WEST ORANGE, NJ — Election season in West Orange is going to be exciting. Not only will residents be voting for two open seats on the West Orange Township Council and for mayor, but residents will have three challengers to consider for two open seats on the Board of Education.
On Election Day, Nov. 6, residents must vote for two of the following BOE candidates: Cheryl Merklinger, Jeremias Salinas and Terry Trigg-Scales. The two incumbents, Ron Charles and Irv Schwarzbaum, are not running for re-election.
“After lengthy discussions with my family, friends and my campaign team I have decided not to run for re-election,” Charles told the West Orange Chronicle in an Aug. 13 statement. “For the past 32 years, I have devoted my professional and personal career to public service, including the last six as a member of the West Orange Board of Education. Advancements in my professional career and being selected by Gov. Christie to serve on the New Jersey State Board of Trustees for NJ State Prisons factored in the decision.”
Charles has served two terms on the BOE and has accomplished much that makes him proud, he said. Among those accomplishments, he cited: ensuring each child has their own laptop or workbook to study with; creating the Digital Music Production Club, where students learn about producing and marketing music in the digital age, ultimately producing the West Orange Mountaineer anthem; and creating the business portal on the website allowing for a transparent process in awarding contracts and RFPs with the district. Additionally, he said that during his first term as president, in 2015-2016, the general fund tax levy increase was only 0.91 percent and this year, 2018-2019, the levy decreased by 0.55 percent, “which demonstrates a commitment to being fiscally responsible to the taxpayers.” He also takes pride in the creation and expansion of the Junior ROTC program at the high school, and upgrades in security for the schools, including man-traps and security lock upgrades.
“The biggest thing I hope to see from the board, administration, and the community in the future is a mutual respect of one another,” Charles said. “The teaching staff is wonderful. The resources and facilities we have in the district are second to none, but it is going to take everyone working together, respecting each other’s opinion, to move this district from good to great.”
Charles promised to remain active in the schools, with his two youngest children still in high school.
Schwarzbaum is leaving the board after just one term in order to devote his time to nonprofit Levara Health, which uses medicated assisted treatment with behavioral therapy to assist those addicted to opioids. Though he only served on the board for three years, Schwarzbaum is proud of his record.
“We were able to institute various programs to improve the education of our students, also pushed for informed decision making based upon data and analysis,” Schwarzbaum told the Chronicle on Aug. 6, adding that he hopes “the board continues to strive for educational excellence for our students and make decisions based upon data and analysis rather than heuristic decision making.”
Schwarzbaum said that his main contribution to the board has been fiscal responsibility — a trend he hopes will continue.
“The other item that I feel I had an impact while on the BOE was to include fiscal responsibility in the board’s decisions. The BOE has a primary responsibility to oversee and institute the best education for our students, but we need to be cognizant that 95 percent of the school’s budget is funded by real estate taxes,” Schwarzbaum said on Aug. 7. “I’ve heard from many residents that the high real estate taxes are forcing them to consider moving once their children graduate the schools since they cannot afford to live here. I’ve also heard from many senior citizens that they cannot age in place and are moving to neighboring communities with lower real estate taxes. It’s a balancing act.”
Hoping to take one of the seats being vacated by Charles and Schwarzbaum is Salinas, who lives in West Orange with wife Jessica, son Santiago and daughter Isabela. Salinas moved to New Jersey from Honduras at just 10 years old and went through the Newark public schools; he ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Seton Hall University and a master’s degree in school leadership administration from Montclair State University. He has approximately 15 years of experience in public education.
“I am a public school teacher and father of two children in our district: a senior at the high school and a second-grader at Redwood. I have spent my entire life in education and understand the value it has in our community as a parent, a taxpayer and as an educator,” Salinas told the Chronicle on Aug. 7, adding that he hopes being elected will help residents feel less concerned about the direction West Orange School District is heading in, and help make West Orange more attractive to potential homeowners looking for somewhere to raise their families.
“Right now, we have many challenges and we need to address these concerns. From a tax bill that makes up most of the school funding to the lack of a serious infrastructure plan that does not address short-term or long-terms goals, we have to continue to meet these challenges head on by being fiscally responsible while improving the quality of education in all our schools,” Salinas said. “With all the events surrounding our Board of Education, I believe it is important to stand up and offer my experiences and training in public education to benefit our community.”
Trigg-Scales has been a homeowner in West Orange since 1984, and was an educator in the Montclair School District for 38 years, serving in roles such as assistant principal, principal and director of curriculum, ultimately retiring as assistant to the superintendent.
“Thus, my experience includes supervision of staff, community relations, oversight for curriculum, instruction and assessment, and liaison to the board,” Trigg-Scales told the Chronicle on Aug. 6. “As someone very committed to public education, my work in education and advocacy continues, even in my retirement. My passion, expertise and desire to give back to my community have inspired my desire run for the West Orange BOE.”
She hopes that, if elected to the BOE, she will be able to draw the community together to work collaboratively and cohesively on solutions.
“As a taxpayer, resident and educator, I have been disheartened to witness such strife and conflict in our district over the last few months,” she said. “I believe that boards should be thoughtful in their deliberations and be proactive rather than reactive. My experience as an administrator has taught me that through a continuous improvement model we must evaluate programs and initiatives to ensure a quality education for all students. Trust, honesty, respect and collaboration are the cornerstones of a strong school district.”
Merklinger did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Photos Courtesy of candidates; Merklinger did not submit a photo.