Originally published in The American Prospect on January 6, 2017.
It’s no secret that school board politics can create bitter enemies, but rarely do such battles end in actual employee firings.
But nine New Jersey public school employees are claiming that a school board feud cost them their jobs, and they’ve recently filed a provocative federal lawsuit, each seeking $100,000 in damages.
The former employees of Elizabeth Public Schools—the fourth-largest school district in New Jersey—say they were fired for exercising their First Amendment rights of political speech and association after they campaigned for certain school board candidates who ultimately lost. In what could turn out to be a costly twist, the school board says it might file a countersuit, alleging nothing less than federal racketeering violations.
The whole drama is unfolding against the backdrop of a bitter political feud that’s divided two competing factions within the local Democratic party.
The case centers on the district’s November 2015 school board election, when three of nine seats were up for grabs. Two rival Democratic blocs endorsed different slates of candidates, though the elections are technically nonpartisan.
According to the federal complaint, one faction, known as “Continue The Progress” (CTP), has maintained a majority on the school board for about two decades. In 2015, three candidates (Tony Monteiro, Elcy Castillo-Ospina, and Michelle Velez-Jont) ran on the CTP ticket.
The other Democratic faction, backed by Elizabeth’s mayor of 25 years, J. Christian Bollwage, supported three CTP opponents (Charlene Bathelus, Stephanie Goncalves, and Daniel Nina). Prior to the 2015 election, the school board comprised five CTP members and four Bollwage-backed members. But all the CTP candidates lost, giving the mayoral faction a 6–3 majority.
The plaintiffs allege that upon taking power, the Bollwage faction “purged” the district of employees who openly supported or were perceived to support the CTP candidates. They claim their contracts were terminated not due to performance, “but rather due to retaliation” for political activity. Their 28-page complaint, drafted by an attorney with a Philadelphia-based law firm, alleges First Amendment violations, due process violations, and violations of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.
The stakes for this kind of suit are high. In the September 2015 issue of The American Prospect, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of public affairs at Columbia, reported on the growing threat of “employer mobilization”—when employers recruit workers into political activity (or retaliate against them for their own political activity). Workers are already subjected to threats, harassment, and other forms of retaliation for union activity, and Hertel-Fernandez says that “it is not a stretch to imagine that in our deeply polarized era, employers might adopt more aggressive political tactics in the same way they have fought unionization.”
In a statement released to Union News Daily (named for the New Jersey county Elizabeth is located in, not the labor movement), Elizabeth district spokesperson Pat Politano said the allegations made against the district, the superintendent, and the school board are “false, frivolous, and will be defended vigorously.” All contract renewals made since January 2016, he said, were done in accordance with state and federal law and Department of Education regulations. According to NJ.Com, Politano’s former job involved consulting for the political campaigns of mayor-backed board members.
Politano said the school district is “considering all appropriate legal actions” in response to the complaint, including the possibility of filing the racketeering counterclaim, arguing that previous boards of education saw the district “as a source of personal benefit to themselves and their political allies.”
In this northern New Jersey city, it seems corruption charges can fly both ways—even within the same party.