Being on the Hamilton Township Board of Education is a thankless job.

In their twice monthly meetings, board members set the direction of education for the students of Hamilton Township. The job requires them to analyze complex issues, like personnel decisions, in the hours before a meeting, often while juggling a day job.

It’s practically a full-time job itself—Hamilton Board of Education president Patty DelGiudice said she devotes half of her day, every day, to school board business. Members of the nine-person board don’t get paid for their work on the school board.

Yet, despite being volunteers giving most of their free time to the community, many of the school board members’ moves are watched by the community with suspicious eyes. Decisions are met with criticism, if not derision. Why do board members value a position that gives them grief?

“I know what I do is for the kids,” DelGiudice said. “I don’t like to engage in the petty politics. It’s part of the job unfortunately, but as long as I’m being honest, I can never get hurt.”

Politics has been part of the job more than ever in recent years. Tensions have been high, even before federal charges against former school board member Robert Warney and Hamilton mayor John Bencivengo brought FBI agents to the school district’s Park Avenue headquarters in May.

School board meetings have featured tense exchanges between board members and members of the public. The exchanges have inspired some meeting-attending citizens, like Tony Celentano and George Fisher, to run as one of the 10 candidates for school board Nov. 6.

“They don’t come clean with you,” Celentano said. “They cut you off. They give the public 20 minutes total to talk into the microphone. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The relationship between critics and board members became so heated that, in October, DelGiudice entered the fray she said she strives to avoid. The board president exchanged strongly worded letters with Fisher, with DelGiudice expressing dissatisfaction after Fisher released photos of school board members and school district officials with former district health insurance broker Marliese Ljuba. The broker is at the center of federal charges against Bencivengo and Warney.

This pressure would seemingly breed an us-versus-them attitude on the board, but it hasn’t.

“When you sit on the board, there will always be differences of opinion,” DelGiudice said. “You have to remember you represent the parents. Are we a perfect unit? No. But the goal is that we operate in the best interest of the children.”

Assuming each board member has pure intentions, what if opinions differ on what exactly is in the children’s best interest? In the charged environment surrounding the Hamilton Board of Education, the result has been board members turning on one another. The most notable example was during the 2011 superintendent selection process, when DelGiudice filed a complaint to the state’s School Ethics Commission against fellow board member Jeff Hewitson after Hewitson filed his own complaint alleging DelGiudice was attempting to influence the board into selecting a particular candidate. Both charges have since been dismissed.

The constant fighting has been enough to have the board’s own scratch their heads. Longtime board member Elric Cicchetti resigned in February, citing frustration with how the board has operated.

“This board likes to micromanage,” Cicchetti said in February. “I’m not into that. It got to the point where I could no longer continue if the board was going to continue with that kind of behavior.”

During an interview in September, shortly after announcing he wouldn’t run for re-election, longtime board member Ron Tola called the school board “dysfunctional.”

“Everyone joined the board for the right reasons, but something is amiss right now,” Tola said. “There’s ethics charges flying all over the place. There must be something at play outside the school board influencing it. They are all good people. I don’t know what the matter is.”

The school board didn’t just wind up at this point, however. It had to be influenced, over time, by a number of factors.

* * *

Tola readily admits that he has been wrapped up in the drama.

Despite seconding the critics’ complaints of late, Tola has been one of their most frequent targets. He appeared with Ljuba in several of the photos released by Fisher, and has been the subject of ethics complaints filed by Fisher and others.

In one such case, Fisher alleged Tola tried to indirectly influence the search for a superintendent by participating in meetings where the search was discussed. This was after Tola recused himself from the search process because he has a daughter who works in the district. The state School Ethics Commission dismissed the charge, to the chagrin of some.

“Clearly, if you read the rules with respect to the superintendent search, they say you cannot discuss it, you can’t hold side meetings on it,” said a source with knowledge of the school district who asked for anonymity. “The rules are very clear. He admits to participating in a meeting where the contract was being discussed. But they don’t hold him to an ethics violation.”

Such has been the case for the entire school board. In the last 10 years, the School Ethics Commission has discussed at least eight cases involving Hamilton Board of Education members or school district administrators, according to the commission’s website. This is more than every other Mercer County municipality combined. In the past eight months alone, the commission has ruled on four allegations against township school board members — allegations, in some cases, raised by other board members.

