Following a meeting that lasted nearly six hours at the Charles W. Lewis School Monday night, the Board of Education couldn’t come to a consensus on who would replace disqualified former School Board Member Edward Pearce.
Board President Joseph Gunn, Vice President Marianne Coyle, Raymond Carr and William Fontanez backed Scott Owens, while Dominic Gagliardi, Linda Gilch, Ellen Reese and Felicia Reid supported Sean Hengst.
The School Board had 65 days from the time Pearce was disqualified from the board to replace him. The deadline is April 10, and the board is not scheduled to meet again until April 14.
Unless the board calls a special election and comes to a consensus before the deadline, County Executive Superintendent Margaret Jeker Nicolosi will make the decision. According to the Board Solicitor John Wade, Nicolosi’s options will not be limited to Owens and Hengst. She is permitted to pick whoever she feels is the most qualified person available.
A consensus doesn’t seem likely.
The board narrowed its selection to five candidates
following the special meeting of March 10, including Owens, Hengst, Mark Gallo,
Wendy Witzel and Judith Younger.
All five candidates were interviewed by board
members in public on Monday night.
The interview process took about 90 minutes, and the Board chose not to go into closed session to discuss their resumes and qualifications. Instead, board members narrowed their choices to Owens and Hengst.
Owens has no children currently in the school district, although he has a three-year-old son who will eventually go to school in the district, he said during his interview. He didn’t attend school in the district, but his wife did. He’s been a resident of the township for four years, and said he would run for the seat when it becomes available in November.
He’s the director of alumni relations at Rutgers University-Camden.
He’s a current member of the planning board and a member of the Gloucester Township Democratic Committee along with Gunn, Coyle, Carr and Fontanez. He was also previously nominated for a Council seat by Mayor David Mayer, along with Pearce.
Owens insisted he’s a free thinker and will not be impacted by outside political forces. He did add he had political aspirations.
“I won’t leave the board early, but I won’t stay longer than I should,” he said.
Hengst has two children in the district. He also graduated from the district and spent most of his life living in Gloucester Township. He ran for the board in the spring, and pursued a position again following Andrew Lalli’s resignation in November.
“As a teacher, I know the questions that help parents understand the new curriculum,” Hengst said. “ … I hope to give students what they need to improve their achievement.”
Hengst and Gagliardi went to school together, and although they lost touch for 21 years, they both ran for council in the spring and have become friends since that election.
During the public comment portions of Monday’s meeting, those who spoke showed a clear preference for Hengst, and requested all board members explain why they supported the candidate they chose.
Gagliardi made a pair of motions calling for board members explaining their choice to the public. The four board members who supported Owens initially refused to explain their decision, while those who supported Hengst said they would give their reasons.
Eventually, Gunn explained his reasoning.
“I think a University official is a quality enough person to be part of the board,” Gunn said, adding he his decision to support Owens is not the result of any bias against Hengst.
Gagliardi said he believes Hengst would do a better job than anyone currently on the board, Gagliardi included.
“I have a friend who has a special need child who said Mr. Hengst is the best teacher they ever had,” Gagliardi said. “ … I’m begging you all to choose someone who will represent the public. It would be great for this to not have to go to the county superintendent.”
Reid echoed Gagliardi’s comments.
“(Hengst) is articulate, bright and smart, and I thought it was important for whoever we chose to have children in the district.”
No other board member commented on why they supported their candidate of choice.
Pearce, also a member of the Gloucester Township Democratic Committee, was sworn in less than a week after he was chosen by the board to replace Lalli in December.
Pearce served for two meetings before being disqualified upon the state Department of Education’s completion of his background check. It remains unknown why Pearce was eventually disqualified.