Soft Corruption: Elizabeth Board of Education

Winding up the chapter on Patronage from Soft Corruption by William E. Schluter (pages 159-162):


Elizabeth, a city just south of Newark with a population of 125,00, is dominated by a uniquely positioned political machine. The machine exercises its muscle through the city’s school board, whose members are elected on a nonpartisan basis but who in fact are Democrats, as are virtually all holders of public office in that section of Union County. The purpose of the Elizabeth school board machine is to gain power for its school board leaders, who have received scarce recognition from normal Democratic Party channels. Tithing is the foundation of this enterprise. It provides the political underpinnings to elect the machine’s board members and keep them in power. It is instructive to describe the broad range of political activities in which the Elizabeth school board engages – and important to emphasize that no other school board anywhere in New Jersey has seen the need or desire to exert such political power. And all of it depends on the link between patronage and contributions from school board employees and public contractors.

While nominally nonpartisan, school board elections in Elizabeth are as intense as partisan elections for municipal, county, and state offices in terms of fund-raising, publicity, and get-out-the-vote drives. At odds with the Democrats who control elections for these offices, the school board has sponsored candidates at all levels to run against the regular Democrats in primaries and nonpartisan municipal elections. Former board chair Rafael Fajardo had previously run unsuccessfully for mayor of Elizabeth. And while he stepped down as chair of the board of education in 2010, he did not relinquish his control over the political machine that carries out the goals of Elizabeth education establishment. In 2011, the school board contributed heavily in money and manpower to the primary slate of three legislative hopefuls who sought, unsuccessfully, to topple longtime incumbents.

The lifeblood of this political juggernaut is the four thousand employees of the school district, including teachers, whose loyalty is controlled through strong-arm patronage methods. They are, for example, counted on to take time off on Election Day to serve as challengers at the polls or to get the vote out. More troubling, board members and other supervisory personnel solicit funds, generally in the form of tickets to events, from teachers and other employees. The pro0ceeds are deposited in accounts used to finance political campaigns. Solicitations have been made on school property using the board of education’s personnel lists – and even after a state law was passed in 2012 to ban political campaign solicitation on public property, allegations of its practice in Elizabeth have been made in subsequent elections. One fund-raising e-mail solicited $240 memberships in For the People of Union County, an organization that financed a weekly political publication. In 2010, one board-sponsored election committee raised $105,000, including $85,000 in amounts under the reporting threshold of $300. The incentive for employees to contribute s clear: “If you don’t buy tickets, you are not promoted to jobs you may want. You are basically shut out of the system no matter how competent you are,” said a former school principal who had become an Elizabeth city council member.

Nepotism flourishes in this political environment. The nine-member board of education has appointed twenty relatives of board members to jobs on the district payroll. Former board chair Fajardo accounts for six of these, including his sister, whose position as truant officer for pre-school children with a salary of $50,000 was under review by the state because there is no requirement for preschoolers to attend school – so what is the justification for a preschool truant officer?

In a political maneuver aime3d against local Democrats who were campaigning to reelect their party’s candidate for governor in 2009, eight of the nine board members endorsed the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Chris Christie. One school employee, according to a complaint he later filed, was told to put up Christie campaign signs and take down the signs of incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine during regular work hours.

The politicization of the Elizabeth school district, whether through coerced campaign contributions or participation in election events, takes its toll on the professional integrity of its mission and personnel. One aspiring educator who earned a master’s degree while teaching social studies realized that advancement “depended on more than hard work and determination.” After purchasing tickets and attending political events, he progressed to the position of tenured administrator, and then he had an epiphany. He stopped buying tickets. Thereafter he was removed from a choice assignment and eventually suspended. These actions led him to sue the Elizabeth school board, citing fund-raising pressures and other political irregularities. Other employees in similar circumstances also initiated whistle-blower suits against the board.

The Elizabeth school board officials were proactive in their response to these complaints. First, they hired a firm staffed with former FBI agents to aggressively investigate the complainants. Their second strategy was to negotiate and offer cash settlements with a stipulation that the settlements remain confidential. This strategy failed when reporters used the open public records law to extract information regarding the suits. Attorneys for the school board redacted the names and settlement terms on many of the court papers, but enough information became public to indicate the board had made ninety settlements, a sample of which showed awards averaging $100,000. During the five years leading up to 2011, the Elizabeth Board of Education spent $5.6 million on legal services, more than twice as much as was spent in Newark, the largest school district in the state.

The stakes at issue in order to gain control of the Elizabeth Board of Education have not been lost on the board’s political enemies, the traditional Democratic Party of the city and surrounding Union County. In recent years, both factions have mounted heated campaigns against each other in school board elections and in the primaries.

As a sign of the seriousness of the rivalry, a super PAC spawned by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision has entered the fray at this, the lowest of all government levels. The Committee for Economic Growth and Social Justice, a super PAC with the backing of Union County state senator Raymond Lesniak, provided more than $180,00 to defeat two of the three incumbent Elizabeth school board members running in 2013, but this was not enough to control the nine-member board.

Again in the November 2014 school board election the Lesniak group fielded a team of three challengers opposing Fajardo’s three incumbents. A total of $196,000 of super PAC money was spent for the Lesniak candidates, enough to win two seats and control of the board.; However, before the new members were settled in, Lesniak incumbent and board president Ana Maris Amin defected tot he Fajardo camp, thereby denying control to the Lesniak group.;

Of special note are the contributions to this super PAC from Lesniak and his law firm – $30,000 – and from special interests that are allied with him on the state scene. Among these are bail bondsmen, alcoholic beverage groups, the longshoremen’s union, and online betting interests. As absurd as it may seem for online betting firms to be investing in the defeat of candidates for a board that decides on textbooks and school lunch contracts in one city in New Jersey, it is no coincidence that these firms are heavily involved in supporting the political objectives of Senator Lesniak, since he has championed their role in the New Jersey gambling industry.

The transgressions involving the Elizabeth school board in areas where political corruption is likely to exist – patronage, campaign financing, electoral procedure – are demonstrably clear and run counter to the educational mission expected of the body that governs a school system. As a result of the complaints filed by aggrieved school employees, condemnation by traditional Democratic Party organizations, and the constant drumbeat of critical newspaper stories, law enforcement authorities have been pressured to undertake a full investigation of the political activities of the Elizabeth school board. While the investigation has led to no major criminal violations, fines have been assessed on several school board members for minor infractions. Former board president Fajardo and school superintendent Pablo Munoz were assessed $63,622 for improper legal fees that they charged the board, and there have been several minor infractions for which Elizabeth school board members have been fined.


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