NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—For the first time in history, four seats on the New Brunswick Board of Education (BOE) will be elected at the same time on April 25.
Following the unexpected resignation of board member Franchesca Fowler last summer, the BOE will be electing four people this year, instead of the usual three.
Voting will take place at the regular polling places in New Brunswick, including many district schools, between 7am and 8pm.
Voters can confirm their registration or pin down their polling location at the Division of Elections website or by sending a text message to 877877.
The city has only held school board elections since 2013, the year after voters opted to overthrow the long-standing system of having the Mayor appoint the board members.
As a result, the citizens of New Brunswick will also be asked to approve the district's $30.2 million tax levy to support the school district's budget by way of a yes or no question on the April 25 ballot.
Many of the board members from the Mayor-appointed board, which opposed having elections, have remained in power under the new system. For the second year in a row, the BOE has curiously scheduled a public meeting that conflicts with the election, scheduled to start just one hour before polls close.
Three of the seats up this year come with a three-year term in office, and all three of those incumbents will try to keep their seats on the powerful board.
Board President Emra Seawood and Vice President Dale Caldwell have served on the board for decades, and they are joined on the ticket by Patricia Varela, a relative newcomer who joined the nine-member body in 2014's uncontested election.
All three have ended up in the pages of New Brunswick Today for negative reasons.
On Election Day 2014, New Brunswick Today exposed that Varela appeared to be involved in an unlicensed family business transporting students to the Lincoln Elementary School, complete with proof of her summons for driving with an expired license.
Varela is a resident of Brookside Avenue in the Fifth Ward, and lists no sources of income on her financial disclosure statement.
Caldwell, who serves as CEO of the Village Charter School in Trenton–a facility that Governor Chris Christie visited last year–has clashed with this reporter in another powerful role he serves in.
Caldwell is a longtime member of the New Brunswick Housing and Redevelopment Authority's Board of Commissioners, a board that has been shaken by repeated scandals exposed by NBToday.
The board resorted to engaging in a lengthy and loud argument with this reporter in their February 2015 meeting.
That agency, where Caldwell serves as Vice Chair, has struggled to hold scheduled public meetings, and was caught overcharging its tenants to the tune of thousands of dollars with "improper parking fines" that the Mayor called "inappropriate."
Caldwell also got one postive mention in New Brunswick Today, when Stephen Roca credited him with being "one of the driving forces behind bringing tennis back [to New Brunswick High School]."
A resident of Goodale Circle in the Edgebrook section of the First Ward, Caldwell disclosed three of his companies–all based from his residential address–on financial forms:
- Strategic Influence, LLC
- Global Tennis Alliance, LLC
- Middle Class Movement, LLC
Seawood got into the pages of this newspaper after her rocky start as President last May where she initially refused to disclose the findings of tests that indicated excessive levels of lead in fourteen water faucets within the school system.
New Brunswick Today went back and forth with Seawood in audio that was later played on TV's Chasing News, and the tensions didn't stop at that meeting.
One month after she gave a moving speech about the importance of treating each other with respect, she was heard on the microphone remarking "I don't know what the hell he's talking about," in reference to this reporter, and then later saying, "Oh, sit your ass down."
Seawood, a resident of Edgeworth Place in the Fourth Ward, listed US Military Annuitant Pay and the New Brunswick Senior Center as her sources of income on her financial forms.
City Hall confirmed Seawood has been employed in the job title of "Social Worker Aging" since November 2011. Her salary is $47,365.
Challenging the three incumbents is Yesenia Medina-Hernandez, a resident of Jersey Avenue who works at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and ran last year for the same office.
Medina-Hernandez previously worked at the city's Health Sciences Technology High School for seven years, and she currently serves on the Board of Directors at the New Brunswick Education Foundation.
Neither her 2016 or 2017 campaigns have showed much signs of life. No website, no yard signs, no flyers, and no public events.
But in a city where voter turnout is extraordinarily low, anything is possible in the April 25 vote. Last year Medina-Hernandez received 156 votes on election day, about half the number that the three incumbents pulled in.
The strangest thing about this upcoming election might be the uncontested race to finish Fowler's one-year "unexpired" term on the board.
Last August, without acknowledging her previous term of service on the BOE, the eight remaning board members nominated Diana Solis to re-join them at their August 2016 meeting.
The first official notice any member of the public recieved came when the agenda was posted shortly before the August 16 meeting, and it included this item at the very bottom: "Nomination of New Board Member."
According to state law, a majority of the "remaining" board members can fill a vacancy on the board for the first 65 days after a BOE member leaves office.
"At the end of the board meeting, we will have an election by the board of a new member," promised long time board attorney George Hendricks at the August 16 meeting. "Hang around for the end of the meeting."
The board ultimately spent more time in the private "closed session" than they did in front of the public that night, and acted quickly on the nomination following remarkably brief discussion.
"We have resumes. We interviewed people," said Hendricks, downplaying the lack of a formal application process under questioning. "It was the summer time. It's for a short term–six months, six meetings–and then the person will stand for election, so the process was abbreviated."
"You know, the Board of Education has recieved three resumes for consideration for a new school board member, so at this point in time I would take any nominations for any of the three potential school board members," said Richard Jannarone, the board's longtime Business Administrator.
"In reviewing the three resumes that were submitted, all three candidates were impressive," said board member Benito Ortiz, before quickly concluding: "I make a nomination of Diane Solis to be the new board member."
Ortiz did not mention Solis' prior service on the board under her maiden name.
