ELIZABETH, NJ — A former Elizabeth High School football coach has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey against the Elizabeth Board of Education, claiming that he was unlawfully fired because of his race and the political interests of others.
John Quinn, formerly the head football coach at Elizabeth High — the largest high school in the state — filed suit on May 1 against Elizabeth BOE members Charlene Bathelus, Maria Carvalho, Stephanie Goncalves, Stanley Neron, Daniel Nina and Jose Rodriguez, stating that the defendants turned the high school football team into “a political patronage position” in violation of the First Amendment, and terminated Quinn’s position as coach as a result.
LocalSource obtained a copy of the complaint.
According to the complaint, Quinn has suffered lost wages and salary, loss of career advancement and opportunities and emotional distress. He is seeking more than $100,000 in damages.
According to the complaint, Quinn was hired by the Elizabeth BOE in 2010, earning an annual salary of approximately $140,000 and became tenured in 2014.
The complaint states that Quinn possesses approximately 29 years of high school coaching experience, including 20 years of head coaching experience, and has received many awards, including the 2012 New Jersey Football Coaches Association’s State Coach of the Year and the New Jersey Football Coaches of Hall of Fame in 2015, making him one of three coaches in the school’s history to receive these awards.
After Quinn was hired, the team went to the state finals, won a state championship, went undefeated and was ranked No. 1 in the state.
The complaint cites the November, 2015 BOE elections, when a new political faction, previously in the minority, obtained a majority on the school board.
The faction is led by Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage.
“Upon taking power, the new majority faction created a political patronage requirement for a number of positions for which political affiliation was not an appropriate requirement for their employment position, and political affiliation was not necessary for the efficient operation of their position, which included the head coach of the football team for Elizabeth High School,” reads the complaint.
On May 13, 2016, Quinn signed a contract to serve as assistant athletic director for Elizabeth High School for the 2016-2017 academic year, which called for Quinn to serve as assistant teacher in charge and the high school’s head football coach, according to the complaint.
But, states the suit, “on or about June 7, 2016, an announcement was promulgated to all [in the] Elizabeth Area School District that the high school head football coach was opening. This position — plaintiff’s position — was the only position in the entire school district publicly announced in this manner, causing embarrassment and public humiliation to plaintiff.”
In early July 2016, according to the suit, even though Quinn was under contract for the position and already in the process of operating the head varsity football camp for the upcoming season, interviews for the position of head football coach were held and conducted by BOE members Neron, Cavallo and Rodriguez, as well as business administrator Harold Kennedy, Superintendent of Elizabeth Schools Olga Hugelmeyer, Athletic Director Judy Finch-Johnson and the school board attorney.
According to the suit, Quinn was interviewed for the position but lost it to Jamil Jackson, brother of Malik Jackson, who unsuccessfully ran for Elizabeth school board in 2015 as part of the Bollwage slate, “and who donated to the majority Bollwage faction of the school board, and who outwardly supported the Bollwage faction in the 2015 election.”
According to the complaint, “Jamil Jackson is also African-American, while Plaintiff is Caucasian.” It states that Jackson was a “journeyman assistant coach, had never held a head coaching position before, and had not even graduated from college, nor had he obtained his teacher’s certificate.”
At Quinn’s interview, according to the suit, no questions were posed to him.
“Further, the questions asked made it clear that they were oversimplified and phrased in a manner in which Jamil Jackson — the board member’s preferred candidate who had no head coaching experience — would be able to answer them,” states the complaint.
The complaint states that during the July 21, 2016, open session of the school board, “the school board suddenly went into closed session in order to discuss the head football coach position. After emerging from the closed session, the school board announced that Jamil Jackson had been hired as the new head football coach, despite the recommendation of the superintendent being to rehire Plaintiff.”
Quinn was effectively terminated as coach.
“The conduct of the defendants, in essentially creating a political affiliation requirement for the position of head football coach, violates plaintiff’s First Amendment rights,” states the suit. “Defendants retaliated and/or discriminated against plaintiff by terminating his position as coach, as set forth above. The decision to remove plaintiff as coach was not due to performance, nor was it due to the pre-textual reason stated by the board, which was that it wanted to hire a coach with connections to the community in Elizabeth.”
The complaint notes that Jackson did not reside in Elizabeth at the time of hiring, and that the claim that Quinn “did not have ‘connections to the community’ ” was code by the defendants for the fact that Quinn “was not of a minority race and/or was not an individual who was politically connected to the now-majority Bollwage faction.”
Comments were also made that the Athletic Department had become too “vanilla,” “which was code for the fact that plaintiff was Caucasian,” states the suit.
According to the suit, Hugelmeyer supported the appointment of Quinn.
Quinn was later informed by the athletic director on behalf of the board that he could no longer serve as assistant athletic director and that he was to lose his coaching, weight lifting and camp stipends, which equaled approximately $30,000 per year.
Quinn was later demoted to a gym teacher’s position.
“As a result of his diminished duties, plaintiff was constructively discharged,” the complaint states.
According to Ryan Lockman, attorney for Quinn, politics should have no place in the operations of the high school football team.
“Being the football coach of the high school is not a political position, and it seems like Elizabeth is trying to make it so,” Lockman told LocalSource in a recent phone interview. “They take the phrase ‘contact sport’ a little too seriously. This 30-year career was undone in an unglamorous way. To install a racially motivated appointee in his football coach position — it makes no sense and is not constitutionally permissible. His replacement is like night and day. The team was performing exceptionally well.”
Elizabeth School District spokesman Pat Politano released a statement on May 25 on behalf of the Elizabeth BOE.
“Previous majorities of the Elizabeth Board of Education were found to be politically corrupt,” Politano said. “The current majority is cleaning up those old school boards’ numerous failures. That riles some people. State law, board policies and contractual obligations require that all positions that pay a stipend be advertised, a recommendation be made by the superintendent of schools and the Board of Education to vote to fill the position. This process must be done each year for one year. The system is designed that way to enable superintendents and boards of education around the state to meet the needs of the students each year.”
According to Politano, previous boards of education ignored these requirements, failed to post positions and appointed their favorites while others were unable to apply.
“Mr. Quinn was not fired,” Politano said. “He was not retained as the high school football coach. Multiple candidates were interviewed for the position and another chosen. Mr. Quinn maintained his teaching position in the district and if he wished, he could have remained in the district as a teacher. He chose instead to leave. That’s his prerogative. Just as it’s the prerogative the school district to choose its football coach each year. Again, the system enables Mr. Quinn to pursue other opportunities in other districts each year, just as he has done.”
Politano also stated that “there was no political consideration in the retaining of the football coach, and that former board member Carlos Trujillo, who would have identified himself as part of a rival political faction in Elizabeth, supported the appointment.”
Hugelmeyer said in a May 25 statement that recent news reports have inaccurately reflected her recommendation of Quinn for the position.
“After posting the coaching vacancy and interviewing multiple candidates, I recommended that Coach Jamil Jackson be retained,” she stated, in complete opposition to claims made in the complaint. “As state law requires, no positions in the school district can be filled without my recommendation, including the yearly appointment of athletic team coaches. Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”
Quinn has since obtained a position as athletic director at Plainfield High School, taking a $30,000 cut in salary.