HILLSIDE, NJ — The school board’s annual reorganization meeting Jan. 3 turned from a simple swearing-in ceremony to a meeting punctuated by bickering when newly elected board members verbally introduced previously unannounced motions regarding appointments to the agenda.
After new members Kim Cook, Laquana Best, Pinchas Shapiro and incumbents Joel Chapman and Hawaiian Thompson-Epps took their oaths of office at the gathering, tensions spiked when Chapman moved to appoint Allan Roth of Roth D’Aquanni LLC as the new board attorney. The item was not on the meeting’s agenda.
Over objections from Thompson-Epps and fellow board member Angela Menza, the motion passed 5-4. Juan Allende, Best, Chapman, Cook and Shapiro voted for Roth’s appointment and Calvin Lofton and Shalanda Thomas sided with Thompson-Epps and Menza against it.
“The town is moving in with a new administration and some of us wanted a new voice. That’s all that was,” Chapman said in a phone interview on Jan. 4.
Cook, Chapman and Thompson-Epps were sworn in for full three-year terms, and Best and Pinchas for unexpired one-year terms.
Thompson-Epps, who formerly served as president but lost her bid for re-election in November, took over the seat won by Dennis Kobitz. Kobitz was the third-highest vote getter in November’s election behind Cook and Chapman but was disqualified from his three-year term after a background check revealed an unspecified criminal offense. County Superintendent Daryl Palmieri subsequently selected Thompson-Epps to fill his seat.
At the meeting, newly elected Vice President Cook moved to notify Superintendent Antoine Gayles with a Rice notice that the board intends to discuss his employment at its next meeting. She also moved for the board to advertise for the “vacancy” on the board caused by Kobitz’s disqualification.
The resolution to notify Gayles was passed 6-0 with Lofton, Thomas and Thompson-Epps abstaining. But Thompson-Epps openly questioned the motion regarding her seat.
“We all just got sworn in, so where’s the vacancy?” Thompson-Epps asked.
Roth responded, saying that some board members have questions regarding the process.
“I clearly understand that you guys have the vote. You clearly have five votes, so we don’t have to argue or be rude about anything,” Thompson-Epps responded when board members started to have side conversations.
“Look, we were all elected to be on this board. You were not voted in,” said Chapman. He added in his phone interview that there were questions about Thompson-Epps receiving a three-year appointment and whether it should instead be for one year, making the seat up for election in the fall.
“You had a disqualified criminal, let’s get it real. You want to talk? We can get real now,” Thompson-Epps said referring to Kobitz.
She then said the county superintendent “didn’t just pull (her) name out of a hat” and that residents had also voted for her, although she didn’t win in November. Thompson-Epps was fourth in getting votes in a field of six declared candidates for three full three-year terms.
The motion to advertise for the vacancy passed 5-3, with Thompson-Epps abstaining.
Gayles and Thompson-Epps did not respond to requests for comment.
With the position advertised as open, the board can accept applications and provide Palmieri with a list of candidates. However, he doesn’t have to rethink his decision to appoint Thompson-Epps, Roth told LocalSource in a recent phone interview. He also confirmed that Thompson-Epps had received a certified letter stating her appointment from Palmieri on Dec. 21.
“We just want a little more clarification,” Chapman told LocalSource. “You can’t just tell the people of this town that they’re stuck with someone for three years that they didn’t elect.”
Before the votes for president and vice president, Best introduced a motion to suspend the bylaw that dictates how board officials are selected.A policy revised in September 2018 changed the criteria for members who can be nominated for president and vice president. According to the change, only members elected to full three-year terms or who had served a three-year term within the last five years or had served one full year of a three-year term; and who completed New Jersey School Board Association mandated training courses are be eligible to serve as president or vice president.
The policy also states that election for each office is to be conducted by a paper ballot vote.
Allende was selected as board president with a 5-3 vote and one abstention; Allende, Best, Chapman, Cook and Shapiro voted for Allende, and Lofton, Menza and Thomas voted against him, with Thompson-Epps abstaining.
A temporary process was read by Best that allowed any board member to nominate another member, and mandated that voting was to take place by verbal roll call. It passed with the same 5-4 vote as Roth’s appointment.
“Wait, wait, hold on a second,” Thompson-Epps, who was also nominated for president, objected. “I think it is very unfair that we don’t really know what’s going on.”
“This policy was taking away the rights of new board members,” Chapman told LocalSource. “The policy disenfranchised new board members and the fact that it called to vote in secret on a paper ballot was not OK. We need to be held accountable by the voters. They need to know who voted for what.”
Cook was chosen to serve as vice president with a 5-4 vote. There were no other nominations.
The board also approved changes for the dates of the next two board meetings. The next meeting will be Jan. 24 instead of Jan. 31, and the February meeting will be Feb. 21 instead of Feb. 28.
“I think tonight went fine,” Allende told LocalSource after the meeting. “I’m honored to be in this position and (the board) is going to continue to do what’s best for the children.”
But former board member Joi Stanley, who was the third highest-vote getter in a field of three behind Shapiro and Best for the two unexpired one-year terms, said was shocked at how the reorganization meeting was conducted.
“(Last night) was a sad day for Hillside. It was a very, very sad day for our town,” she said in a phone interview on Jan. 4. “How can they question the judgment of our county superintendent? You cannot tell me that all of our board members were there for the children tonight.”
Stanley also said Gayles has improved the school district immensely since his appointment.
“We were very much subpar prior to the three years he’s been superintendent,” she said. “Our district has changed for the better under his leadership.”
Hillside Democratic Committee Chairman Anthony Salters, who endorsed the “Children First” ticket that included Chapman, Kobitz, Cook, Best and Shapiro said the committee is confident in Allende’s and the newly elected board members’ ability to make tough decisions.
“The Hillside Public School system has always been good from grades K to six. Keeping up with student academic achievement compared to surrounding Union County suburban districts and globally becomes an issue from grades seven to 12. Our children deserve better. We have great individual student academic stories but not enough. Voters in November clearly expressed this sentiment by overhauling four incumbents,” Salters said in an email on Jan. 5. “We should have serious discussions that focus on results. Let’s not downgrade the conversation to distracting topics such as politics and personalities.”