Clarification appended Oct. 17 at 6:15 pm.
The candidates seeking to fill three Nutley Board of Education seats up for election next month met for a forum a few weeks ago* at Washington Avenue School, where the topics of discussion ranged from nepotism in hiring to school overcrowding.
Incumbents Tom Sposato and Deborah Russo and challengers Kevin Georgetti, Ryan Kline and Alan Thomas answered questions prepared by the League of Women Voters, which sponsored the 90-minute forum, and also took questions from the audience. Some of the prepared questions were modified for the challengers and the incumbents when the question touched on policies approved by the current board.
On a few questions, there was a clear divide between those who already serve on the board and those who wish to.
The incumbent candidates were asked to defend their vote this past summer to rehire Frank Pomaco as board attorney, while the challengers were all asked what they would have done had they been on the board. The decision was controversial because Pomaco advised the board during the years-long litigation with Tri-Tech, the district’s former construction manager, legal action which cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Both Russo, an office manager and former member of several PTOs, and Sposato, a lifelong resident who owns a service station in town, said Pomaco was recommended unanimously by a committee from among 11 attorneys seeking the work, then chosen by a majority of the nine-member board. Russo also said that Pomaco is only advising the board on educational matters, an area where his credentials are “impeccable.”
The challengers all said they would have voted against the hire, however. Georgetti, an attorney and trustee of Alvenia University in Pennsylvania, said he “would have voted no based on what he knows now” but also said his answer might be different if he were “privy to the selection process.” Kline, a psychologist with the Belleville public school system, said it was “time to turn the page” on the “Tri-Tech debacle.”
Thomas, an attorney and member of the adjunct faculty at Rutgers law school, spoke most strongly against Pomaco’s rehiring. In the wake of Tri-Tech, “the district changed construction firms,it changed auditors, but it doesn’t change law firms?”
Thomas, referring to Pomaco’s reserving the right to sue the board during the Tri-Tech matter and that he had filed a claim against the board,* asked “what kind of outfit would hire someone who would sue you? Would you do that? I would not.”
Incumbents and challengers also diverged on the question of changing the board of education election date from April to November, a move allowed following a change in state law. The change also means the district budget will no longer go for a vote if annual spending increases remain below 2 percent.
Sposato and Russo both supported the change as a cost-saving measure. Elections each cost several thousand dollars, so combining election days saves taxpayer dollars, the two said.
“My decision was to keep costs down for the taxpayer. It was definitely an economic decision,” Sposato said.
But Gerogetti and Kline criticized the move -- which Sposato said was adopted by 90 percent of districts -- because it denies citizens the right to vote on the budget. Thomas would have “waited a year so the public could be heard” on the matter.
“Disallowing the public to vote takes away from the democratic process,” Kline said.
The candidates were also asked what they would do if a friend or relative sought a position or a contract with the Nutley public schools, a question touching on concerns that the district’s hiring has been plagued by nepotism and favoritism in the past.
Russo spoke for most of her fellow candidates when she said she would suggest to a friend “to look elsewhere”.
“Anything beyond that touches on micromanagement,” she added.
Russo and fellow incumbent Sposato also noted that there are new procedures in place, including an online application process, to ensure that hiring is fair. Thomas and Georgetti also noted that it’s illegal to hire the relative of a sitting member of the board, although Georgetti said that if a friend sought a job, he would neither help nor actively discourage that person.
“As for friends, so long as they don’t give you a resume, you allow them to go through the process,” he said.
The candidates also touted their accomplishments and described their goals. Sposato said in his three years on the board he worked with member Steve Rogers on the district’s anti-bullying policy, oversaw the implementation of new curriculum and the hiring of a new superintendent. Russo said she helped with expanding the district’s day care program, oversaw the hiring of a new director of technology and the completion of construction projects throughout the district.
Thomas said he would push for the acquisition of materials and added professional development so staff “know what’s going on in the world and they can impart that to our students.” Kline said the district has been “stagnant” academically, adding he would work to make Nutley schools “blue-ribbon schools” and to “push academics in all areas.”
Georgetti, referring to his experience as a university trustee, said he would help the district craft a strategic plan without getting bogged down in “micromanagement.”
*Clarification: Thomas's reference to Pomaco's filing a claim was originally omitted. Also, we have decided to re-feature this article, which was originally published Oct. 17, on Nov. 4, so as to provide Nutley readers a refresher on the views of the board of education candidates.