ELIZABETH, NJ — The recent decision of the Elizabeth Board of Education to contract with public relations consultant Pat Politano — at a capped salary of $50,000 annually — has some in an uproar.
Politano, of Strategic Message Management, will now handle the school district’s public relations affairs and will be called in on an as-needed basis. Politano had previously worked on several of the board members’ political campaigns — all of whom are allegedly backed by Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage. Politano’s campaign work has sparked cries of conflict of interest.
Politano’s appointment has some parents and board members questioning the motives behind the hiring. Board member Carlos Trujillo, who has been with the district for nine years, said that he is disturbed by the latest decision by the board. “It is my understanding that he interviewed with the superintendent and the board president,” said Trujillo of Politano. “That’s very odd. It was a no-bid contract, he was the only vendor considered.”
Trujillo said that when he asked Politano whether he had worked on any campaigns, Politano replied that he had, indeed, worked on six of the board members’ campaigns. Trujillo believes that this is a clear conflict of interest. “It’s the mayor’s team,” said Trujillo of the board members. “Mayor Bollwage has always put out a team that he endorses. He took over majority of the board. Bollwage awarded a no-bid contract to his old friend, Pat Politano. It’s political payback.
Politano is the political hitman for Bollwage.”
Attempts to reach board president Charlene Bathelus and board member Jose Rodriguez were unsuccessful as of press time.
In January, the school board — which was backed by former board president Rafael Fajardo — yielded its majority to board members supported by Bollwage and state Sen. Raymond Lesniak.
In 2000, Bollwage supported a referendum to go from an elected board to board appointments.
The resolution confirming Politano’s appointment has the public relations consultant at a salary of $150 an hour, with a salary that would not exceed $50,000. Politano’s salary does not include any additional expenses.
Other appointments by Bollwage have been cited by critics as blatantly quid pro quo, such as the hiring of Mario Rodrigues, campaign treasurer for Bollwage, who was recently hired as the purchasing agent for Elizabeth public schools at an alleged annual salary of $92,000. Another new hire, city councilman-at-large and Elizabeth’s Democratic chairman Frank Cuesta, was recently appointed to act as assistant superintendent for human resources. Cuesta is a political ally of Bollwage and has campaigned for mayor-supported candidates on the school board. “It seems that now that Bollwage is controlling the board, he’s taking care of all his friends,” said Trujillo.
Christina Cunha-Moreira, of the Elizabeth Parents and Students Care advocacy group, told LocalSource that as a parent and advocate of Elizabeth’s students, the hiring of Politano is disturbing. “Elizabeth, being an Abbott district and complaining of budgetary restraints, to hire a public relations firm at a cap of $50,000 kind of came out of the blue,” said Cunha-Moreira. “It was kind of eye opening.”
Cunha-Moreira said that money used to pay Politano’s salary should instead go to more urgent issues, such as lead testing and fixing the air conditioning systems that are broken in at least ten district schools. “This is mismanagement of funds,” said Cunha-Moreira. “The last time we had lead testing in our schools was three years ago. Our water fountains came up positive for lead. The board said that filters were put on, but we were never informed about what kind of filters or of a maintenance schedule. Why don’t they just go and test the damn water?”
Cunha-Moreira referenced cases in which filters placed on water systems were ultimately found to be useless in mitigating lead poisoning. She maintains that she has sent in repeated OPRA requests to the board of education in order to obtain lead testing results from three years ago, and has been denied repeatedly. “I was told that there were ‘no retrievable results,’” she said.
LocalSource has obtained these requests, which corroborate Cunha-Moreira’s statement.
Cunha-Moreira said that students in many of the city’s schools have been suffering in the latest wave of high temperatures due to lack of air conditioning. “Our kids are sweltering,” said Cunha-Moreira. “Our schools need electrical upgrading so they can put in air conditioning. We have tainted water, and they go and hire someone for $50,000. It’s this new regime, and it’s very disheartening. They’re not doing the right thing.”
Attempts to reach Elizabeth school superintendent Olga Hugelmeyer were unsuccessful as of press time.
Maria Lorenz, also with the advocacy group and a parent in the district, said that she questions why a school district would need to bring in a public relations firm at all. “Why would a school need a PR person?” said Lorenz. “To me that shows they have something to hide.”
Lorenz asserts that the hiring of Politano is clearly an attempt by the board to manipulate the myriad problems coming out of the school district. “They needed to hire a PR person so they can spin it how they want to,” said Lorenz of the board. “There is no transparency, there is no honesty. They hide in the shadows of private session,” said Lorenz, referring to the board’s meetings.
According to Lorenz, who attends every meeting along with Cunha-Moreira, the meeting at which Politano was appointed ran late into the night, with the board going into private session until midnight. Lorenz and Cunha-Moreira stayed on and waited for the board to come out. It was only at 12:15 a.m.. that Politano’s hiring — which was not included on the written agenda — was finally announced.
Lorenz said that she is concerned about the serious issues plaguing Elizabeth’s schools — specifically the need for lead testing and treatments — and that Politano’s salary should be going toward more urgent needs. “Would you believe that until this very day, the district has not released a list of schools that tested positive for lead?” said Lorenz. “When you have a district that does garbage like this, you need a PR person. I will tell you right now — no one there is interested in the kids. No one cares until parents with half a brain stand up. I wonder what they would do if it was their kids drinking the water?”
Lesniak, who has been named a close ally of Bollwage, told LocalSource that the criticism directed at him regarding Politano’s hiring as payback is baseless.
“Nonsense,” said Lesniak of the accusation. “He replaced Goncalves who made three times plus benefits, and Politano’s a seasoned former reporter. The district needs someone to respond to the various issues that come up rather than take away from the superintendent’s responsibilities. The objectors want to go back to the old corrupt-lead Fajardo regime. Not going to happen,” he said.
Donald Goncalves, who worked for the district for 15 years, was fired in January when his position of assistant board secretary was eliminated.
Cunha-Moreira said she is not going to let up on her campaign to get answers and implement positive change in the district. “I need to advocate for my kids and everybody else’s kids,” said Cunha-Moreira. “There is this culture that they think they can do whatever they want. This latest hiring of a PR person was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Trujillo asserts that it is play to pay when it comes to Bollwage’s political allies. “Politano will now work on his campaigns and the board of education will pay for it,” said Trujillo. “It’s payback for all the favors Bollwage has done. It’s all very toxic and convoluted right now.”
Elizabeth’s school district is comprised of 33 schools, with a student population of more than 23,000.