ELIZABETH — The war between the city and the Elizabeth School District heated up last week when Mayor Chris Bollwage called on the state to take control of the search for a new schools superintendent.
Bollwage is not shedding any tears concerning Superintendent Pablo Munoz leaving the district and heading to Passaic to take a similar job. In fact, the mayor sent a letter to Education Commissioner Chris Cerf asking him “to protect taxpayers from continued mismanagement of funds, restore honesty and safeguard the academic process for thousands of young people attending the city’s public schools.”
Bollwage went even further, saying from investigations to arrests to an indictment that resulted in resignation, scandals have plagued the Elizabeth Board of Education.
The mayor went on to cite examples of this statement, noting, for instance, that former school board President Marie Munn falsely reported household income in order to qualify her children for a federally funded school lunch program. He also pointed out that others were also arrested for similar actions, including Angela Lucio, the ex-wife of Elizabeth School District Principal Carlos Lucio, and Peter Abitanto, the husband of Facilities Supervisor Marlene Abitanto.
The mayor said, as a result of Munn’s indictment, an alleged attempt to cover up an application being filed by board member John Donoso’s wife came to light. Charges subsequently were bought against board attorney Kirk Nelson and outside counsel Frank Capece for their alleged involvement, but that court case is still pending and a judgement has yet to be determined.
These charges, Bollwage said, including tampering with public records, were brought against Nelson and Capece, as well as Donoso and his wife. For several of these employees, the result was being placed on leave without pay until a court hearing takes place.
Also cited by Bollwage was the recent theft of $3,500 by the head custodian from the principal’s office at Nicholas Murray Butler School 23; he was arrested and charged with the crime. The theft of the money, raised at a book fair in May, was the last straw for the mayor.
“Its disturbing that the theft occurred. However, the real question is why was $3,500 being stored weeks later in the principal’s office?” Bollwage asked. “This is just one more example of what can occur when the Board of Education does not lead by example or enforce rules and procedures throughout their organization.”
Bollwage also mentioned that, in 2011, when the Board of Education paid former state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein almost $1 million to conduct an internal review of the organization, his report was later found to be false.
“In addition to the exorbitant cost spent for this partial assessment, Justice Stein’s son was employed by the board at the time,” the mayor said, adding this “mocked the integrity of New Jersey’s educational system.”
Bollwage also pointed out that he recently filed two ethics complaints against Board of Education President Tony Monteiro.
“Unethical behavior, non-compliance in reporting requirements, as well as non-disclosure of interests or income derived from affiliated entities, are outlined with the complaints,” Bollwage said in a statement, noting, “Years later, this is another case of the Board of Education, along with their supporters, promoting personal agendas in lieu of duty and responsibility.”
The mayor explained the opportunity for a new superintendent to oversee the school district was one that had to be handled by someone beyond the purview of the school board.
“The individual who fills this vacancy will have tremendous impact on the future of Elizabeth schools,” Bollwage said, adding that, in order to ensure the environment created by leadership moving forward is one that demands nothing short of excellence, “It is imperative that the replacement of Mr. Munoz is not chosen by the Elizabeth Board of Education.”
Monteiro, on the other hand, brushed off Bollwage’s move, saying the mayor was trying to “undermine city schools.” He said the mayor’s accusations “were not credible,” because the charges he cited were levied against individuals and not the school district.
“The district has no strikes against it from the Department of Education,” Monteiro said in a statement, mentioning that a recent report ranked three city schools very close to the top in African-American, Latino or low-income student performance, which he said discounted Bollwage’s claim that the district is being harmed by leadership.
The report, the New Jersey State Report Cards, came out in the spring, placing the school district high in the ranking. The district fared very well with black student performance, placing second in the state, and Latino students, coming in at No. 3 in the top 10 schools ranked for performance. Elizabeth placed among the top 10 overall in school performance in all Abbott districts in the state.
The superintendent search, Monteiro said, will move forward in the weeks to come.
Bollwage’s letter to Cerf came right after the City Council passed a non-binding resolution requesting the school examine the budget closer so taxpayers would not have to bear a 7.5 percent increase in school taxes. One City Council member said the increase was “unconscionable,” considering the school district receives more than $400 million in state and federal aid because they are an Abbott district.