Fight regarding changing Orange’s school district type continues

ORANGE, NJ — The debate regarding changing Orange’s school district from Type 1 to Type 2, in which the Orange Board of Education would be elected by voters instead of appointed by the mayor, is continuing.

Superior Court Judge Tom Vena’s opinion in a recent case stated that granting the “injunctive relief” Orange Board of Education special attorney Stephen Edelstein requested — in order to void the results of the first district change referendum that led to Public Question No. 1 for Orange that appeared on the November 2016 election ballot, which a majority of voters approved — would not “undercut the will of the voters” by voiding that vote and the subsequent special election vote to fill the two new board seats that needed to be added, in order to move from a Type 1 to a Type 2 district.

“Rather, in accordance with the right to vote indeed being sacred, it merely seeks to confirm the voters’ will, in a way that is fair to all parties involved,” Vena said in his opinion on Thursday, April 13. “Fairness is best ensured by transparency and the referendum in question was not transparent as written. Moreover, the notion that voters will be burdened by a revised referendum being placed on the November 2017 ballot is far-fetched, at best. It is one additional consideration to be voted upon in an annual election. With respect to the appropriateness of judicial intervention, the court is satisfied that the lack of information in the referendum interfered with a knowledgeable expression of popular will, so as to warrant judicial action under Wene.”

According to former Janice Morrell, a former Orange Zoning Board member, the Committee for an Elected Orange School Board has already been formed. She and Councilwoman at Large Donna K. Williams also confirmed a petition seeking to get the Orange City Council to create another referendum to facilitate the changeover from a Type 1 to a Type 2 district was being circulated throughout the city and it was turned into the City Clerk’s Office in City Hall on Tuesday, April 22.

“I shared Vena’s opinion with Anthony Johnson, the chairman of the Committee for an Elected Orange School Board,” said Morrell on Wednesday, Aug. 23. “It is a community-based group of residents who want to reclaim our votes of Nov. 8, 2016.”

The members of the Committee for an Elected Orange School Board are: Johnson, Tyrone Tarver, Derrick Henry, Jody Leight, Mary Meade, Morrell, Germaine Tarver and Karen Wells. They have crafted a petition that includes corrections to the Public Question and Interpretive Statement that Vena cited as being deficient in his previous ruling. Firstly, it strikes down the first district change referendum. Secondly, it is printed in English, Spanish and Creole, which remedies another deficiency that Vena agreed with Edelstein on in his ruling against the first referendum. They both said it failed to be as inclusive of all the diverse languages that make up the current city of Orange Township electorate as it is reflected in the student population of the Orange School District and that would be impacted by a change from a Type 1 to Type 2 district.

The new committee acknowledged the Orange City Council majority, led by President Kerry Coley, recently voted against a revised referendum resolution proposed by Williams at the meeting on Thursday, July 6, that would have restarted the referendum process. The council majority, led by North Ward Councilwoman Tency Eason, used a recent legal opinion from city attorney Eric Pennington’s office to justify its vote against Williams’ resolution.

Edelstein showed up at the council meeting Thursday, July 6, in support of the legal opinion from Pennington’s office that said state law precluded having another referendum to change the Orange School District.

Henry and Tarver had never appealed Vena’s ruling voiding their historic election wins, but now they have both signed onto the new Committee for an Elected Orange School. Neither could be reached for comment by press time this week.

“It doesn’t matter that the outcome of the election was voided, because the fact of the matter is that the legislative history of this statute is that it is a financial statute,” said Edelstein on Thursday, July 6. “It attacks the evil of having a repetitive cost for the same election. There is no question in my mind, none, and I gather, although it has never been shared with me, that it sounds like the corporation counsel comes out in the same place on this, that it would be flatly unlawful for this council to place this on the ballot a second time within four years. It would create an unnecessary cost to the school district of more than $40,000, because the cost of elections never go down, they only go up. And since there was a criticism by the court of the lack of public education about the referendum, I’m sure that there would be additional costs there as well.

“So I’m here to implore you on behalf of the school district not to turn this into ‘Groundhog Day.’ Let’s not do this again. There is a time and place that this referendum can be heard, but this is not the time. Four years from November 2016 is the time.”

Williams and her former Home Team running mate, current at large Councilman Christopher Jackson, disagreed with Pennington’s office’s legal opinion, however, saying they believed when Vena overturned the results of Public Question No. 1 on the 2016 election ballot and voided the March 28 Orange BOE special election, what he really intended was for the city to start the effort to change from a Type 1 to Type 2 district all over from scratch, with a new referendum that remedied all of the deficiencies with the original referendum question and its accompanying explanation that Edelstein had pointed out in his brief seeking an injunction from the court, to stop the change with which the judge ultimately agreed.

But according to Vena’s ruling, he didn’t say Orange couldn’t do another referendum in time for the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 7.