BLOOMFIELD, NJ-- Calling the 2017 ethics complaint against her, “political silliness,” Emily Smith, one of seven candidates running for the Bloomfield Board of Education, said this week that she signed documents settling the issue to not burden taxpayers with the cost of potential litigation.
Smith allegedly violated the board’s Code of Ethics when she previously served as a trustee in 2017, this according to documents obtained by Tap Into Bloomfield. Smith settled a complaint filed against her after she failed to win reelection in Nov. 2017.
“I didn’t really want to sign it,” Smith said. “I know I did nothing wrong. But I also know that the complaint cost me $5,000 in legal fees and I expect the school district paid a similar amount and would cost more if it continued. After a year, I thought it was time to settle the issue.”
Board President Jill Fischman, who is running against Smith in the upcoming election, filed the complaint in 2017 after having obtained copies of emails sent by Smith that used school email to seek employment outside the school district and to promote a college fundraising effort for Smith’s daughter.
Fischman filed the complained with the Ethics Commission of New Jersey in August 2017, citing Smith sent earlier in the year.
“Ms. Smith has been using her seat on the Bloomfield Board of Education to gain employment in other districts by the way of having different administrators in Bloomfield call in favors or help her with job applications and references,” Fischman wrote in her complaint, noting in an additional charge, Smith had pressured school administration team members to support fundraisers for her daughter’s sorority and to have the staff purchase jewelry.
The 2017 dispute between Fischman and Smith appears to have evolved out of disagreements over another issue in which the board was considering settling a sexual harassment suit that had been filed against the school district.
Smith, although ultimately voting for the $150,000 settlement, asked for more details about the suit.
Fischman, Smith said, came into a public meeting shortly after brandishing thousands of documents – among with were the emails that eventually became the focus of the ethics complaint.
In one of these emails, dated May 10, 2017, Smith wrote to a Bloomfield school official: “I can’t get my application in. My old computer no doubt. Would you do me a huge favor and forward my attached resume to South Orange Maplewood. It’s for a leave replacement job at Columbia High School. I called them buy who knows if they will call back.”
In another email dated June 6, Smith asked another school official for a reference for a job in Piscataway.
“It’s not a teaching job, more editorial,” she wrote.
In an email earlier in 2017, Smith wrote to colleague at the Bloomfield school district, saying she was trying to sell some tricky tray tickets for her daughter’s sorority.
“If you know anyone who likes to attend these things, would you please let me know? The tickets are on the pricey-side, in my opinion, but it comes with dinner and dessert and a bunch of tickets to some really good baskets. At least two will be jewelry baskets (donated by me and my former partner) and another will be for a pair of Broadway tickets to Kinky Boots, I think. My brother is stage manager for that show and he’s donating that basket.”
Although Fischman’s complaint claimed Smith tried to pressure her colleagues, Smith described these things as friendly requests between friends, asking them for favors, not making demands.
Smith said the people she asked to help her daughter knew her daughter and that the tricky tray events were to help raise funds for breast cancer research. In some cases, Smith had donated baskets containing jewelry for the same charity. While Smith did sell a few pieces of jewelry, there was no intimidation. In one case, one of her colleagues needed to get a birthday present for someone.
Fischman, who served as board president for six months in 2016 and seeking reelection this year, said the legal costs of pursuing the complaint eventually kept the board of pursing further action.
“Her (Smith’s) attorney was also being paid for by the board,” Fischman said. “In order to cut the legal costs, we asked for a settlement. This required her to sign a document saying she would no longer use school resources for these things. When she signed, I stopped the complaint.”
According to documents obtained through the Open Public Records Act, Smith, her attorney signed the settlement on June 4, 2018.
Smith said she signed the agreement even though she had checked the legality of her actions with the board legal counsel, who determined she’d done nothing wrong.
“There were no witnesses,” Smith said.
Smith and Fischman have been at odds over a number of issues, starting perhaps when Smith voted against Fischman’s election as board president.
Fischman shortly afterwards removed Smith from the Facility and Finance Committee to a less powerful Curriculum Committee.
“I think she hoped I would resign from the board,” Smith said.
Smith also came into conflict when she questioned Fischman’s use of local police to check the residency of a newly elected Gladys Rivera – who had come in third ahead of Fischman’s political ally in the election.
“I thought it was inappropriate to use local police to investigate,” Smith said. “The complaint should have been done to the school boards association.”
Most recently, Smith and Fischman came into dispute over the Board of Education’s attempt to do away with the Nov. 5 election by moving it to April 2020 – after Smith, Fischman and five other candidates had already filed.
A legal ruling, partly the result of Smith’s lobbying, invalidated the move led by Fischman. While the district could hold the 2020 election in April, the Nov. 5 election must take place.
Smith was first elected to the Bloomfield Board of Education in 2005, but lost her bid for reelection in 2017, but is currently seeking to return to the board in an election on Nov. 5.
Smith responded to an earlier version of this story with a statement.
“I have devoted my life to public service. For the first eight years of my professional life, I worked as a daily newspaper reporter researching and writing stories that served the public good. As anyone who was worked in this field knows, you don’t go into this profession for the money,” she said. “I then worked as a writer and editor for two non-profit engineering associations. When the recession occurred and I joined the ranks I’d the unemployed, I became a certified secondary Social Studies teacher and worked in Glen Ridge for several years, first as a substitute then as a paraprofessional. Add to that nine years serving as a volunteer elected to serve on the Bloomfield Board of Education and you should have an understanding of why I view Jill Fischman’s actions to file frivolous ethics charges against me and others, and her attempt to invalidate a Board of Education election in an effort to unlawfully extend her time on the Bloomfield BOE by four months as antithetical to the mission and goals of public education generally and the Bloomfield Board of Education specifically.”