LINDEN, NJ — Board of Education President Gregory Martucci said he did not consider declining the nomination for the position despite a bylaw that prohibits a member facing state ethics charges from assuming the role.
When asked after the Jan. 31 board meeting if he’d considered turning down the nomination, he said, “Absolutely not.”
State ethics charges were filed against Martucci and board Vice President Katarzyna Kozak last year due to the unauthorized release of internal communications that ignited controversy between school officials and Mayor Derek Armstead. The charges were filed by board member Ahmed Shehata and the board voted 6-0 with one abstention to add its official sanction to the charges filed with the School Ethics Commission.
“It had nothing to do with that,” Martucci said Jan. 31 of the charges. “That’s still pending. It’s a complaint and it’s being settled by attorneys, but it had nothing to do with nothing. That’s why I never commented because I have no comment on that.”
When asked if his board presidency is in violation of bylaw No. 9121, which spells out the qualifications for the position, Martucci said, “I don’t know the law. I sat there and they nominated me and they voted for me and I’m here.”
According to the minutes of the meeting on the school district’s website, Martucci voted against the adoption of the bylaw at the Nov. 20, 2018 board meeting.
Martucci and Kozak were elected president at the Jan. 3 reorganization meeting. Before the vote, board member Tracey Birch pointed out the existence of the bylaw.
“So, according to our bylaws that we passed in November, a board member can’t be president if they have ethics charges pending or against them,” Birch said.
Business administrator and board secretary Kathleen Gaylord, who conducted the vote, responded by saying she didn’t know of any ethics charges pending against Martucci or Kozak. She said that “a prior board during a lame duck session is not allowed to bind future boards and that was done at the Nov. 20 meeting.”
Martucci and Kozak were quoted in an Aug. 7 statement released by Armstead that condemned the school board’s exploration of removing the June primary voting from the city’s schools.
Several parents attending an Educational Support Team meeting complained to school board members that they had to adhere to more stringent security measures implemented by the board in the wake of the shooting deaths of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018. The parents said they had to show identification although voters were allowed, by law, to enter the school without vetting.
Former board President Raymond Topoleski said the board instructed Superintendent Danny Robertozzi to draft letters to the Union County Board of Elections and the city clerk asking that June primary polling be moved out of the schools in the name of safety for its 6,100 students. He sent copies of the letters to board members to review.
Drafts of that letters were “leaked” to the mayor, Topoleski said. Armstead then released a statement in which he slammed the proposal, saying the cries for increased safety were a “smokescreen” and the real intent was “voter suppression.”
Martucci and Birch clashed at the end of the Jan. 31 board meeting and he called for — and received — an adjournment while she was still addressing her fellow board members. When Birch asked to speak, Martucci said he was going to give her one minute. Birch responded by saying “there’s no time limit on board member comments.”
Birch began to talk about her role as chairperson of the Student Education Support Team, which offered feedback on some of the issues they encountered inside Linden High School, such as cleanliness in the bathrooms and maintenance issues.
Two and a half minutes into Birch’s comments, Martucci tried to intercede.
“I’m going to give you 30 seconds,” Martucci said.
“You’re not going to give me 30 seconds,” Birch said. “I’m going to continue my report.”
“I’m giving you 30 seconds,” he said. “You’re on the clock.”
“No,” said Birch.
“We’ll see,” Martucci said.
Birch told the board that Martucci had “dissolved” the Student Education Support Team, and Martucci tried to stop her, saying, “Mrs. Birch, we’re finished.”
As she continued to speak, Martucci began to ask for a motion to adjourn. He seemed to turn toward board member Patrick Gargano and attempted to urge him to make a motion. Then Martucci turned to the board members on his left. While Birch continued to read, Marianthe Manganello made a motion. When Martucci turned back to his right, Gargano seemed to nod his head for a second.
The roll call was taken. During the commotion, it was unclear which board members voted to adjourn. However, Martucci said the meeting was over, stood up and began to collect his papers as Birch continued to read.
“Mr. Martucci dissolved that committee, so he should have gone in and faced those students,” Birch said. “This morning I went in and sat with the students and explained the process. I would like to erase the expressions on their faces when I told them this committee no longer existed. So, my point is, you want to hurt me by taking me off all the ad-hoc committees. Do that. You can hurt me, but the one thing I won’t let you do is hurt the children because it’s your prerogative.”
There was applause from the audience.
Birch finished her comments by saying she’s “extremely proud of those students and look forward to hearing from them as they evolve and move forward with their passion and their vision as well as knowing they are still valued by me. Where there is a will, there is a way. Thank you.”
There was more applause from the audience, but by then, Martucci had left the stage and Manganello was nearing the stairs to leave it.
When asked after the meeting why he had accepted the nomination for the board presidency, Martucci said, “They asked me to. The members that are here, a number of them asked me to run. I said, ‘Well, if you want me to. I would be very happy to just to (be a board member), but if you want me to do that.’
“I have 47 years in education. I started teaching here from 1969 to, I just retired two years ago. I know education and I have been an administrator in the elementary schools, middle schools, the high school here. And, I know education. Education is my life.”