A question about the Madison school district considering outsourcing some of its custodial services last school year drew the answers with the sharpest contrast from Board of Education candidates at a forum Thursday, with one candidate saying she would have gone ahead with outsourcing and an incumbent defending the district's decision not to outsource at the time.
Four candidates met in the Madison High School library to answer audience questions and give opening and closing statements at an event hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Two incumbents, Lisa Ellis and Kevin Blair, are running together for re-election, and a third candidate, Brenda Catalanello, who also ran last year, is vying for one of the seats. Linda Gilbert is running unopposed to fulfill the remaining year of a term she was appointed to last year.
On the custodians issue, Catalanello said she would have taken the advice of a consultant who suggested hiring an outside company to clean the schools. The district still would have kept some of its custodians in-house, she said.
"In that position, I would have have taken the advice of the consultant," she said. "It wasn't as if they were getting rid of all the custodians, and it would have been better use of the $15,000 consultant fee."
Ellis, the Board of Education president who is running for re-election to a fourth term, said the board was able to save money by renegotiating its contract with the custodians, oursourcing wasn't going to save money, and the issue was causing serious angst in the community. The district made internal changes that have allowed for significant improvements in the upkeep of the schools, she said.
She also said the consultant fee was money well-spent to review what the district was doing and how it could be done better.
Blair, who is seeking his third term, said outsourcing likely will be a "year by year evaluation" given the district's financial constraints. He said the district is in the business of educating students and, faced with the prospect of cutting teachers or custodians, custodians could tend to be cut first, he said.
"Until we get improvements with finances, it's going to be an issue every year," he said.
Gilbert said a new reporting structure and rearranged work schedules for custodians has had a positive impact on the upkeep of the schools. The board has received monthly updates from the buildings and grounds committee and, while not everything has been taken care of, they are making strides toward achieving that, she said.
Catalanello, who has three children in the district and is the wife of Borough Councilman Rob Catalanello, said she is running for the same reason she ran last year, so her youngest child, a third-grader, can have the same or better education her ninth-grader is getting. She said the district needs to look more toward the future and be sure it's being proactive instead of reactive.
Blair, a lifelong Madison resident, said the district has made tremendous strides, and he hopes to serve three more years to see through the sale of Green Village Road School among other projects.
"I'm not saying we're perfect, but I think we're doing a phenomenal job," he said.
Ellis said her 10 years experience and training gives her knowledge and an edge when dealing with federal and state intitiatives, and helps her make sound decisions.
She said she is proud of the district's progress in the sale of Green Village Road School, strives for openness, cooperates with the Mayor and Council, and advocates for common sense and community values.
Gilbert has six years experience as a board member, including experience dealing with severe budget cuts, and invited residents to reach out to her.
The candidates said getting more funding from Trenton and dealing with a 2 percent tax levy cap are the biggest challenges facing the district. Gilbert said she hopes lobbying state lawmakers and arranging forums like one the district held a few weeks ago with its state representatives will help.
Catalanello said the district needs to lobby for more funding while ensuring every penny is spent wisely.
Blair said shared services with the Borough Council and working with organizations and people that donate equipment, time, and expertise is a crucial part of succeeding amid cuts.
Ellis said she hopes the district eventually will be able to eliminate its student activity fee, and sees it as a type of tax.