Speaking generally about the flurry of charges exchanged in recent years, Tola said the ethics complaints don’t serve a purpose aside from distracting from students’ education.

“The ethics complaints, I have had seven or eight against me,” he said. “Every one has been unfounded. None of them even went to a hearing. We used up all our attorney fees on them. We need to focus more on education.”

DelGuidice said the school board spent $80,000 in the last year defending against ethics complaints.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s petty politics that go into these ethical violations,” DelGiudice said, adding that the charges waste taxpayer money.

But it isn’t just one or two scapegoats being named in ethics charges. More than half of the 2011-12 board has been named in at least one complaint. Only four on the nine-person committee — Stephanie Pratico, Joseph Malagrino, William Harvey and Troy Stevenson — have escaped being charged, and several members of that group have had questions raised about their actions while on the board.

But DelGiudice and Tola still may have a point. All of the charges brought to the ethics committee related to the Hamilton school district have been dismissed, save for one almost a decade ago.

In 2003, then-board members Wendy Sturgeon and John Kroschwitz ran afoul of the state guidelines that govern school board members. They got in trouble for investigating complaints of unsanitary school kitchens.

The pair came away from their investigation with photos of mouse droppings and other unseemly conditions. They also went away censured by the School Ethics Commission, which ruled Sturgeon and Kroschwitz had let the teachers’ union’s support of their candidacy during the election influence their actions. In the decision, the panel cited the pair’s decision to bring the story to the media first instead of the building supervisors.

“[The administration] would’ve shut [the investigation] down, so I went to the press,” Sturgeon said. “It was the only way. I was censured for doing that, [but] look what was happening.”

While Sturgeon and Kroschwitz did run afoul of the letter of the law guiding school board members, it raises questions about a state and a district where the only upheld ethics violation stemmed from an act that benefited students.

* * *

Questions around the school board are nothing new, but the scrutiny seems to be universal now. Slates on every side of this year’s campaign for school board have focused on the need for change.

Clearly, the candidates have a personal interest in seeing a changeover, and at least a few of them will get their wish. Only two incumbents—Eric Hamilton and Richard Kanka—are among the 10 candidates. Tola and former running mate Stevenson both decided not to run for reelection this month, meaning at least two of the four up-for-grabs seats will be filled by someone new.

Still, for some, it may not be enough. Tola said many people think cleaning out the board is a good start, but he said the district needs to go further to solve its problems.

“It’s time to hold the administrators accountable,” Tola said. “[New superintendent James] Parla and [district business administrator Joe] Tramontana have gone in the right direction, but in order to change culture, you need to go back to go forward. We’re going forward with the same people in the same jobs. Parla wants to just go forward. You need to open the wound to fix it.”

The anonymous source echoed those sentiments, questioning why there hasn’t been a rush to change an entity the source said clearly has failed.

“One would think, when you have the FBI knocking on your door, you would clean house,” the anonymous source said. “I just haven’t seen it.”

While all these thoughts may work in theory, it would require recruiting fresh faces to step in for those eliminated. And history suggests that may be a tall task.

* * *

At first glance, this year’s slate of candidates offers voters plenty of new choices. But, aside from the incumbents, it also offers a pair of candidates who already spent time on the school board: Celentano and Fisher.

Fisher has been upfront about his one term on school board, from 1983-1986. Celentano has positioned himself as fresh blood, even though he has served three terms on the Hamilton Board of Education, most recently in the mid-1990s, and has remained involved with the district. Celentano works part time as one of the school district’s residency officers.

Like many around the school district, Celentano and Fisher haven’t been able to skirt political drama. Fisher has been a steady presence at board meetings for the past three years, challenging board members at meetings and filing the majority of the ethics complaints involving the school district.

Celentano has also been involved with an ethics complaint, specifically being named in the body of DelGiudice’s 2011 charge against Hewitson. According to the complaint, Hewitson and Celentano threatened to file an ethics complaint against DelGiudice if she did not vote for a specific candidate for superintendent.

Celentano’s department has also recently come into question. Parla, the superintendent, revealed during the Sept. 19 school board meeting that the residency office where Celentano works has been the subject of an internal and county prosecutor’s investigation.

