ELIZABETH, NJ – New Board of Education member Ana Marie Amin turned the tables on powerful Democrat State Sen. Ray Lesniak last week, siding with the senator’s political enemies to win the board presidency and reject being part of a plot that included a political “hit list.”
With shouts of “Trojan Horse” echoing from the audience, Amin turned her back on the Lesniak backed school board team she ran with, later releasing a public letter to the Democrat state senator that revealed the reasoning behind her move.
The school board president pointed out in the letter that as the top vote getter last fall it was her duty to serve the community, taxpayers and children first, but things had gone seriously off course.
“I take the charge to serve our children first very seriously. That agenda was the one I ran on and it is the one that I had believed my teammates were prepared to support as well,” said Amin, but added “that perspective has changed dramatically over the last two months.”
The newly elected school board president, who has yet to serve a full month on the board, explained in her missive to Lesniak that she saw “the plotting” that took place by his team and felt it would negatively impact the school district and the valuable things the district was focused on in terms of educating the students.
“My personal belief is that your team has lost its way and is now dangerously off course. The agenda has become increasingly mean spirited and focused on political retribution,” Amin told Lesniak, adding the people the state senator supported “are not focused on an education agenda that is best for the children of Elizabeth.”
Amin told Lesniak that his agenda had become political and “focused on dismantling the leadership of the district in a crass move to take control as quickly as possible.”
“I will not be a part of the plot to ensure that this political hit list is executed,” she added.
This statement cemented Amin’s apparent resolve to, as she says, do what is best for the children, and not play political games.
Lesniak’s political supporters rallied to his defense, issuing statements about the reversal, particularly Mayor Chris Bollwage, who was part of the Democrat team that supported Amin’s candidacy from the start.
The mayor blasted Amin for voting with his arch enemies’ team, former school board member Rafael Fajardo and current board member Tony Monterio, telling PolitickerNJ.com last week that the newcomer “flipped for whatever reason” suggesting it might have been for a better job.
Last week Bollwage quoted former president Thomas Jefferson to PolitickerNJ.com when referring to Amin’s change of heart, saying “when good men do nothing, evil flourishes.”
Ironically, last spring it was Bollwage who failed to do anything when LocalSource revealed in a six-part series that a significant number of officers in his police department had taken millions for off-duty pay jobs and never showed up.
Bollwage followed this statement up by releasing a letter to residents, explaining what he believed happened to turn Amin against the Lesniak-Bollwage team.
He explained the night Amin switched alliances, someone could be heard calling the new board member “a Trojan Horse.”
“Giving Ms. Amin the benefit of the doubt, let us presume that the basis for this accusation is unfounded and she is not a Trojan Horse. Perhaps her decision to switch sides was influenced or behavior compelled by another force, such as the offering of a job by Mr. Fajardo, or some other remuneration,” said the mayor.
The mayor felt the entire issue was not about “one or a few elected officials, nor was it about contracts or winning.”
“It’s about board of education employees, the teachers and the students, who all deserve better,” Bollwage said, adding “work and learning environments should not be a place of anxiety, conflict or apprehension; with constant worrying that retaliation will occur for being a non-supporter of the board.”
Bollwage then insinuated that under Fajardo’s control, school district employees had been terminated even though they had an undeniable work ethic and performed the duties of their jobs for years with merit and professionalism. The mayor stressed the reason he wanted change on the school board was to ensure everyone had the “right to disagree, voice your opinion as well as retain and advance within your job because you are qualified and have earned it.”
“It is about the change that voters decided to make in November and how their decision counted and should have been honored. Manipulation, bully and scare tactics and attempts to override the system are maneuvers that can be found in the democracies of Vladimir Putin and Fidel Castro – they have no place here,” said the Mayor, adding Elizabeth residents did not need Fajardo’s democracy.
Amin’s supporters bristled at this, while those close to the new board candidate made another startling revelation about why the school board member turned on Lesniak’s team.
“Lesniak had a hit list and on it was the superintendent, legal team and others who play an important role in the education of city children,” said the source, pointing out that when Amin realized she would have to initiate a mass firing, she decided enough was enough.
At the meeting last week Amin made her change of position known when she voted with those who passed a resolution nullifying some of the actions taken during the reorganization meeting, including the appointment of new legal counsel.
Monteiro, Carlos Trujillo, Paul Perreira, Elcy Castillo-Ospina and Amin voted in favor of rescinding this resolution, while Jose Rodriquez, Charlene Bathelus, Maria Carvalho and Stan Neron voted against the measure.
Amin, in her letter to Lesniak, explained how she felt things should be on the board.
“I truly understand that there are, and will continue to be disagreements on both sides,” she said, pointing out that this was part of the democratic process.
However, she said she was not about to be part of anything that was not above board.
“That is why I believe a different approach needs to be taken,” one that she said is different from the one Lesniak collaborators are pursuing, suggesting that she believed “we should look at the good that exists on both sides “ and join forces for “one singularly important cause – helping every child achieve excellence.”
Amin also asked for Lesniak’s help in bringing a “coordinated effort to influence my vote or to resign my position to a complete stop.”
Amin, who is from Colombia, South America, was recommended as a candidate to Lesniak by George Castro, a Democrat with very close ties to the state senator. Sources close to Castro said he was reeling from Amin’s lack of loyalty, while Lesniak told PolitickerNJ.com how he felt about the new board member turning her back on him.
“It’s difficult to respond to something like that when my team – so to speak – have an unblemished record and the Fajardo team is rife with arrests, indictments and guilty pleas,” said the state senator who resides in Elizabeth, adding “I have no idea where she is going with that.”
The war between the Elizabeth school board, Lesniak and Bollwage has been going on for over a decade. Both sides have engaged in a series of lawsuits and smaller battles that have neither resolved nor lessened the tension between the two factions.
Bollwage shot back this week that board member Monteiro had been “convicted of an ethics charge,” while Fajardo held one position on the school board that was about to expire while being appointed to another that was a longer term.
That situation, though, was short lived. Monteiro did step down to allow Fajardo back on the board in January, but resumed his position when it became clear there were legal issues with the former board member taking his seat.
The Lesniak camp has been on the school board’s back for a long time and vice versa.
In April the school board took on the behemoth political action committees, or PACS, which funnel money into political races right down to the local elections. Then school board president Monteiro thought outside interest groups, such as Indianapolis bail bondsmen, NY City’s International Longshoreman’s Union, online sports betting companies and others from out of state, should be curtailed legislatively.
Last year, according to information obtained from U.S. ELEC reporting, Lesniak’s PAC, “the Committee for Economic Growth and Social Justice,” spent over $400,000 on candidates running against the Fajardo board team.
Back in 2013 the city council felt the school district budget was an excessive burden on taxpayers so they passed a non-binding resolution for the school board to slash their budget. To ensure they did, the council reinforced the message by sending a letter to then New Jersey Department of Education commissioner Chris Cerf, saying the 7.5 percent tax increase, or $3.6 million was “unjustly imposed” on taxpayers.
The school district shot back that they had not raised taxes in several years and the budget was prepared according to state guidelines.
In December, Lesniak called on New Jersey education officials to investigate the fraudulent use of state and federal dollars for children with disabilities in public schools. He was quick to shine the light on the city school board.
“Apparently the Elizabeth board of education isn’t the only school district defrauding tax dollars and depriving special needs children of a thorough and efficient education as required by the New Jersey Constitution,” the senator said at the time, pointing out that he had been told about multiple violations in this area.