Infighting continues as South Orange–Maplewood BOE members file ethics complaints against one another

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Two separate ethics complaints have been filed against current and former members of the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education, with a court hearing scheduled for July 11 and a second hearing on July 13 if necessary. Current board members Elissa Malespina and Johanna Wright filed ethics charges against board President Thair Joshua, first Vice President Susan Bergin, and members Courtney Winkfield and Erin Siders, along with former BOE members Shannon Cuttle, Annemarie Maini and Chris Sabin. The complaint was filed with the New Jersey School Ethics Commission in December 2021. This story was first broken by Village Green.

Maini filed charges against Malespina on March 10, and the BOE passed a resolution at its meeting on April 18 authorizing the New Jersey School Board Insurance Group to pay legal fees associated with the charges filed against Malespina.

There are three charges in the complaint that Malespina and Wright filed against the four current and three former BOE members. The first says that Joshua presented a resolution to be voted on at the May 2021 meeting that included a number of policies and would not permit one to be severed from the package to be voted on separately.

“This action led to both board member Malespina and board member Wright having no choice but to vote ‘no’ for all the policies even though there was only one policy, 2233 Use of Tobacco Products, that they had concerns with,” the complaint reads. The News-Record accessed court documents via Village Green.

According to the complaint, Malespina and Wright asked during a public board retreat in August 2021 and a private policy committee meeting in October for the ability to vote on the resolution separately. A resolution to sever the resolution in question was presented at the November 2021 board meeting, and the complaint alleges that Joshua would not bring it to the floor for a vote because he did not think it would pass.

Joshua is the subject of the second charge in Malespina and Wright’s complaint, which states that, after the November meeting adjourned, Joshua began to yell at Malespina and Wright in front of Malespina’s seat, turning off her microphone so no one in the room could hear what he was saying.

“Board member Malespina was startled, frightened and alarmed as board President Joshua, even after being asked to stop by both board members Malespina and Wright, continued to yell at both of them,” the complaint reads. “Board President Joshua’s behavior violates state harassment, intimidation and bullying laws and also New Jersey state harassment policy by ‘engaging in threatening, intimidating or hostile acts toward another individual in the workplace because that individual belongs to or is associated with any of the protected categories.’”

The third charge in the complaint concerns a resolution, proposed by Winkfield and passed at the board’s Oct. 18 meeting, that placed a moratorium on suspensions in the district. Malespina and Wright expressed concern about the legality of the resolution and said it never went through the policy committee. The complaint says that Winkfield and the other BOE members who are named in the charges and who voted in favor of the resolution overstepped the role of the board “to be one of just policymaking, planning and appraisal.”

Wright did not respond to a request for comment by press time on May 3, and Malespina deferred to her attorney, Juan Fernandez. Fernandez declined to comment on legal matters in a phone interview with the News-Record on April 29.

“Per the advice of counsel, we cannot comment on litigation,” Joshua said in an email to the News-Record on April 27.

Sabin declined to comment in an email to the News-Record on May 2. Bergin, Winkfield, Siders and Cuttle did not return requests for comment.

Maini’s complaint against Malespina describes 11 allegations of ethics violations, including a November 2021 Facebook post asking residents to vote for two candidates without referencing that it was a personal opinion and did not reflect the opinion of the BOE, speaking with a district librarian regarding a policy Malespina was rewriting at the time, implying a single board member has individual power and implying that a board member “has individual power to dictate work from administration and run the school district.”

Malespina was a complainant in a lawsuit the district settled with the Black Parents Workshop, and Maini’s complaint alleges that Malespina continued to participate in matters related to the litigation after joining the board. One of the terms of the settlement was that the district address the disparate suspension rate in the SOMSD across race, and Malespina participated in the discussion about that resolution; it is the subject of one of Malespina’s complaints against other BOE members, in which she alleges that they didn’t approach the issue properly.

“During the discussion, respondent not only actively discussed the resolution, but actively voiced her disagreement with the resolution, thereby working against the board’s interest in abiding by the spirit and letter of the BPW settlement,” Maini’s complaint about Malespina reads. The complaint also said Malespina participated in a discussion about credit recovery, which is another term of the BPW settlement.

Maini said she could not comment on legal matters in a phone interview with the News-Record on April 30.