LIVINGSTON, NJ - On the heels of an article in Livingston's West Essex Tribune in which Board member Sheri Goldberg "chose to divulge selected portions of the complaint, which have been taken out of context," according to the four board members who filed formal ethics charges against Ms. Goldberg on March 23rd, the four board members have now released the full complaint, a 72 page document that alleges significant breaches of confidentiality, retaliation against Livingston Superintendent Brad Draeger for a decision he made regarding Ms. Goldberg's son, and other violations. Although the four members have previously said that they wished to have the matter resolved by the Ethics Commission privately, they issued the complaint, "to end speculation regarding the basis and substance of the charges, and to dispel inaccuracies that have been published relating to the charges." For her part, Ms. Goldberg's attorney has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint and she says, "This dispute could best be classified as a disagreement over the interpretation of a school board member's role in representing the community. I am proud of my record of advocating for Livingston families and believe the timing of this complaint was politically motivated in connection with the Tuesday, April 20th school election. I can say with confidence, that these charges stem from my strong commitment to advocate for community members' concerns and in no way contradicts the high ethical standards the community should demand from me as an elected official." Read the ethics compliant in its entirety here. Read the full motion to dismiss here.
The release of both the complaint and the motion to dismiss are the latest chapter in a tumultuous year for the Board of Education that began privately in July 2009 with the launch of an investigation by The Alternative Press into Board member conduct and ethics, and publicly in January 2010, with an article by The Alternative Press that revealed for the first time that the majority of the Board felt that Goldberg had acted outside of her scope and authority on numerous occasions. On January 11, Goldberg issued a public apology in response to The Alternative Press article of January 7th in which Board President Chuck Granata, Vice President Bonnie Granatir, and member Stan Graboski outlined their concerns and listed action that Goldberg had taken that they collectively felt were inappropriate. This was followed by an announcement by the four Board members that they had filed formal ethics complaints against Ms. Goldberg, as detailed in a story first reported here by The Alternative Press.
The complaints, which outline several actions taken by Goldberg that the four other Board members believe violate the Code of Ethics for School Board Members, were forwarded to the Ethics Commission in Trenton. The Alternative Press has been informed that the Commission is next scheduled to meet on April 28th.
Because of the complaint's length and complexity, The Alternative Press is providing it here in its entirety so that readers can review it for themselves and render their own judgments about it. The Alternative Press is similarly providing Ms. Goldberg's motion to dismiss in its entirety here.
Among other charges, the complaint alleges that on Wednesday, February 24th, the Board held a closed session meeting to hold preliminary discussions regarding the Superintendent's evaluation. On Monday, March 8th, a second evaluation discussion was held in closed session - this time with the Superintendent present, the complaint states. The complaint alleges that at this meeting, the Superintendent allegedly revealed that one Board member - Ms. Goldberg - had come to his office unannounced on Thursday, February 25th, to ask for a private meeting and that during that meeting, Ms. Goldberg shared the information contained in the preliminary evaluation with the Superintendent, "going so far as to tell him not only what the numeric values of each category were, but to emphasize" that Goldberg had "assigned him top numeric values in each category, while the remaining Board members had given him lower scores..." According to the complaint, the Superintendent later explained to the Board President that he was shocked that an individual Board member would share such privileged information - especially since it was preliminary. The four board members state that this action, "has completely destroyed all trust that the balance of the Board had in Ms. Goldberg - and between Ms. Goldberg and the administration. It has come to the point where none of the remaining four Board members feel comfortable holding closed session meetings, as we do not believe that any of the information and/or opinions shared will remain confidential. We also feel compelled to have an independent witness present whenever we meet, thus the attendance of the Board attorney (Paul Barger) at all meetings."
Regarding the first charge, Ms. Goldberg wrote to The Alternative Press, "I would like to explain the context of the first claim in which a conversation with Dr. Draeger is being called into question. This conversation occurred after a board watcher verbally abused me at a public meeting. The next morning, I sent an email to the entire board and Dr. Draeger requesting that we enforce our anti-bullying policy and restore public faith in the Board of Education. Hours later, I went to the Board office to submit my candidate's application. The superintendent invited me into his office to discuss the email. This impromptu discussion was in no way to 'curry personal favor with the Superintendent' as alleged in the complaint, but rather to impress upon Dr. Draeger that I wanted us all to work together collaboratively." The motion to dismiss filed by Ms. Goldberg's attorney states that even if the allegations regarding Ms. Goldberg's conversation with the Superintendent are true, "they are, at worst, improvident rather than unethical."
