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Teachers union, Elizabeth mayor battle publicly over who controls the school district

A public battle between the Democratic mayor of Elizabeth, the local school board and the teachers union is reaching a tipping point, threatening a collision between longstanding political power players and a school district in crisis.

Elizabeth Public Schools, like many other districts across the country, is in the throes of a teacher shortage exacerbated by the pandemic and could be looking down the barrel of a teacher strike in the coming weeks.

What began as a skirmish over contract negotiations between the union and the entrenched Democratic politicians who run the city has turned into a full-blown war in the public arena about who really runs New Jersey’s second largest school district.

“The Elizabeth Education [Association] President John Griffin is planning a strike on the first week of school after rejecting a 10% plus raise. Anyone who participates will never receive a promotion,” Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage tweeted shortly after noon on Wednesday.

During an hours-long school board meeting Thursday evening, Griffin confronted the board, demanding that it respond to Bollwage’s tweet, which appeared to imply the mayor has some power over school employee promotion decisions. Under state law, he does not.

According to state education law, the only person who can make decisions regarding employment, including promotions, hiring or firing, is the school superintendent. School board members can take employment action based on recommendations from the superintendent. Absent any recommendation, action taken by a school board would be in violation of state statute and the state’s school ethics laws.

Pat Politano, a spokesperson for the Union County school district, said in a statement to POLITICO that Bollwage “is famously passionate about the City of Elizabeth,” and his tweet was evidence of that.

“I think he let his concern that anyone would disrupt the school year after the children suffered through two years of Covid understandably get the better of him,” Politano said. “Mayor Bollwage has no say in promotions in the Elizabeth School District.”

Griffin told board members on Thursday, “at no point has the EEA threatened to strike,” but asked, “are you surprised that a strike has become a possibility?”

According to an email the union sent to its members earlier this week, the EEA has scheduled an “emergency general membership meeting” for Monday at which union leaders will be “answering questions and discussing pending work actions.”

Griffin said conditions in the district of more than 27,000 students have become dire.

“Our salaries are frozen. Our workloads are impossible. You’re desperately short on teachers and people are still resigning in record numbers,” he told the board on Thursday. “It certainly sounds like a type of district where a strike could happen.”

“The mayor said ‘strike,’ not me,” Griffin said. “He publicly accused me of planning one and then threatened my members, which is reprehensible and should be denounced.”

In doing so, Griffin said, Bollwage also acknowledged his political influence over the board.

“City Hall and the board are separate entities, but that’s not what his threat implied,” Griffin said.

Leonardo Caramazana, vice president of the union, said during Thursday’s board meeting that Bollwage’s tweet was “anti-union animus and, quite frankly, an abuse of power.”

“Nothing has more clearly shown the inappropriate relationship between the mayor and the board,” Caramazana said.

According to an anonymous “important message” posted on the school district’s website outlining details of the negotiations between the union and the district, the district’s collective bargaining agreements with the union expired June 30, 2022.

The district offered a three-year contract with a 10 percent increase compounded over three years, according to the update, while the EEA proposed a 21.92 percent increase compounded over three years.

“Elizabeth teachers are the highest paid in Union County with a median salary of $87,434, nearly $15,000 more than statewide median,” the anonymous statement reads. “We’re proud to have made such a substantial investment in our district’s teachers. The District had proposed a 10% increase for teachers that would have meant nearly a $9,000 increase to the median teacher’s salary.”

In recent years, state Democrats have refrained from publicly warring with the powerful New Jersey Education Association teachers union as the union has aligned itself tightly with Gov. Phil Murphy. Bollwage appears to be bucking the trend.

Control of the Elizabeth Board of Education has for years been one of the biggest battles in Union County politics. Bollwage’s political weight is behind most if not all nine of the board members, which some local parents and activists allege make those members “beholden” to him. A shift in alliances on the board from a majority of members who opposed Bollwage and former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak to a majority who are now in line with them came in large part from Democratic political operative Sean Caddle’s super PACs and nonprofits. Caddle, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to hiring hit men to murder an associate and is cooperating with federal investigators, worked as a consultant for Lesniak.

A 2011 Star-Ledger investigation revealed the extent of the board’s political nature, calling the interplay between city politicians and the school board “a relentless political machine fueled by nepotism, patronage, money and favors.”

As the political back-and-forth continues, parents say, it’s the students who are caught in the middle.

Among other speakers who appealed to the board members Thursday night were several parents of students with special needs who said the board needed to take accountability for the unsatisfactory way the district treats its special education students.

Those parents accused the board members of paying more attention to political and budgetary issues and fighting with the teachers union than focusing on policies that address their children’s needs.

Maria Lorenz, an Elizabeth mom and community activist who has spoken critically about her family’s experiences with the Elizabeth special education program in the past, called Bollwage’s tweet and the school board’s refusal to denounce it “absolutely disgusting.”

“I challenge you board members to say something,” Lorenz said at the meeting. “It proves who runs this district it’s not you.”

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