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‘We are appalled’: Civil rights group criticizes Newark school board for lack of transparency


“We are appalled at the lack of transparency, the lack of respect of the residents of Newark,” the Newark NAACP said in a Feb. 1 letter to the Newark school board president.

Webex/Newark Board of Education

The local NAACP chapter is demanding greater transparency from the Newark school board after the board chose its newest member without public input.

In a letter to the board president, the Newark chapter criticized the way the board selected a replacement for a member who died. After privately selecting a replacement, the board voted on the candidate — Vereliz Santana, who is an aide to a state lawmaker — without any public discussion.

Critics, including local advocates and a former board member, joined the Newark NAACP in saying the board should have invited members of the public to apply for the position and publicly discussed the reasons for choosing Santana before appointing her.

“We are appalled at the lack of transparency, the lack of respect of the residents of Newark and apparent blatant disregard for the stipulated process,” said the Feb. 1 letter to board President Josephine Garcia. The letter asserts that the board did not follow proper protocol in filling the open seat.

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

The demands for more public information and involvement in board decisions come just months after the state formally ended its takeover of the Newark school district and fully restored the elected school board’s authority.

“We have fought for nearly 25 years to regain local control of our school system,” said the Newark NAACP letter. “We will not allow this Board of Education, which is primarily made up of employed aides to politicians, to hijack our system.” (Several board members work for elected officials.)

Deborah Smith Gregory, the group’s president, said she contacted a county education official shortly after the death of board member Tave Padilla to inquire about the process for choosing a replacement. The official, Essex County Executive Superintendent Joseph Zarra, told her that the board should publicize the opening and solicit letters of interest from anyone wishing to fill the vacancy, Smith Gregory said. (Zarra referred a request for comment to the state education department, which did not immediately respond.)

Instead, the board chose Santana without public input.

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

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

In a brief interview before the Jan. 28 vote, Garcia said the board privately chose someone to fill the vacancy rather than conduct a public search because the person would occupy the seat for such a brief period.

“We exercised our right to just appoint someone for the next two months then let the whole democratic process decide who fills the seat,” she said, adding that Santana was well-qualified for the role.

Still, Smith Gregory and other advocates, including former board member Dr. Leah Owens, questioned why the board did not publicly discuss its chosen candidate before last month’s vote. The board appears to have discussed the matter during a closed-door meeting, which are permitted by state law only in limited circumstances.

The board also faced criticism last year after members met privately with the superintendent to discuss the district’s response to the coronavirus rather than hold a public meeting. And Garcia faced a backlash last week after she made a disparaging remark before members of the public were set to speak at a board meeting. (She later apologized.)

Between the board’s process for filling the vacancy and Garcia’s comment, “you have the disrespect of the community in full focus,” Smith Gregory said in an interview Friday, adding that the board has not responded to her letter.

The pandemic demands even greater transparency than usual, not less, Smith Gregory said. Not only do families need to know how the district plans to support students who’ve struggled emotionally and academically during remote learning, but also they need to feel their children will be safe when classrooms reopen. Both objectives require open communication and public trust.

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

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