ELIZABETH, NJ — A group of former candidates for the school board plans to file an ethics complaint after the board of education promoted a city councilman to a $180,000 job in the school district.
Sima Farid, Ricky Castaneda, Christina Cunha-Moreira and retired Elizabeth teacher Patti Gallante are alleging a conflict of interest in the Jan. 3 vote to promote Councilman at Large Frank Cuesta to chief of operations in the school district.
The group said it plans to file an ethics complaint against at least one newly elected board member, Rosa Moreno Ortega, who also sits on the Elizabeth Planning Board. The mayor recommends planning board members with the approval of the city council.
“Given that she sits on the planning board, it’s blatant,” alleged Farid, who made an unsuccessful bid for school board last year, Jan. 11. “There’s a conflict of interest.”
State Election Law Enforcement Commission filings from Nov. 28 show that Cuesta donated $8,200 to Moreno Ortega’s campaign, ELEC Deputy Direct Joe Donohue confirmed. Cuesta’s candidate committee fund donated the maximum allowed by campaign financing laws, Donohue said.
“Mr. Cuesta, nor any employee of the Elizabeth Board of Education, gives up their First Amendment rights for working for the school district,” Pat Politano, an Elizabeth School District spokesman said. “Mr. Cuesta is allowed to support any candidate for any office he wishes as can every employee of the Elizabeth School District.”
This is not the first time an ethics complaint has been filed regarding Cuesta’s job appointment in the school district.
In 2016, school board members voted to make him acting assistant superintendent for human resources, a $167,000 job, while he held a seat on the council. Two ethics complaints regarding Cuesta’s original appointment were filed by former Elizabeth Board of Education President Rafael Fajardo and former assistant board Secretary Don Goncalves.
School board members Maria Carvalho, Daniel Nina and Stanley Neron, all city employees, voted to appoint Cuesta to his original position in 2016.
Jose Rodriguez, whose brother works for the city’s planning board, also voted for the appointment.
“Because the vote to appoint Cuesta was tantamount to a vote for their employer, a reasonable member of the public could conclude that this employee-employer relationship impaired their objectivity and independence of judgment,” the state School Ethics Commission wrote in August 2017 regarding Cuesta’s first job appointment.
However, the School Ethics Commission ruled that the school board members did not use their position as board members to secure an unwarranted privilege, advantage or employment for themselves or members of their families.
Cuesta, a former principal in the Elizabeth School District, said he would recuse himself from all votes affecting the employment of those board members, which was important in the commission’s decision, according to its ruling.
The commission adopted a penalty of censure for Carvalho, Nina and Neron. Those three and Rodriguez abstained in the Jan. 3 vote to promote Cuesta to his new position as chief of operations.
“There is no conflict nor appearance of one on the part of any member of the Board of Education,” Politano said in a statement regarding the most recent vote. “Any member who is a city employee abstained from voting.”
According to Cunha-Moreira and Farid, Morena Ortega’s vote on the nine-member board was one of the deciding factors in Cuesta’s latest appointment.
According to a Jan. 5 text from Cunha-Moreira, the appointment “never would have passed because several board members are conflicted and were recently censured for [a] previous vote on Frank Cuesta’s appointment to assistant superintendent of human resources.”
Carvalho was re-elected to her seat Nov. 7 and named board president. Morena Ortega and Jerry Jacobs are newly sworn in.
Jacobs received $1,200 in campaign donations from Cuesta, ELEC filings show.
Cuesta, in his new position as chief of operations in the school district, will oversee assigned directors, the chief information officer and human resources, and coordinate a strategic plan.
The qualifications for the job call for a master’s degree in educational administration or human resources or a law degree; 10 or more years of administrative or leadership experience in public education; and two years experience in the field of human resources.
Cuesta currently holds all these qualifications, Politano said.