In another alleged incident, it was reported to several Board members by Ms. Goldberg that sometime in May 2009 she approached the Superintendent and asked him to consider adding a grade (for a foreign language course taken via an online educational service) to her son's transcript. The complaint states that, "Apparently, the Superintendent advised Goldberg that he did not feel that the course should be added to the transcript, as the district could not verify that the final examination met the criteria of an equivalent in-house Livingston HS course." According to the complaint, in separate telephone discussions with two different Board members at that time, Ms. Goldberg outlined the facts of the case and decision (facts that were not previously known to any Board member); during the discussions she freely admitted that she was angered by the Superintendent's decision, and that she intended to, "Hold his feet to the fire." The complaint relays that she also stated that, "He'd better not make any mistakes…if he doesn't make any mistakes, he'll be fine. But if he does, I'm going to hold his feet to the fire."
In her comments to The Alternative Press, Ms. Goldberg does not address this charge but in her attorney's motion to dismiss, it states, "Board members are free to question and criticize the Superintendent; they are not mere rubber stamps. Ms. Goldberg was doing her job as a Board member. The complainants' branding her as 'unethical' merely because they disagreed with her or because they found her too vigorous in pursuing her ideas flies in the face of how a participatory democracy is supposed to work."
The complaint also alleges that when The Alternative Press first filed its OPRA requests for documents, Ms. Goldberg was fully involved in the process and refused to recuse herself. According to the complaint, Ms. Goldberg attempted to manipulate the OPRA process by asking to have closed meetings to discuss what would (and would not) be redacted and/or what documents would be provided to The Alternative Press. The complainants allege that Ms. Goldberg also attempted to block the provision of documents on a technicality, asking the Board attorney whether the district could reject the request on the basis that The Alternative Press had misspelled her name as "Sherry" and not "Sheri." At several points in the email correspondence released by the complainants, Ms. Goldberg, an attorney, appears to offer legal advice to the Board as to how the Board should respond to the request so as to limit the documents that would be produced and even suggests meeting with The Alternative Press and the Superintendent, in what may be seen as an end-run around the requirements of the Open Public Records Acts and as a way of interfering with the OPRA request. Board President Chuck Granata, who did recuse himself from the OPRA process, emailed Ms. Goldberg at the time, "I have tried every which way to warn you that you should step back and allow the OPRA process to take its natural course, without your interference."
While Ms. Goldberg did not address this charge in the comments she provided to The Alternative Press, in her attorney's motion to dismiss it states, "These e-mails contain a spirited discussion of how to respond properly to the OPRA request. They reflect only an exchange of ideas. Contrary to the theory of the complainants, there is nothing wrong in the exchange of ideas among Board members. If the other four Board members felt that the respondent's proposed method of dealing with the OPRA request was somehow unethical, they could have and should have filed charges against her in August 2009."
According to the complaint, between August 2009 and March 8, 2010, the four Board members made numerous internal attempts to warn Ms. Goldberg of their concerns regarding her behavior. The complainants state, "Not only were our efforts rebuffed, they were publicly mocked by Ms. Goldberg and a number of her supporters."
For her part, Ms. Goldberg wrote to The Alternative Press, "The timing of these charges should not distract us from passing the Livingston school budget and finding ways to keep vital programs such as special education and teacher's aides, gifted and talented art and music, middle school athletics, theater and kindergarten through 3rd grade world language. I also think it is incumbent on the Board to look into decreasing administrative expenses. The Board has already been working to find creative solutions to adjust to this difficult economic environment. We need to continue together in this direction so that more resources can be spent to benefit the children. As a Board member, I believe it is my duty to represent the community's best interests and advocate for all children."
Read the ethics complaint here in its entirety.
Read Ms. Goldberg's motion to dismiss here in its entirety.