"We had a chance to talk with–and we're very pleased with the quality of the . But we were very impressed with the people who we have," said Caldwell, who also chose not to mention Solis' prior service on the board.
It just wasn't apparent to most in the room that they were appointing the same woman who had served previously, as Solis had since been married and left behind her maiden name.
Solis first joined the BOE amid controversy over the way the BOE, the County Clerk's Office, and a "special" attorney handled the January 2013 election, only to leave office fourteen months later.
Her first campaign was supported by the same forces that opposed having elections, and both she and her running mate Ronald Hush appeared to get an unfair advantage in the city's first-ever school election thanks to political shenanigans.
Solis, who went by the name Diana Fajardo during her first term, was one of three "candidates" that the board considered before voting 7-0 to nominate her to return to the position she left in 2014.
Now, she faces no opponent in the upcoming election, and is likely to serve for another year before she would, once again, have to face the voters in a public election.
In the 2013 campaign, her campaign literature stated she had been a para-professional with the Puerto Rican Action Board and was active in the parent-teacher organization at the Lord Stirling Elementary School.
Though she ran for office from an address at 54 Remsen Avenue, by the time the election came around, she had moved into a new home with the Solis family in the Hope Manor neighborhood just two blocks away.
"Being able to actually make a difference in the way our children are educated by listening to the real concerns of fellow parents and residents prompts me to become more involved," she wrote at the time.
According to her 2013 campaign literature, she has been "the voice of our parents and children as President of the Lord Stirling school PTO."
In November 2011, she attended a BOE meeting and spoke up about gun violence in her neighborhood. She also raised concerns about the parent-teacher organization that she would later become a leader in.
"Ms. Fajardo said that the Lord Stirling PTO is dysfunctional and said she has a petition for the Vice President to step down. She has concerns about their leadership and how the money is being spent," read the minutes of the meeting.
Teamed with Hush, the political newcomers surprised everyone, but especially their opponents, when their petitions to run for school board were submitted on Christmas Eve 2012, three days after the advertised deadline to get on the ballot in the city's first-ever school election.
County Clerk Elaine Flynn accepted the ostensibly late petitions based on the advice of County Counsel Thomas F. Kelso and the Board of Education's "special counsel" Anthony Vignuolo. Their opponents were not notified of the additional candidates.
The two new candidates were supported by a political establishment that has dominated both city and county politics for decades, and their campaigns were funded by a political organization that was created to prevent school board elections from happening in the first place.
Hush and Fajardo's campaign operation, dubbed "New Beginnings for New Brunswick Schools," only reported one financial contribution: $5,830.68 from the "Committee to Keep Politics Out of Our Schools."
According to campaign finance records, Mayor James Cahill gave a combined $20,772.46, or 36% of the committee's money, from his own campaign funds, "Friends of Mayor Cahill" and "Cahill Egan Escobar 2010."
Solis and Hush won in a landslide, before Solis decided not to run for re-election just over a year later. Both New News12 New Jersey and the New Jersey Attorney General's Office had investigated the irregularities in their electoral victory.
In her brief first term on the board, Solis attended 17 out of 19 public meetings, and stayed relatively quiet during the public meetings. She has appeared to take on a slightly larger role during her second term in office.
Since October 2015, Solis has been employed by the Middlesex County Board of Social Services as a bilingual clerk, where she earns an annual salary of $31,759.
Officials did not fully explain why they didn't advertise the vacancy on the powerful board that Solis filled, or why they broke from the precedent set previously when another member resigned one year earlier.
"We went through [a formal application] process last time. We had a lot of good candidates. A lot of them are still available. Maybe they'll be considered tonight," said BOE attorney George Hendricks.
The decision-making process utilized by the BOE under Seawood's leadership differed drastically from the actions they took in 2015, when a vacancy was created by the departure of elected member John Krenos.
Then, under the leadership of Board President Patricia Sadowski, the board advertised to the public that there was a vacancy, solicited applications and resumes from community members, interviewed candidates, and nominated a new member at the beginning of the June 16, 2015 board meeting.
The new member, Jennifer Shukaitis, was present, sworn in, and took office immediately. Shukaitis went on to win a full term in the April 2016 election.
This time around, Solis was not present for the meeting where she was appointed, and the board did not notify the public in any way about the vacancy, with the BOE website continuing to list Fowler as a member long after Solis had been appointed.
After the meeting, as security guards tried to distract and interfere with this reporter, officials were hesitant to answer questions about the process they used.
Jannarone stayed quiet as New Brunswick Today asked him questions about the nomination of Solis.
"You can request the names," said George Hendricks, jumping in to answer our question about who the other two candidates were that the board considered.
Indeed, Jannarone later denied our request for the names of the other two people who applied, citing the state's "ORPA Law," a misspelling of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
"How did they know to apply?" asked this reporter. "I thought you said there wasn't an application process?"
"People apply. You could have applied," responded Hendricks.
NBToday actually asked the school district's administration exactly how to apply in a July 21 email to Jannarone that went unanswered.
"Can you please tell me how the board plans to fill the vacancy created by Ms. Fowler's resignation," wrote this reporter in the email. "Please provide information for how people should apply if they want to replace her on the BOE."
New Brunswick Today has since learned that one of the two applicants not picked was Cesar Ovando, another member of the embattled New Brunswick Housing Authority board. Ovando has since been appointed to the Construction Board of Appeals, and his wife also got an appointment to another city board.
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 and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.