Three challengers run for two open seats on WOBOE

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Three candidates are running for two open seats on the West Orange Board of Education this year, and in November residents will choose who will sit on the board. None of the three are incumbents, as BOE Vice President Sandra Mordecai and BOE member Mark Robertson are not running for reelection. Running for the open seats are Jennifer Tunnicliffe, Jeremias Salinas and Gary Rothstein. Salinas was also a candidate in last year’s election.

A public school teacher, Salinas has one child currently in district and one who recently graduated. He said he wants to address tax dollars being spent and infrastructure in the school buildings.

“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,” he said in an email to the West Orange Chronicle on Aug. 4. “Across our community, our neighbors grapple with how the school district affects home values, their children’s education and the rising property taxes. Parents worry about the quality of education that their children are receiving. As a father, I want to be part of building the brightest possible future for my children and make sure that our community continues to be a place that attracts others to raise families of their own just like it attracted my wife and I.”

Salinas also wants to work with the new superintendent, J. Scott Cascone, to move the district forward. And, though the school district has a Long Range Facilities Plan, Salinas feels it needs to be improved.

“Our community has 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-term 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,” he said. “Our community deserves leadership on the Board of Education who will listen and make the tough decisions to move our district forward. We need to work together with our new superintendent to move our district forward.”

Tunnicliffe has lived in West Orange for 17 years and has three children, two of whom are still students in the district. She said her work with the PTAs at Kelly Elementary and Liberty Middle schools and the recent changes in the district made her want to run for the BOE.

“I am encouraged by the hiring of the new superintendent, Dr. Cascone. I’m impressed by what I have seen thus far, and believe our district is poised for tremendous progress. My qualifications and expertise both professionally and personally make me well-suited to steering this district to realize our full potential,” Tunnicliffe said in an email to the Chronicle on Aug. 5.

Tunnicliffe also described the qualities she believes would make her a good fit for the BOE.

“I am thoughtful and deliberate, and I approach decision making with creativity, adaptability and precision. As such, I have earned the respect of my colleagues and fellow PTA volunteers for my ability to bring folks together, create positive connections and partner to come up with innovative solutions,” she said. “I am excited to bring these skills with me to the Board of Education.”

Rothstein did not return a request for comment.

When asked for comment on her decision not to run for reelection, Mordecai reflected on how grateful she is to the various members of the community who have supported her during her many campaigns and terms in office; Mordecai has been on the board since April 2010. 

“This has been a humbling and gratifying experience serving on the Board of Education, serving our children and community for these past several years,” Mordecai said in an Aug. 6 email to the Chronicle. “During my tenure, I am most proud of accomplishing a lot of what I set out to do with of course the support of the board such as televised board meetings, removal of the trailers, closing and/or narrowing the achievement gap, raising the graduation rate. I also pushed for and supported funding alternative funding sources resulting in over $6 million in funding to implement the small learning communities at the high school. Other initiatives include outsourcing payroll and zero-based budgeting, pushing for a kitchen at Hazel Elementary School and helping to set up a Human Resources Department, which we didn’t have prior to my election to the board.”

During her time on the board, Mordecai held a number of positions at the township, county and state level in her efforts to improve education in West Orange and throughout New Jersey. 

“I do intend to stay involved and active in town in various ways, including as a Rotarian,” she said.

Robertson said in a phone interview on Aug. 6 that, after two terms on the BOE, he needs more time to focus on his family; both of his parents and his son were ill in the last six years, though Robertson shared that his son is now improving. Robertson is confident in the other BOE members and the candidates who are running.

“I think we’re in a good place,” he said. “We found a perfect superintendent that meets the needs of the district. We’re in a great place with the right leader.”

Robertson was the BOE vice president in 2018, and served as head of the board when then-President Ron Charles was in conflict about voting on former Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky’s contract. He said he knows both Salinas and Tunnicliffe, and has met Rothstein, and believes they would all be good additions to the board.

“I need a break to focus on my family, and the board takes an enormous amount of time,” Robertson said. “It was overwhelming. But I think we’re in a fantastic place and I’m confident all will go well. I know two of the candidates and have met the other, and they’re all great people who are heavily involved in the district.”

Photos provided by candidates