NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Dale Caldwell is the Chairman of a political committee that has spent big money to achieve one goal: to ensure New Brunswick does not have popular elections for the city school board, a body he has served on since 1999.
The committee’s argument is that appointed school boards are less political than elected ones. However, their case may have been hurt after a controversy involving Caldwell in the state’s capital city.
Caldwell was a finalist for the Superintendent’s job in the Trenton school system earlier this year. But despite a push from the city’s disgraced mayor to install him as Trenton’s school chief, he lost the job to another candidate in a controversial vote that shed light on the problems caused by appointed boards.
Trenton and New Brunswick are among the nineteen NJ communities (out of over 600) where the mayor has the power to appoint the school board. In all other districts, local voters elect the board.
In Trenton, Mayor Tony Mack quickly established a reputation as an ineffective, out-of-touch, and arrogant elected official who sometimes stretched the boundaries of the law. During his first-term, he narrowly averted a citizen effort to recall him from office, butted heads with the state government, and drew widespread criticism for poor leadership.
Mack’s half-brother was arrested and charged with abusing a job at the city’s water works for personal gain, using city workers and equipment on private side jobs. He plead guilty, but later attempted to change his plea.
In July, the FBI raided Trenton City Hall and Mack’s home. The other shoe dropped on September 10, when Mack was arrested and charged with accepting bribes through a convicted child molester who is also one of his biggest supporters. Also charged was Mack’s brother, a football coach at Trenton Central High School.
Months before anyone knew that New Brunswick voters would be asked whether they want to keep the appointed school board or start electing its members, Mack demonstrated precisely how appointed boards can be harmed by political influence.
Most school board members will tell you the single most important decision they make is hiring a superintendent. In elected and appointed districts, board members are unpaid volunteers, but the district superintendent is paid (often handsomely) to handle day-to-day operations.
According to a Trentonian article, Mack attempted to revoke his own school board appointments after the vote did not go in favor of Caldwell:
“One day after they voted for Francisco Duran as Trenton schools superintendent, two school board members on Tuesday were told they were being dismissed by Mayor Tony Mack, who supported a different candidate for the job.
By Wednesday evening, however, the future of board members Marisol Ovalles and Denise Millington was unclear.
When they reported to that night’s school board meeting, their nameplates were already gone from the meeting room dais. After a closed-door session, their nameplates had been restored, and the two women took their seats with their board colleagues.”
Mack asked a former board member Joyce Kersey to call the recently appointed board members, Marisol Ovalles and Denise Millington, and inform them of their dismissal.
Ovalles moved out of the district and resigned, but Millington remains on the board to this day.
Francisco Duran, a Philadelphia schools official won the superintendent’s job by a 5-3 vote. Caldwell did not respond to a phone message left at his business office seeking comment on this story..
A public meeting of the New Brunswick Housing Authority, where Caldwell also serves as a mayorally-appointed board member, was cancelled last month.
Caldwell’s political committee,the Committee to Keep Politics Out of Our Schools, has been bolstered financially by Mayor James Cahill, who hopes to continue appointing the city’s board of education.
Questions posted on the “Keep Politics Out of Our Schools” Facebook page about Caldwell and Mack were deleted and left unanswered.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.