Someone accessed the department’s computers and used the district’s account with a database called LexisNexis to acquire personal information about school board candidates, current board members and private citizens. According to minutes from the meeting, the district has since cancelled its account with LexisNexis and obtained all inquiries from the district’s account from the past two years. The district turned the information it received over to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, but the prosecutor was unable to pinpoint who was responsible.

This revelation came at an inopportune time for a board and a district trying to repair its image and escape the specter created by the federal charges surrounding Bencivengo and Warney.

* * *

The charges against Hamilton’s mayor and his friend, who admitted to taking $10,000 in bribes while on the school board, center around the school district’s health insurance broker and the school board’s power to award that contract.

According to the criminal complaint filed by the FBI, Ljuba wanted Bencivengo to convince one school board member to vote for her company if the contract came up for a vote. A 15-page grand jury indictment released in June alleged Bencivengo wanted to try to “get rid of” this board member by attempting to convince the member to run for state assembly. It also alleged Bencivengo offered to let Ljuba pick a replacement for a second board member should that second member’s bid for state senate be successful. This seemingly refers to Kanka’s 2011 run for state senate as a Republican.

If the allegations against Bencivengo are true, the thought seemed to be school board members could be politically swayed. This raises yet another question: do politically connected school board members open the board up to outside influences?

Politically involved school board members and candidates are not a new trend in Hamilton. While board members technically have no party affiliation and are elected in a non-partisan manner, political parties long have sponsored slates of candidates. Getting comment from a school board candidate for a newspaper article is as easy as calling the municipal political parties.

In fact, people often use the school board as a launching point for a political career. Two current members—Kanka and board vice president William Harvey—each have run for state office in the past three years.

Going back even further reveals two fairly prominent names in local government: Warney and Joy Tozzi. The pair, coincidentally, were members of the Hamilton Board of Education in the last 10 years, ran on the same slate in 2005 and offered their resignations from the board at the same time in 2008.

Warney, who had been elected twice to the board, quit so he could work as the township’s director of engineering under Bencivengo, who had just been elected mayor. Warney served as Bencivengo’s campaign manager during the 2007 election. He also had a political foray while on the school board in 2003, when he ran as a Republican for county freeholder.

Tozzi, who has never been charged with any wrongdoing, was hired to work in Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried’s administration after her resignation from the school board. Still a Hamilton resident, Tozzi earned a promotion to Robbinsville Township business administrator this year. Fried is a Republican and the former chairman of the county GOP. Messages left for Tozzi were not returned.

So, board members certainly can use the position as a stepping stone, if they so wish. But it doesn’t always mean parties try to sway individual votes on school business. DelGiudice, the current school board president, said she’s never experienced that personally in her five years on the board.

“No, I never was offered any money, and I was never approached to vote in a specific way,” DelGuidice said. “I don’t know about the rest of the board. They can speak for themselves.”

* * *

Whether voters care what board members have to say remains to be seen.

Turnout at April school board elections in recent years seems to imply Hamilton residents simply don’t care one way or the other. During the last school board election—in April 2011—six candidates and write-ins split 14,126 votes. In 2010, nine candidates and write-ins split 24,603 votes. And so the numbers have sat for a decade and more, with the average candidate (counting the write-ins as one candidate) receiving around 2,000 votes in a township of nearly 90,000 people.

In essence, just more than 2 percent of Hamilton residents have decided how the rest’s tax money was spent and how their children were educated. The nonvoting majority seemed to be just fine with the status quo.

Or, maybe, they’re just finding too many barriers to make it worth challenging the institution.

* * *

A look at what’s happening in the township’s schools and on its PTAs proves there is enthusiasm for education in Hamilton.

In October, some schools started a “Latino Literacy Project” to inform parents of the tools teachers use and encourage them to utilize the tips at home so their children are continually learning. Schools put on “Trunk or Treat” activities so students could dress up for Halloween in a friendly setting. Programs like Wilson Elementary School’s “Real Men Read” brought community members, parents and students together in an effort to promote reading.

Members of Hamilton PTA organizations joined together to sponsor an event with this year’s Board of Education candidates Oct. 29 at the Hamilton Area YMCA facility on Whitehorse-Hamilton Square Road from 7-8:30 p.m.

