In Sudden Switch, JCBOE Names Torres to Replace Connors

Joel Torres, the newest JCBOE member.

In a surprising and sudden turnaround they claimed the state forced upon them, Jersey City School Board of Education members filled Sean Connors’ vacancy last night by appointing a parent, Joel Torres, with just one month left on the term before elections in April. Connors left the Board in January after he was elected to the New Jersey General Assembly.

At a special meeting, lasting just over an hour before a handful of residents, members voted 6-0 for Torres. Backing him were President Sterling Waterman, Vice President Carol Lester and trustees Marvin Adames, Carol Harrison-Arnold, Suzanne Mack and Angel Valentin. Absent were the two members who recently declined to seek re-election: William DeRosa and Patricia Sebron.

This significant action came on short notice, as the board only legally advertised the meeting 48 hours in advance (the minimum time the state’s Sunshine Law allows).

Torres’ appointment is tentative. He is expected to be sworn in at a board committee meeting next Tuesday. Board secretary Melissa Simmons requested the delay to make sure his documents are in order, so “no one can contest the seat.”

Torres, a steady presence at board meetings, is a parent of three as well as the recording secretary for PS 27’s parent council. He works as a coordinator for an Essex County alcohol abuse prevention program.

The presumed trustee beat out parent activist Akisia Grigsby and 2011-12 budget critic Peter O’Reilly. None are among the eight candidates running in the April 17 election – a criteria for filling Connors’ vacancy.

“I’d like to thank you here tonight,” said Torres, whose appointment was loudly applauded following the vote. “I really appreciate the support you guys gave me. I’m truly honored as a parent of three children.”

Torres assured JCI his short-time stay will still be time well spent.

“I have developed a good grasp of the issues in attending so many board meetings,” he said. “If parents can be inspired by seeing another parent, serving on the board and trying to make a difference for the children, even if that service lasts only a month, it’s a very meaningful contribution.”

Grigsby assured her effort in competing with Torres was in no way contentious. She applauded as loudly as anyone else in the room.

“I respect the board’s decision and feel Mr. Torres is an outstanding choice,” added Grigsby, who noted that she originally wanted to run this year but had to back out given current job commitments.

Not that Torres won’t have anything to do. His only scheduled action meetings this month are a key March 26 budget hearing – where he could vote on the proposed 2012-13 spending plan – and the board’s regular monthly meeting on March 29. He will serve until the new board reorganizes.

Mack told residents Torres’ earned the seat because the six board members who agreed to proceed on finding a replacement (sans Sebron and DeRosa) reached consensus on supporting Torres. Mack said Adames, DeRosa and Sebron chose not to propose candidates.

Yet while welcoming Torres to his fleeting moment in the spotlight, some board members made clear they thought the action was too late in the game, while also heaping praise on their newest colleague’s qualifications.

Sean Connors left the JCBOE in January after he was elected to state assembly.

Mack, who chaired the recruiting committee for replacement candidates, insisted the board preferred sticking to its original plan – approved February 2 – not to fill the seat unless the election was pushed back to November. The option was allowed under a new state law.

Mack maintained the board felt it had to back off that stance once Hudson County superintendent Monica Tone inferred in correspondence she reserved the right to act in the board’s absence.

Mack said the board, under partial state control, did not want to surrender its sovereignty for filling vacancies. Waterman repeatedly emphasized this point.

“If there is a replacement, it should be chosen by the board,” he said. “Why would we want to give the power to someone else?”

Waterman said the board had 65 days to act – up to March 19 – before Tone could intervene.

“The statute 18A: 12-15 A requires the executive county superintendent (ECS) to fill the vacancy if the board fails to act within 65 days,” DOE spokeswoman Allison Kobus explained in an email to JCI. “The ECS informed the board president that she would begin the process if they did not act, per state law.”

The board also declined to fill a vacancy in 2011. Last year, Peter Donnelly resigned in late February upon moving to Guttenberg. Mack noted that the 65-day window for acting would have lapsed around last year’s board election. Even so, the board could have opted to make a selection well before that time – just as it could have for Connors.

As to why the board decided not to spend time on finding Connors’ replacement after his election to state assembly, Waterman said it was preoccupied with “other things” needing more immediate attention at the time.

Shortly after Connors’ election in November, the board initiated the early phases of its search for a new permanent superintendent, and also had to find an interim successor for the retiring Charles Epps. It ultimately appointed then-associate superintendent Franklin Walker as interim district head.

But school board candidate Jayson H. Burg criticized the board’s philosophy during the public hearing, Burg insisted members should have also made finding Connors’ replacement a high priority – and started last fall once the 65-day window triggered.

Adames seemed sympathetic to Burg’s point. He claimed trustees need to revisit their existing policy on filling vacancies, given this year’s developments.

“I think the policy needs to be updated,” he said. “There needs to be a little more detail on how we should move forward as a board in the future.”

Chris Neidenberg

a freelance reporter with extensive experience covering municipalities throughout North Jersey.