podcast of a local conservative journalist a few weeks ago; it seemed more like two friends talking, with Leon speaking about his education career, Jersey politics and all the things he opposes, but the conversation was rather short on specifics.
It makes sense that a candidate pursuing public office would want to show voters what makes them different from others, or at least give an idea of what they seek to do as a board trustee. It seemed odd that all of the candidates weren’t out and about, putting themselves out in front of the voters.
Early Endorsements & Some Creative Events
I found it surprising that there were early endorsements. Two current school board trustees — Tracy Williams and Frank Velez — endorsed candidate Lissa Missaggia in August! I can’t recall a local election in which endorsements were made so early.
There were a couple of interesting campaign events. Arroyabe organized a Zoom talk, held a family fair and a Halloween party, and even did a video on her Facebook campaign page after last night’s Candidate’s Forum to answer questions she didn’t get a chance to answer. Missaggia had a fundraiser dinner and a pizza party event.
Surprisingly, the candidates I expected to have several events — BetterBelleville candidates Leon and his running mate Brenda Pacheco — have not held one. (Note: An “old fashioned Pizza Party” featuring the BetterBelleville candidates is scheduled to be held tonight at a local bar/pizzeria.)
Cast your whole vote, not a piece of paper merely, but your whole influence.Henry David Thoreau
Three Candidates Signed The Belleville Watch Pledge
Something else for your consideration is the Belleville Watch Board of Education Candidate Pledge, which spelled out several simple and common-sense commitments to voters and the community. Three candidates — Kenia Arroyabe, Nelson Barrera and Michael Sheldon — signed the Pledge without reservation. Candidates Lissa Missaggia and (incumbent board trustee) Erika Jacho declined to do so, on advice of counsel and professional organizations. I never heard from BetterBelleville candidates Esteban Leon and Brenda Pacheco.
The Board of Education Candidates Forum: Some Candidates Soared, Others Fell
The Board of Education Candidates Forum, organized by the Belleville High School Mock Trial Team and held last night at the Belleville High School auditorium, was a study in contrasts.
Sheldon had his responses and answers ready, and even went beyond the school district to discuss related trends in Belleville (overdevelopment and associated tax breaks for developers) that will undoubtedly bring more schoolchildren and more dangerous traffic into town. MIssaggia, a longtime educator, hit a lot of points about education policy but also seemed a little thrown by some of the questions. Newcomer Arroyabe admitted to being nervous, but let her credentials and knowledge speak for itself. Former trustee Barrera was on point and exuded much confidence. Current trustee Jacho answered competently, but her delivery seemed flat. Unfortunately for Pacheco, it seemed like she was simply reciting her opening statement and she seemed unprepared to answer questions. Leon, like Barrera, appeared confident in his answers.
The students of the high school’s Law Program and Mock Trial team deserve much credit for organizing this forum. It’s a shame that other organizations in town don’t offer similar events, to help voters learn about the candidates on a level playing field.
It’s Now Up To You — Vote!
In the past two years, education policy and local school boards have become hot topics. Whether it’s the Covid protocols that schools had in place, the new health and physical education mandates from the State of New Jersey, and even concerns over what books and materials are appropriate in a school library, school board decisions have become a center of attention for voters, political analysts and politicians.
While we may all have our opinions on all of these issues, I hope that Belleville voters seriously consider who they are voting for. Our school district has been through much in the past nine years, beginning with the shameful $4 million deficit the school district incurred in 2014, and we still have challenges. We need engaged, thoughtful and independent-minded leadership on our board of education.
The deficit led to a state bailout that Belleville taxpayers are still paying back to the tune of six figures each year, as well as the installation of state monitor Thomas Egan, who hasn’t been seen at a school board meeting since Covid and apparently agrees with every board expenditure. The last time Belleville publicly heard from Egan was last year, when he reversed a school board decision not to transfer property at the former School One site to the Township, and ultimately the new developer.
Another unbelievable controversy — second only to the 2014 deficit — was the baffling 2021 school board vote to lease commercial property owned by Mayor Michael Melham. Melham stands to profit roughly $200,000 in taxpayer money from a five-year contract. The school district briefly moved out of the property this year due to issues with a certificate of occupancy, but quietly returned a couple of months ago after those issues were apparently resolved.
If you don’t exercise your right to vote, you give up your right to bitch.Columnist Molly Ivins, 1944-2007
Belleville’s schools are overcrowded, and according to a presentation district superintendent Dr. Richard Tomko gave earlier in the year, we can expect more kids in the schools as more development occurs — contrary to the assurances and projections given by Belleville Mayor Michael Melham and just about every developer who has appeared before the Planning Board in the past decade.
Residents and parents (rightfully) seem troubled that Belleville students aren’t meeting state-mandated and other benchmarks. Additionally, the school board has granted Dr. Tomko has continually granted multi-year contracts since 2019, without him having fully completed a contract to term.
Granted, and truth be told, school boards are limited in what they can do, because much of education policy and goals are set by the State of New Jersey’s Department of Education. It seems that, often, the school board is there to ensure state mandates are implemented; yet, they also have a say in how money is spent. Up until about 10 years ago, school board elections occurred in April, and voters were directly voted on the budget. Now that those elections occur in November, the board itself votes on the budget.
Please take this election, and all elections, seriously. Belleville is a special town, with special people and kids with great potential. We want to maintain our special town and provide Belleville’s children with the best public education possible. The best way to do that is to vote for candidates who are committed to Belleville. Please cast your vote wisely, and remember voting is only part of your responsibility; educating yourself, attending/watching meetings and speaking up comprise the other part of your responsibility.