Newark-‘We Are Appalled’: Civil Rights Group Criticizes Newark Faculty Board For Lack Of Transparency

February 5, 2021 at 7:04 pm EST

The local NAACP chapter calls for greater transparency from the Newark School Board after the board selects its newest member with no public input.

In a letter to the chairman of the board, the Newark chapter criticized the way the board selected a replacement for a deceased member. After private selection of a replacement, the board voted on the candidate – Vereliz Santana, who is an advisor to a state legislature – without public discussion.

Critics, including local lawyers and a former board member, joined the Newark NAACP, saying the board should have invited members of the public to apply for the position and publicly discussed the reasons for choosing Santana before moving on she appointed.

“We are appalled by the lack of transparency, the lack of respect for the people of Newark and the apparent disregard for the established process,” said the February 1 letter to President Josephine Garcia. The letter alleges that the board failed to follow proper protocol in filling out the open seat.

Garcia didn’t respond to an email and text message on Friday. Board attorney Brenda Liss also did not respond to an email.

The call for more public information and participation in board decisions comes just months after the state officially closed its takeover of the Newark school district and fully restored the authority of the elected school board.

“We have struggled for nearly 25 years to regain local control of our school system,” read the Newark NAACP letter. “We are not going to let this Board of Education, made up mostly of employed politicians, hijack our system.” (Several board members work for elected officials.)

Deborah Smith Gregory, the group’s president, said she contacted a county education officer shortly after board member Tave Padilla’s death to inquire about the procedure for selecting a replacement. The official, Joseph Zarra, executive superintendent of Essex County, told her the board should publish the opening and solicit expressions of interest from anyone who wishes to fill the position, Smith Gregory said. (Zarra referred a request for comment to the State Department of Education, which did not respond immediately.)

Instead, the board chose Santana with no public contribution.

The selection process appears to follow state law, which only requires a majority of the board’s votes to fill a vacancy and does not indicate whether members of the public can apply for the position.

Santana will hold the seat until April’s annual board of directors election, when voters decide who will serve the final year of Padilla’s term.

In a brief interview prior to the Jan. 28 vote, Garcia said the board had privately selected someone to fill the position rather than conducting a public search because the person would be occupying the seat for such a short period of time.

“We exercised our right to only appoint someone for the next two months and then let the entire democratic process decide who will take the seat,” she said, adding that Santana was well qualified for the role.

Still, Smith noted Gregory and other supporters, including former board member Dr. Leah Owens, when asked why the board did not publicly discuss its elected candidate prior to last month’s vote. The board appears to have discussed the matter in closed session, which state law allows only under certain circumstances.

The board was also criticized last year after members met privately with the superintendent to discuss the district’s response to the coronavirus, rather than holding a public meeting. And Garcia had a backlash last week after making a derogatory comment before the public was due to speak at a board meeting. (She later apologized.)

Between the board’s process of filling the position and Garcia’s comment, “You are focusing on disrespect for the community,” Smith Gregory said in an interview Friday, adding that the board had not responded to her letter.

The pandemic requires even more transparency than usual, no less, said Smith Gregory. Not only do families need to know how the district plans to support students who have had emotional and academic problems with distance learning, but they also need to feel that their children will be safe as their classrooms reopen. Both goals require open communication and public trust.

“Our children are suffering,” said Smith Gregory. “We can’t do business as usual.”

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to public education. Sign up for your newsletter here.

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