NEWARK, NJ – The attorney for a deposed member of the Roselle Board of Education argued that his client should be reinstated because its members acted against their own bylaws when they voted to dismiss him.
Daniel Antonelli, the attorney for Archange Antoine, repeatedly argued the board was wrong to cite Policy 145 concerning the removal of a member based on missing three consecutive regular meetings during a hearing Wednesday, Sept. 13 before Administrative Law Judge Margaret M. Monaco.
Antoine filed an emergent relief application with the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education on Aug. 31 — just four days after he was voted off the board that he had served since 2011. The department of education’s Bureau of Controversies and Disputes transmitted the matter to the Office of Administrative Law.
Antoine sat silently with his hands folded in his lap during the hearing, which lasted about one hour and five minutes. He sat alone in a row of chairs behind Antonelli. The only time Antoine spoke was to help Monaco pronounce his name. Antoine seemed to be listening intently as Antonelli focused on Roselle Board of Education Policy 145. According to the policy adopted in 2014, the board may vote to remove a member who has missed “three consecutive regular meetings.”
Antonelli said Antoine missed five meetings, but only one meeting, the June 25 one, was a “regular” meeting. The rest, he said, were special meetings. Antonelli seemed to define regular meetings as those listed for the fourth Monday of each month on the board’s calendar set in January.
“It’s clear, based on the board’s own documents, not my argument, not something I manufactured,” Antonelli said. “The board’s own documents speak to a regular meeting, which was the June 25 meeting. The four … are all special meetings, judge. And while I’m not a particular big fan of this phrase, but if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is a duck.”
What constitutes a “regular” meeting came into question several times during the hearing. Allan Roth, the attorney for the Roselle Board of Education, argued that a regular board meeting is one in which there’s a quorum and has been duly advertised according to the Open Public Meetings Act. Roth made the distinction between regular meetings and committee meetings, which do not require a quorum or public notice.
According to affidavits signed by Roselle Board of Education members Patricia Fabrizio, Donna Eleazer, Courtney Washington, Richard Villeda and Sharise Pollard, they have understood the term “regular board meeting” to “mean a meeting of a quorum of the board that was advertised and consistent with the Open Public Meetings Act.”
Monaco, however, seemed to disagree with that interpretation. She also struggled to reconcile Policy 145 with state statute 18A: 12-3, which gives a board of education the authority to remove a member for missing three consecutive meetings and was cited by Roth as giving the Roselle board the authority to remove Antoine. Originally, the statute called for removal of a board member based on three consecutive regular meetings, but in a subsequent revision, the word regular was removed. More than once, Monaco pointed to the fact the legislature sought to expand the authority of a local school board, but the Roselle school board seemed to, by adding the word regular, restricted it.
“There’s different notice requirements for a regular meeting which you had to do at the beginning of the year and special meeting. You have different notice requirements,” Monaco said to Roth. “I think there’s regulations that specifically deal with that. So, are you saying that even though the word regular is in there (Policy 145), you didn’t mean the word regular? On the same end, you’re telling me that because they took out the word regular the statute expanded it. So, that kind of seems like an inconsistency.”
Roth said it was not an inconsistency and repeatedly said the matter boils down to the 1981 case of Berg v. Black Horse Pike Regional School District in which the school board removed a member for missing three meetings. Roth also pointed out that the standard of review in Antoine’s case is not based on a preponderance of evidence.
“Even if you have to go and peel the levels back of that onion even further, we are allowed, just like the civil service commission does and the welfare commission — you hear these cases, judge, I know you do — that we’re allowed to interpret our own rules and regs,” Roth said. “And unless our rules and regs, in this case, a policy, is either against the law or our board members’ determinations are arbitrary or capricious, which they’re not arbitrary or capricious… There’s an admission that he missed all these meetings. So, with that being said, we’re allowed, unlike what Mr. Antonelli’s arguing, we’re allowed to interpret this. We can say what these meetings mean.”
The small conference room was considerably quieter than the Aug. 27 board meeting where some 20 members of the audience spoke during the public comment portion. Most of them talked about Antoine’s commitment of his faith, the school children and the town in which he grew up in.
During the meeting, they often called out words of encouragement to Antoine. At times, audience members interrupted the proceedings and had to be ushered back to their seats.
Antoine, the executive director of Faith in New Jersey and the policy director for New Jersey Clergy Coalition for Justice, said he missed four meetings for work-related causes. On May 15, he was working at the Islamic Center of Passaic County. On May 24, Antoine, who is Haitian-American, was attending Haitian Flag Day. On June 11, he was working to gain support for a bill. He missed the June 25 meeting because he was on a trip where he attended a gun violence conference and visited an immigration detention center in California. Before taking a vote, Washington and Eleazer took Antoine to task for missing several meetings.
“You advocate for the community. That’s wonderful,” Eleazer said. “I applaud you for that. But, you’re not here working doing what we need on this school board. We have parents, we have kids. You sit here and you listen to the public tell us off, call us names, but when they say all that, they’re talking about you, too. They’re talking about you because you’re a sitting board member, but unfortunately we all take our positions to heart.”
When the vote was taken, Fabrizio, Eleazer, Washington, Villeda and Pollard voted to remove Antoine from the Board on Aug. 27. Antoine, Keyanna Jones, Angela Alvey-Wimbush and Jonathan Davis voted for Antoine to keep his seat.
The board members voted the same way earlier in the meeting to retain Roth after Jones had made a motion to have him removed “from the dais.” Jones said Roth was working without a contract and had given “bad legal advice.”
After being voted off the board, Antoine slowly stepped down from the stage at Abraham Clark High School auditorium.
Several members of the audience greeted him with hugs, handshakes and pats on the back.
There was a smattering of applause. Antoine, who was the longest serving member of the board, said after Wednesday’s hearing that he is “feeling really good.
“I’m really thankful for all the people who have supported me over the eight years and continue just to call, text, all 200 people who came out to the meeting,” Antoine said. “And, I just encourage all the people to fight back and make sure we are electing and choosing people who answer to the community and have the community’s interest in hand.
“And, the people’s movement just began. So, we’re just going to continue to fight back, push back and no matter what tricks are played against us, we’re going to take our community back. We’re going to have a community that is vibrant, where people feel wanted, appreciated and we actually grow.”
After the hearing, Antonelli, who had asked Monaco to stop the board of education from going forward with filling Antoine’s vacancy, said he will “have an opportunity to address that issue in a written submission.” He said he wouldn’t expect to receive a ruling from Monaco “for another 30 days.”
“My client has suffered an injustice here,” Antonelli said after the hearing. “The board perpetuated an unlawful removal and we are hoping to reverse that decision. And, the voters of Roselle are ultimately the ones who have been disenfranchised here because they are the ones who elected him.”