Those are just a few examples of what’s going on in a complex district that has to cater to thousands of students with a vast range of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Regardless of the complexities, the community has shown it believes it has a stake in the township’s schools. Those involved with the district wonder how to translate that enthusiasm to the district’s legislative branch.

“There is a lot of energy at PTA meetings,” Tola said. “That energy needs to turn into people running for the board and coming to the board meetings.

“Parents have something to offer of extreme value. The parents have a role.”

On the current board, only Pratico and Malagrino have children in the school system.

There may be a good reason for this, at least according to one source outside the district: Already-busy parents may be deterred by the effort it would take to compete with politically connected candidates for school board.

* * *

A decade ago, Lawrence resident Laura Waters felt ineffective leadership was hurting her daughter’s—and other students’—education. She gathered a slate of other parents, raised a few hundred dollars for campaign material and ran for a seat on the Lawrence Township Board of Education. She won.

Now in her ninth year on the board, the current Lawrence school board president is fairly sure none of that would’ve happened if she lived in Hamilton.

In Hamilton, campaign signs and political donations are necessary tools to run for school board. It’s just like an election for township council, just without political parties under the candidates’ names.

Waters has studied school district and school board issues across New Jersey, and she has a theory about Hamilton—specifically, why it seems so few of the people on the school board are parents of school-aged children.

“You shrink your pool of potential candidates to people with political connections or the wealthy,” Waters said. “It’s supposed to represent the community. It’s not supposed to be an elite body. I’m really glad Lawrence doesn’t operate like that.”

Lawrence isn’t Hamilton. It is a much smaller school district, with just seven schools compared with Hamilton’s 23. But Lawrence’s school board currently is filled with parents, all of who have no political aspirations beyond the board, Waters said. This helps Lawrence’s school board remain focused on the schools and responding to the community’s needs.

“It’s helpful for a school board member to have children in the schools,” Waters said. “It helps to retain the focus on the children—I’m not making comments about Hamilton here—part of that is because they have children that wake up and go to the schools every day.”

The Lawrence Board of Education has instituted a program called “Community Conversations,” which serves as a forum for residents to voice concerns and suggestions for the board and school district. It is a separate gathering from the regularly scheduled school board meetings, which also have a public comment portion. Waters said about 150 people usually show up to the conversations.

“We try to gauge what the community thinks about us, and how we can connect with them better,” Waters said. “We try to be very open. We encourage public participation, and take the time to allow anyone who wants to speak at a meeting to do so. If someone wants to talk about something, we listen. It’s been one of our district goals. We want a continued conversation.

“Trust is really hard to build and easy to lose. It takes an act of leadership from the board to build that relationship with the public. You’re supposed to represent the residents. It’s impossible to represent the public if the board has walled itself off from the public.

“Defensiveness never ends well. Ideally, a school board functions well if it’s transparent. There are legal limits to the openness. But you listen to people and have a conversation with them. The school system belongs to the residents, not the school board.”

* * *

During the summer and the first months of the 2012-13 school year, people within the Hamilton Township School District have worked to make the district better and more responsive.

“There is great progress being made in Hamilton,” DelGiudice said. “Dr. Parla is working hard every day. Proper procedures are being put in place for hiring, business. We’re going to put [bids] out on everything. We are watching how every dollar is spent. We are moving in the right direction, but it is going to take time.”

The progress isn’t enough for some critics, like Fisher, who said it wasn’t policies but people that have caused issues in Hamilton.

But Fisher did say that Parla has made promising strides in his first six months.

“We have a new superintendent,” Fisher said. “I don’t know how it happened, but he seems to be good. He seems to be promising. I’d like to see a Board of Education work with the superintendent, following the legal procedures. This board believes it runs the show … The board has to recognize their limit in authority and work with the superintendent.”

Whether that happens remains to be seen. But, as the cliché goes, the first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one. And the school board, in words at least, has taken that first step.

“The problems facing the Hamilton Township School District are significant and timely,” Tola said. “The way they’ve been handled has resulted in a dysfunctional board and a demonized school system. But I don’t think it’s any different anywhere else in New Jersey. I don’t think it’s just a problem in Hamilton.”