ELIZABETH, NJ — A proposal made last week to name a school after City of Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage has many Elizabeth residents and parents up in arms.
The proposal calls for renaming the city’s Academy of Finance High School to the “J. Christian Bollwage Finance Academy.”
In having a district school named after him, Bollwage will be joining the illustrious company of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Woodrow Wilson and others.
According to sources, members of the Elizabeth Board of Education voted privately to rename the school with no outside input or public forum to discuss the issue.
Tony Monteiro, a community activist and former Elizabeth councilman and BOE member, sent a letter on March 31, along with some current and past BOE members, to New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education, Kimberly Harrington, decrying the proposed renaming.
“It is bad enough that this body presently controlled by Chris Bollwage will be spending additional taxpayer resources to combat the decision related to the illegal hiring of Frank Cuesta as well as the illegal firing of Don Goncalves,” the letter stated, noting the recent decision by an administrative law judge to censure four BOE members for violating state ethics rules. “The malfeasant and politically motivated effort to illuminate the opponents of Bollwage at the Elizabeth Board of Education has resulted in numerous individuals filing complaints and lawsuits directed to this rogue board.”
The letter goes on to call out the board for its proposal to rename the school after Bollwage.
“Now, we are aware that on April 6, 2017, this board will be moving to rename a school after Mayor Chris Bollwage,” the letter stated. “We believe the conflicts that have already been established, as well as the additional conflicts and complaints to be filed, clearly highlight the continued misappropriation of city taxpayer dollars without proper legal authority. Therefore, the naming of this school after Mayor Bollwage at the minimum would be inappropriate, if not illegal.”
The letter asks the commissioner to review this matter.
“We believe that these board members should not be allowed to vote on any decisions connected to the City of Elizabeth, the Mayor Chris Bollwage or other conflicts that might exist,” stated the letter. “Certainly the naming of a school to gift to Mayor Chris Bollwage is a contemptuous act by those that are presently ruled to be in conflict.”
LocalSource reached out to all nine Elizabeth school board members but received no response as of press time.
Monteiro told LocalSource that he believes that the idea of naming a school after Bollwage is laughable.
“On the face of it, it’s so ludicrous,” Monteiro said in a recent phone interview. “This is just bizarre on the face of it because of the inherent financial conflict they all have,” he said, referring to several board members who are employed by the City of Elizabeth. “It’s sad. This gets me; it’s so disheartening.”
Community activist and student at the Academy of Finance, Kason Little, told LocalSource that he first learned about the proposed renaming of his school when it was announced over the loudspeaker at his school.
Little, a high school junior, sprung into action when the news about renaming the school was confirmed, starting a petition to oppose the proposal. The petition has been circulating among community members, district parents and students.
“It was announced at the Academy of Finance by school administration that the school will be renamed to J. Christian Bollwage Finance Academy, who is also the mayor here in Elizabeth,” reads the petition. “We believe that the school community should have a say in who holds the name of our school. Please take a few minutes to sign this petition so the students can make a positive impact in our school community.”
The petition, which now has close to 100 signatures, will be delivered to the New Jersey State Department of Education and the Union County superintendent of schools.
Little said that although it was rumored that the board would be discussing the proposal at its April 6 meeting, the issue never came up, despite several community activists, including Little, speaking out about renaming the school.
Pat Politano, spokesman for the Elizabeth School District, told LocalSource in an April 11 email that the process has been transparent.
“This process is completely open, transparent and inclusive of the community,” Politano said.
“The public has or will have at least four opportunities to comment — at last Thursday’s meeting, this Thursday’s meeting and the two meetings in May. And, of course, the school board, elected by the community, will have to agree.”
Politano also noted Bollawage’s accomplishments in the city of Elizabeth.
“There is no more accomplished mayor in New Jersey than Mayor Bollwage,” Politano said. “He’s led the economic rebirth of Elizabeth, expanded housing, created jobs, improved safety and been a national leader for urban America. He’s a role model for the community, having served as mayor for 25 years and another decade as a councilman. In addition, the mayor has been dedicated to young people: Opening a new branch of the Elizabeth Public Library and a new children’s library, as well as dramatic expansion of recreational programs, including new parks, soccer fields, football fields and basketball courts throughout Elizabeth.”
Parent activist Maria Lorenz told LocalSource that she is upset that no parental input was sought by BOE members. She also noted that despite the board stating that the issue would be brought up at the April 6 meeting, it was not.
“Not a word was said about it,” Lorenz said in a recent phone interview.
Lorenz noted that Bollwage already has a parking garage and a building down at the Elizabeth seaport named after him.
“Schools are typically named after people who have passed,” she said. “Bollwage backs all of these board members financially, so who else are they going to name it after?” Lorenz said. “They don’t seek parental input for anything.”
Politano also noted that the district has a history of naming schools for living community members, such as the Jerome Dunn Academy and the Dr. Orlando Edreira Academy.
Regarding the petition, Politano said that he agrees that the community should be involved in the naming the school, and that it will continue to be.
“The board members have heard from hundreds of community members who believe the school should be named for Mayor Bollwage,” Politano said.
BOE members employed by the city include Stanley Neron, Maria Carvalho, Daniel Nino, and Jose Rodriguez.
Parent activist Christina Cunha-Moreira told LocalSource that the fact that BOE members discussed the school renaming behind closed doors shows a general lack of transparency on the board’s part.
“They already had a meeting about this,” Cunha-Moreira said in a phone interview last week. “Can anyone say, ‘unethical?’ At least give the illusion of some kind of process. Then at least people think that you’re doing things the right way.”
Lorenz also noted the issue of several failing schools in the district.
“It’s all about ego,” Lorenz said. “I don’t think he cares,” she said of Bollwage. “We have a high dropout rate and gangs, and the mayor won’t face it.”
More than 20 of Elizabeth’s 34 schools have been given below-average ratings, according to GreatSchools, a national nonprofit organization that compiles school ratings based on school data and test scores.