Montville School District to Examine Relationship with Lakeland Bank

Montville Township Board of Education Member Michael O'Brien Credits: Melissa Benno

MONTVILLE, NJ – Following an impassioned eight-minute speech by Board of Education Member Michael O’Brien, the Montville Township Public Schools will be examining its relationship with Lakeland Bank due to the bank’s reported situation with Saily Avelenda.

According to an article and other reports, Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen handwrote a note on a fundraising letter to Montville resident Joseph O’Dowd. O’Dowd is a board member at Lakeland Bank, and Frelinghuysen handwrote that one of Lakeland’s employees is a “ringleader” in NJ 11th For Change, an organization asking for Frelinghuysen to hold in-person town hall meetings, according to the article.

Avelenda was a senior vice president and assistant general counsel at the bank before she resigned, according to WNYC. The article states that “pressure she received over her political involvement was one of several reasons she decided to leave.”

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At the May 16 Board of Education meeting, O’Brien stated he feels that as role models for the students and as trustees of taxpayer funds, he found the handwriting on the letter to be “threatening” and called the action “malicious,” and he called for a bank official to meet with the board regarding the matter.

O’Brien said that teaching algebra is important, but there’s a “lot more to education.”

“Values, character, appropriate behavior, instilling in our students respect for others, respect for the rights of others, respect for free speech and expression, is something that we teach,” he said.

“We teach students to be involved. We gave students awards tonight for community participation. We want people in the political process. We believe in equality. We believe in the values that are core to the democratic republic and we pledge allegiance to them at the beginning of each meeting.

“We are trustees […] and to the youth of our community, we should be showing those values,” O’Brien said.  

“I condemn the maliciousness of the elected official who would – when reading that letter, there is nothing short of threatening, to put in a letter that one of the employees of your bank is involved in political activities when requesting funds from that individual.

“It made me think about what we’re teaching our children. We’re the trustees. I don’t know how much money we have in this bank. I don’t know all the details yet of what happened. If we had $26.32 in that bank, it would be one thing. But we are the trustees of millions and millions of dollars of the taxpayers of our community.

“I don’t believe everything I read in the papers. But I think we should look at where our money is. Are we getting returns on our money, and is the behavior of that bank appropriate? I don’t know. I don’t want to go by everything I read. But everything that I am reading says that an employee of the bank that we utilize was called into the office and questioned for her political activities. That is malicious, and that was the intent of the letter from the elected official whose name I don’t even have to use.

“All I’m asking is, in response to all this stuff that’s in the paper, we should take a look at how much money we have in what banks and what the behavior is of the people to whom we, as trustees, have entrusted that money. To try to impact a person’s job for political activities, which are peaceful activities, which they have a right, under the Constitution, is disgraceful.

“I think it would behoove a bank official to meet with the board of education and explain exactly what happened in this case. Not a form letter. But someone from the bank to explain what went on in this case. I’m appalled,” O’Brien said.

Business Administrator Jim Tevis said that the district went out for quotes on rates about three years ago and Lakeland’s rates were “competitive.” He said he would call the bank the next day (May 17) and he “guaranteed that they would be willing to come in.” Tevis said he had been away on vacation and was not aware of the Frelinghuysen letter. He told the board he would update them in the “Friday packet.”

Superintendent of Schools René Rovtar said she thought the bank had released an official statement regarding the matter, but O’Brien said he didn’t think that was enough.

Lakeland Bank issued the following statement on its Facebook page: “We recently received communications from members of our communities and customers concerning a news report involving an individual who identified herself as a former employee and noted her outside civic involvements. Lakeland Bank does not comment publicly on the status of our current or former employees.

“However, as for civic and political engagement of our employees, Lakeland Bank’s Code of Ethics specifically provides that it is the philosophy of Lakeland Bank to promote our employees’ full awareness and interest in civic and political responsibility such that each employee has the opportunity to support community activities or the political process in the manner that she or he desires.”

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