NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The President of the New Brunswick Board of Education “will be issued a direct and stern warning,” according to prosecutors, after he remained maskless while presiding over the board’s August 17 meeting.
President Dale Caldwell’s decision not to wear a face covering was in violation of Executive Order 251, which was signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy on August 6 in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
While school students and staff are sure to be the groups most affected by the continuation of mask mandates in schools, the order applies to all individuals in New Jersey, including Caldwell, who served on Murphy’s transition team.
After dodging questions about Caldwell’s behavior for more than three weeks, Murphy still has not weighed in on the awkward situation: “We won’t be commenting at this time,” Governor’s Office spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro said shortly after prosecutors handed down their decision on September 9.
As children return to in-person classes across the country, the issue of mask mandates in schools has evoked emotional debates and even heated standoffs.
Here in New Jersey, Murphy’s Republican opponent in the November general election, Jack Ciattarelli, has criticized Murphy for signing the mandate. Ciattarelli also received criticism for his own false claim that children are “not vulnerable” to COVID-19.
When Murphy announced the controversial order on August 6, hundreds of protesters rallied outside the East Brunswick event, some with protest signs such as “Unmask Our Kids” and “End The Tyranny.”
Murphy’s order requires all public schools to “maintain a policy regarding mandatory use of face masks by staff, students, and visitors in the indoor portion of the school district premises,” with some exceptions that do not apply to Caldwell’s behavior.
“It shall be the duty of every person or entity in this State or doing business in this State and of the members of the
governing body and every official, employee, or agent of every political subdivision in this State and of each member of all other governmental bodies, agencies, and authorities in this State of any nature whatsoever, to cooperate fully in all matters concerning this Order,” reads the order.
The new rules took effect on August 9, and Caldwell’s violation came just eight days later.
Caldwell did not respond to repeated inquiries about whether he had knowledge of the school mask mandate.
Caldwell is also the President of the Educational Services Commission of NJ (ESCNJ) Board, a member of the boards of the New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA) and the College Achieve Charter School in Asbury Park, and the Executive Director at Farleigh Dickinson University’s Rothman Institute of Innovation.
On August 19, New Brunswick Today brought Caldwell’s violation to the attention of Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck, after New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) Deputy Director JT Miller referred us to his office.
Bruck apparently referred the matter to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO), which responded on September 9, the first day of school for thousands of New Brunswick students.
The MCPO’s letter seemed to indicate Caldwell’s violation would garner only a warning for now, because it was not paired with other misconduct, but it was also implied that future violations would lead to charges.
Though Middlesex County First Assistant Prosecutor Chris Kuberiet said the warning would be “direct,” he copied Board of Education attorney George Hendricks on a letter to the author of this article, and indirectly asked Hendricks to convey the warning to Caldwell.
Hendricks was a New Brunswick City Councilman from 1970 until 1996, when he resigned from elected office to assume the powerful and lucrative position as the top lawyer to the city’s school system.
Also included on the letter is Bruck, as well as Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Davenport, NJ State Police Colonel Patrick Callahan, and Middlesex County Prosecutor Yolonda Ciccone.
“A copy of Executive Order 251 is being provided to Mr. Hendricks. With the provision of Executive Order 251, the undersigned is confident that all meetings going forward will comply therewith,” wrote Kuberiet.
Caldwell’s violation took place at a board meeting inside the auditorium of New Brunswick High School (NBHS). It was the board’s second in-person public meeting since the pandemic, and the first since the mask mandate took effect.
“The board was anxious to get back, and be here in person, but safety comes first,” said Caldwell, who was also the only unmasked board member at their July 20 meeting.
The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, September 21 at 7pm in the NBHS auditorium.
When confronted outside NBHS on August 17, after his second straight maskless board meeting, Caldwell initially claimed to have worn a mask, then gave a variety of excuses for his behavior, none of which were covered by the numerous exemptions in Murphy’s order.
