NEWARK, NJ — After the Newark Board of Education came under criticism for its candidate appointment process to fill a vacant seat last month, one board member is advocating for more community engagement moving forward. 

During a Feb. 23 school board business meeting, board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas addressed public comments that condemned the candidate selection process for Vereliz Santana. Santana was appointed to fill a vacant seat following the death of Octavio “Tave” Padilla and was approved by a 7-1 vote from the board at its Jan. 28 meeting. She will fill the vacant seat until the April election. 

The board member said that after Padilla’s death, the situation put the board in a position to appoint an interim member and that had it failed to meet the deadline, their vote would have been relinquished and turned over to Essex County Superintendent of Schools Joseph Zarra. 

Sign Up for Newark Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

“Like many board members, I received a number of phone calls, letters and conversations with folks who had concerns around last month’s vote to fill the vacancy,” Murray-Thomas said. “At the December and January meetings up until this vote last month, I raised my concerns around issues of the timeline regarding the vacancy process. However, unfortunately, we were still left with having to make that decision for the six days of the deadline before the regular board meeting.

“Due to those concerns, I voted to affirm the motion to appoint our now board member Vereliz Santana who I believe has a background and the qualifications to add value to this board,” Murray-Thomas said. 

Santana is the legislative director to state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz and is involved in the city's North Ward Democratic Committee. She previously served as a senior aide to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka from 2015-17.

After the appointment, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Newark chapter issued a letter to district officials on Feb. 1, who claimed that “the process should be that the [Newark] Board of Education advertise the position to the community and solicit letters of interest.” 

“They can consider anyone to fill the position, but the person must not have a conflict of interest, e.g., they cannot work for the board,” the letter reads. 

The group’s letter also asked the district for proof that it advertised the position and if/when the appointment process was publicly discussed, citing state legislation N.J.S.A. 18A:12-15. The letter said the board met on Jan. 26, 2021, for its business meeting, but never mentioned the selection process or proposed person.

In response to the letter, Board President Josephine Garcia said that the board acted completely within the law to fulfill the vacancy, but Murray-Thomas called for more transparency in the process, claiming that the board “missed the mark.”

With school board elections on the horizon in the coming weeks, Murray-Thomas urged the board to prioritize public involvement. 

“Even though [the process] did follow statute, and we discussed that last month, according to NJSA - 18A, it didn’t thoroughly involve the voice of the people,” she said. “While they may not have violated the law, it did violate trust, and that’s something that, personally, I don’t take lightly… Moving forward, I believe that this has to be a learning experience.

“It’s about being accountable,” she added.