Octavio “Tave” Padilla, a Newark school board member who helped usher the district back to local control, died Wednesday. He was 57.
A lifelong Newark resident, Padilla was a beloved figure in the North Ward whose life was woven into the fabric of the city. Over the years, he owned a small business in downtown Newark, helped organize the annual Puerto Rican Day parade, and oversaw youth programs and recreation at the North Ward Center, where many young people knew him as Coach Tave. He was also involved in local politics and was the longest-serving current school board member.
He had two adult children, Andre and Elysha, and a granddaughter. His family did not immediately disclose his cause of death.
“My heartache comes from knowing we didn’t just lose our Dad,” his daughter, Elysha Vega, said Wednesday. “The community lost a friend, a leader, an advocate, a brother to so many.”
Padilla’s parents moved to the city from Puerto Rico in the 1950s. Padilla attended Catholic school in Newark and later ran a shoe store for more than 20 years. He raised two children in the city, both of whom graduated from Rutgers University.
“I’ve lived in Newark 56 years — my whole life,” he said at a school board candidate forum in 2019. “I’ve lived in the South Ward, West Ward, Central Ward, now the North Ward.”
He was first elected to the board in 2016. Previously the board’s vice chair, Padilla more recently chaired the operations committee overseeing district buildings and safety — a position that has become especially critical during the coronavirus pandemic as the district institutes stringent new cleaning protocols and upgrades air filtration systems.
When Padilla began his tenure on the board, the state still controlled the Newark school system; the state-appointed superintendent had ultimate authority over the district, leaving the board with only an advisory role. But in 2018, during Padilla’s first term, the district began its long-awaited transition back to home rule after more than 20 years under the state’s thumb.
He took his role extremely seriously, asserting that it was up to the board to demonstrate that Newark residents could effectively manage their own school system — New Jersey’s largest — and ensure the city’s children receive an outstanding education.
“This is a monumental task,” he said in 2018, just as the return to local control began. “All eyes are on Newark.”
After being reelected to the board in 2019, Padilla helped carry the district across the finish line. This July, the state formally ended its decades-long intervention and handed full control of Newark’s schools back to the board.
Before and during his unpaid role on the school board, Padilla worked as co-director of youth development and recreation at the North Ward Center, a social service organization whose founder also started Robert Treat Academy, a high-performing charter school. He also coached youth baseball, and for many years took groups of young people on an annual trip to Puerto Rico.
“Tave was the heart of us,” the North Ward Center posted on Facebook Wednesday. “He was always there, ready to lend a hand. His boisterous personality matched his giant presence.”
Padilla was also involved in politics, previously serving as an aide and chief of staff for several state lawmakers. A longtime member of the North Ward Democratic Committee, he was close with the community’s elected officials, including City Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. and State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, who both endorsed his school board candidacy.
“Wherever he was, there was happiness,” Ruiz said on Facebook. “Whatever he did was done with joy. We will miss him dearly, but his imprint will last forever.”
Padilla was well-liked by other board members, including Flohisha Johnson, who referred to him as the board’s “peacemaker.”
“He was such a pure and honest person,” she wrote on Facebook. “The Board will never be the same.”
Padilla embraced his peacemaker role. During board meetings, he would frequently comment on how proud he was to see the district leave behind the acrimony of the state-control years as its new, locally chosen leaders worked to push the school system forward.
“We’re all on the same page — or trying to all get on the same page — for one interest and one interest only: And that’s for the best interest of the kids of the city of Newark,” he said last month at one of the final board meetings he attended. “It’s just a great thing to see.”