Many years in the making, the West New York Board of Education approved renaming Public School No. 2 after legendary Mayor Anthony M. DeFino at Wednesday night’s meeting.
The add-one agenda item to name Public School No. 2 after DeFino, the mayor from 1971 through 1995, was approved by a vote of 6-1(1), with Trustee Matthew Cheng voting no and Trustee Lorena Portillo abstaining.
Trustee Jose Mendoza was late to the meeting and therefore absent for the vote.
DeFino, the most well-known West New York mayor of the modern era, passed away over two decades ago and talk about naming a school after him has been discussed intermittently in the past few years.
The board also voted on the measure last month and ended up failing with little fanfare.
While it passed easily this time around, Cheng still faced some criticism from the audience for voting against the school renaming.
“The one thing you did right tonight was the DeFino thing. And you’re wrong Mr. Matthew: I disagree with you, tremendously on this. One man who deserved something is that gentleman because you have no idea what he did for the youth of this town – many moons before you were moon,” exclaimed lifelong resident Wayne Cook.
“ … I know you were not here as long as I was, but I’d just like you to know this is a well-deserved honor,” added Dorinne Auriemma.
Despite facing some pushback, Cheng stuck to his guns and said that he doesn’t believe in naming schools after politicians, even though both U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8) and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) both have schools named after them (Cheng wasn’t on the board when those decisions were made).
“According to our bylaws, we typically name things after school employees who have contributed directly to our schools. And Mayor DeFino has a road already dedicated to him – we have other things attributed to him,” Cheng rationalized.
“I’d just rather students look up to other people besides politicians. I think we have a great teaching staff and great administrators. I think those people deserve it more: that’s what I said.”
John Smith, a former BOE candidate who has said he’s eyeing a run for commissioner next year, was responsible for submitting hundreds of petitions to get a school named after DeFino.
While he also took aim at Cheng for voting no, he seemed more focused on the fact that the matter has finally reached the conclusion many people were hoping for.
“Just put it into [perspective]: your father did something for the town for a long time, no matter if it’s Clara’s position, Dean’s position, for 20, 30 years. And I decided to have your father’s name put onto something: no matter if I like you or dislike you, I’m gonna do what’s best for the town,” he said, crediting Auriemma for helping him with the process.
Rose DeFino, the deceased mayor’s sister and a former superintendent of schools, appeared taken back by the honor, struggling to keep her composure at the podium.
“He loved the kids and I, as a former superintendent of schools, knows my brother did so much for the children. Whenever he walked into a Memorial High School graduation, the kids went wild,” she recalled.
“They even sang happy birthday to him – I miss him so. He was a brilliant man, a good father, and a good grandfather – a great husband and a great brother.”
The prolific ex-mayor’s son, Tony DeFino, Jr., said in April that he planned on challenging West New York Mayor Felix Roque.
However, that scenario no longer seems likely as he and Roque have since mended fences and have a cordial relationship.