Does ‘everybody love Raymond’?

Elizabeth district database compromised again; teachers receive political letter

The Elizabeth Board of Education believes a city councilman was directly involved in illegally obtaining a confidential list of district teacher addresses and used it to cut down the district while building up Democrat Sen. Raymond Lesniak’s initiatives.

On Oct. 18 the school board unanimously passed a resolution to take all steps necessary to uncover how these confidential home addresses of district teachers came into the possession of Elizabeth Councilman Frank Cuesta.

The school board is claiming the former Elizabeth school district principal got the addresses from the school district computer files and then mailed political information to district teachers.

At this point, though, district officials admitted they did not have any proof that Cuesta illegally obtained the addresses of all 2,200 teachers, or exactly how many teachers received the information.

(See related storyEmail from Lesniak raises red flags)

One school board attorney mentioned that so far the district knew of  “at least 200 teachers” who received the political mailing.

The board vowed to take other actions, including sending the mailing to the appropriate state and county educational and law enforcement personnel. The district also is in the process of conducting a survey to find out how many employees had their privacy violated.

District officials said they became aware that someone illegally obtained the confidential address roster after teachers began complaining to school administrators and board members about the packet of politically focused information from Cuesta.

Alarming, school district officials said, was the fact that the political information demeaned the board of education while highlighting how Lesniak was working to counteract the problem.

LocalSource obtained a copy of the political mailer received by teachers. Included was a letter from Cuesta indicating the powerful Democrat senator had protected teachers jobs from political interference, specifically referencing administrators and boards of education who “can make the learning environment and their jobs a political nightmare.”

The letter also pointed out that Lesniak was a leader in the fight against administrators deciding who gets merit pay, noting the senator “has witnessed the political abuse that takes place in some districts.”

The letter then went on to explain that during New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s confirmation hearings, Lesniak spoke about the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” teachers are asked to contribute to political candidates supported by the board of education.

Cuesta said Lesniak told Cerf “how support for candidates advanced by the political junta that runs Elizabeth’s Board of Education has become a political job requirement, despite current protections for tenured employees and restrictions against such factors as the grounds for promotions.”

“These are the initiatives taken by Senator Raymond Lesniak that can make a big improvement in your life and the lives of those you care about and the quality of education offered in the state of New Jersey,” Cuesta emphasized in the letter mailed to teachers.

Also enclosed in the packed to district teachers was a copy of a hand written letter from Lesniak, inviting them to a reception Oct. 23 from 4 to 6 p.m. for refreshments and “congenial conversation.”

In response to this the board immediately sent a letter Oct. 18 to Cerf explaining this mailing did not have the prior approval of teachers or the district. The school board expressed grave concern regarding the legalities involved when an elected official takes these kinds of liberties.

“Let us again express concern that a clear breach of confidentiality of the home address of educators has occurred,” the board said in their letter.

Calling it a “violation of both school policy and state statute,” the board explained, asking for the commissioner’s guidance in this matter.

The school board also enclosed a copy of the envelope used in the mailing, pointing out the “pretentious” heading of “Everybody loves Raymond.”

“Our initial review indicates the list of teachers utilized was not provided by staff,” the board noted, adding one educator even received the letter at an address he had moved from several years ago.

As for the statements made by Cuesta that specifically involved the Elizabeth Board of Education, the board told the commissioner of education they felt there was no need to respond to the allegations.

“These charges were fully refuted after the expansive investigation conducted by former Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein,” the board told Cerf in their letter.

School Board President Fernando Nazco also penned a letter to Cerf, but his comments were far more caustic regarding Lesniak.

Nazco referred back to Cerf’s confirmation hearings, bringing up how Lesniak questioned the integrity of the Elizabeth School district.

“As one statewide publication said, Sen. Lesniak has a ‘fatal attraction’ when it comes to our schools,” the school board president said in his letter to Cerf.

This is not the first time the school district has believed the computer system has been compromised. In August 2011 the district claimed someone hacked into  the district computer database, taking personal information, including names, addresses, serial numbers, social security numbers and incomes of 20,000 families that was later leaked to The Star-Ledger.

Nazco also brought to Cerf’s attention the investigation by former supreme court justice Stein, which, he said, “was necessitated by the allegations contained in some Star-Ledger stories.”

Stein was hired by the school district in 2011 to investigate what took place and compile a report with his findings. The report, which cost the school district $750,000, placed considerable blame on the state’s largest daily newspaper, saying it was biased and unfair in its reporting of the school district.

But Stein did not place all the blame on The Star-Ledger. He referenced interference by two powerful Democrat politicians in Union County: Lesniak and Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage.

“The Star-Ledger, knowingly or unknowingly, improperly failed to disclose that the sources relied on for those allegations were biased,” Stein said in his lengthy report. He also tied this directly to Lesniak and Bollwage, strongly suggesting The Star-Ledger purposely did not address the political animosity that fueled the state newspaper’s articles.

Nazco explained this to Cerf, pointing out that Stein’s report “largely refuted the conclusions by The Ledger and rejected allegations previously made by Lesniak that indicated district employees were forced to buy tickets or engage in political activity during the working day.

“It should be seen as hardly earth shaking that employees of a district subjected to the ongoing attacks of the local political machine would want to express their far more positive attitudes as to their employment and oppose those making false assertions,” the board president said.

These allegations were released in a letter to parents, informing them that it was the district’s belief that their personal information had been provided to the statewide newspaper.

Lesniak did not return repeated calls or emails from LocalSource regarding this issue.