Orange BOE special election case set to go before judge

ORANGE, NJ — Thursday, April 13, at 9 a.m. is the deadline for Superior Court Judge Tom Vena to hear the legal briefs that he ordered regarding the Orange School District vote last year to change from a Type 1 to a Type 2 district. In the former, board of education members are appointed by the mayor; in the latter, voters elect board members.

Frank Belluscio, the deputy executive director of the state School Boards Association, the statewide organization that sets standards for all public school districts, said Tuesday, Feb. 7, that the transition process is based on a New Jersey statute.

“If the appointed board of education had less than nine members, the size of the board must be increased to nine members. The selection of the additional members can take place at a special school election. … Special school elections are called by the board of education. The county clerk or county board of elections is responsible for conducting the elections,” Belluscio said.

According to Belluscio, the initial terms of office for the additional board members will be arranged so that, each year, three of nine board positions will be on the ballot. He also said, “By default, the district’s annual school election will take place in April, unless either the school board or the municipal governing body adopts a resolution, or the voters approve a referendum, to set the district’s annual school election in November.”

In the hearing in Vena’s courtroom on Thursday, April 13, the Orange Board of Education will be represented by Stephen Edelstein, a special attorney hired at the Board of Education’s meeting on Monday, Jan. 23. On Friday, Feb. 3, Edelstein filed a legal brief with the New Jersey Department of Education, seeking a legal injunction to stop the changeover from a Type 1 board format to a Type 2 format. However, the New Jersey Department of Education transferred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law, which eventually ruled on Monday, Feb. 27, that the Office of Administrative Law was not the proper venue for it to be heard.

Supported by the Warren administration, Edelstein then filed another brief in the state Superior Court in Newark on Friday, March 10. After this, the Orange City Council called on attorney Robert Tarver to represent it before the Office of Administrative Law and on Thursday, April 13, in Vena’s courtroom.

A new attorney was hired, because Orange city attorney Eric Pennington cannot take sides against the administration or the council in a legal battle. The administration has sided with the Board of Education against the change to an appointed board.

On Thursday, April 13, the case will be heard in Vena’s courtroom; the last time the judge made a ruling in the case was on Monday, March 13, when he ordered that the special election date be moved to Tuesday, March 28, because of the impending threat of a snowstorm on Tuesday, March 14.

On Monday, March 13, Vena also informed Edelstein, Tarver and Pennington that they had until Friday, March 24, to file their final briefs, but later granted the city an extension to Tuesday, March 28, after the attorney the city hired to replace Pennington asked for more time to write his brief, with the caveat that the special election scheduled to take place on the same day the filings were due would not be certified by Essex County clerk Chris Durkin until after Thursday, April 13.

“It is unusual for a judge to ask that the certification of an election be delayed,” said Durkin on Monday, March 27. “We would normally certify the election results eight days after election day.”

The issue began Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, when Orange residents voted on Public Question No. 1 to make the change from a Type 1 to a Type 2 Board of Education. According to the Essex County Clerk’s Office, 3,899 Orange voters voted for the change as opposed to the 1,178 voters who wanted to maintain the status quo. According to city and county officials, there are roughly 15,000 registered voters in Orange in a population listed at more than 30,000 in the last U.S. Census; Orange business administrator Chris Hartwyk recently estimated there are between 9,000 and 12,000 additional unregistered residents.

After the election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, the council voted to approve a bond to raise money for capital improvement projects at local public schools, but plans were put on hold, once Hartwyk learned that the city was no longer allowed to float bonds for the Board of Education, after the changeover in district type.

That’s when the Board of Education, led by President Cristina Mateo, decided to hire Edelstein at its meeting on Monday, Jan. 23, and the Warren administration became involved on behalf of children, families and education, it said. But council President Donna K. Williams said that was really not the truth.

“Whether you’re an elected or an appointed school board, it’s the same pool of money; if this was an issue of money, how many of our urban school districts are elected school boards,” said Williams on Wednesday, Jan. 25. “It seems, though, people are pushing their own agenda instead of doing the work and the will of the people. Perhaps they’re comfortable in being an appointed school board and they don’t want to move forward, as far as where the city of Orange desires to go and is going.”

Williams went on to say that if the money for the district’s capital improvement projects is really the only reason Warren and the Board of Education members are opposing the “will of the people,” then they could have just put a bond issue to raise that money onto the special election ballot.

Mateo said the board is not trying to disenfranchise any Orange voters or otherwise defy the will of the people.

“If it’s agreed that the process was done correctly, we welcome whatever process we need to work on,” said Mateo at the board’s special meeting on Monday, Jan. 23. “Whatever process we need to work on, we will work on. If we get two more members, we will do everything possible to educate those members, to make sure they also need to do what needs to be done. Eventually, this is a position that you’re either elected or voted on. This is all temporary, so we’re going to make sure that whoever takes our place or comes to the board is prepared enough to take over and to do what needs to be done.”