“I did wear my mask, but I took it off, so people could hear me,” said Caldwell.
“I’m a big believer in safety,” Caldwell added, before changing the subject, going on the offensive, and criticizing this reporter for not covering an unrelated fire that his daughter witnessed.
“You didn’t write any article about the fire. Your paper doesn’t cover New Brunswick!” yelled Caldwell during a heated on-camera exchange before hopping into the driver’s seat of a vehicle with a Delaware license plate.
“You should be embarrassed as a newspaper reporter,” Caldwell said. “Charlie Kratovil doesn’t cover the news… Cover the news, please.”
After the author of this article shared video of his post-meeting behavior on Twitter, Caldwell responded to say the interaction was “one of the dumbest interviews in recorded history!!!”
“Fake News Reporter Kratovil interviews me about not wearing a mask when I am wearing a mask and adhering to social distancing rules,” wrote Caldwell, using the same anti-press rhetoric made popular by ex-President Donald Trump.
It’s far from our first dust-up with Caldwell.
In 2017, Caldwell accused us of breaking the law by filming him without his permission, moments before one of his NBHA colleagues threatened to “knock… out” the author of this article. Earlier that evening, Caldwell said this reporter was “spreading lies” and under police investigation.
Earlier that year, Caldwell made a not-so-subtle suggestion that this reporter “should move” out of the city.
It’s also not the first time that prosecutors have declined to pursue formal legal action against New Brunswick Board of Education members after this news outlet brought allegations of wrongdoing to their attention.
Kuberiet, who was the Acting County Prosecutor before Ciccone left a Judgeship to take over the top job, also declined to punish board members who attended a closed meeting in February 2020 where the school district’s secret plans to sell and demolish the Lincoln Annex School were discussed.
School security stopped a Spanish language television reporter from attending the meeting, and told parents who were in attendance that they were not allowed to record.
Though he was not at the meeting in question, Caldwell championed the controversial deal to close the public school, which had opened in 2016 at a cost of more than $22 million. Construction on a replacement school has not begun.
Thanks to the questionable deal, Lincoln Annex students now attend classes in a converted warehouse building far from their homes.
Just days after the closed meeting, the school board voted to move ahead with the scheme to give the school to New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), to facilitate an expansion of the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital campus, in exchange for a new school to be built in a different neighborhood at a later date, to be paid for by the hospital.
After obtaining videos showing the February 21, 2020 closed meeting included a “quorum” of board members–the minimum required to conduct business–the author of this article requested Kuberiet bring charges against the board members for violating the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), a state law which mandates public notice and public access to meetings where public boards gather to discuss public business.
But Kuberiet failed to respond to the allegations for over three months, and in his final month as Acting Prosecutor, he “respectfully declined” to investigate or prosecute the matter, citing civil litigation that this reporter eventually filed.
Now, fifteen months later, Kuberiet’s office is relying upon what they called a “consistent” approach to violations of executive orders to justify their decision not to file formal charges, keeping Caldwell’s violation out of court altogether.
“The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office’s approach to alleged Executive Order Violations has been consistent throughout the pandemic and associated public health emergency,” wrote Kuberiet. “That approach was to only charge violations of Executive Orders when in fact they were accompanied by independent acts of criminal conduct.”
“Thus, since no independent criminal conduct was exhibited on the part of Dale Caldwell, and consistent with this office’s policy, he will be issued a direct and stern warning.”
Caldwell has been on the Board of Education since 1998, back when the board members were appointed by Mayor James Cahill, who has been in power here since 1991.
In 2012, city voters overthrew that system and switched to an elected school board, a move Caldwell opposed. Nevertheless, he ran for and won election to the board in 2014, 2017, and 2020, each time with less than 700 votes.
Editor’s Note: The author of this article was a vocal supporter of the switch from an appointed to an elected school board, an opponent of the plan to close and sell the Lincoln Annex School, and volunteered for candidates who challenged Caldwell in the 2020 election.
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.