PATERSON, NJ – Two city school board members – Jonathan Hodges and Christopher Irving – are among 185 around New Jersey who the state education department says must leave their positions for not having their background checks completed.
Both Paterson school commissioners say they have signed up for the fingerprinting and background checks and are simply awaiting appointments to get the work done. The state, however, says that is not good enough.
“These members were contacted and failed to comply,’’ said a statement issued by Department of Education spokeswoman Allison Kobus. “Because they have failed to comply with the background check law, they have been notified that they are ineligible to serve and must immediately vacate their position.’’
The education department's enforcement of the law has created confusion and controversy statewide.
Hodges said he’s received no official word that he’s being removed from the board – just calls from reporters telling him his name is on the state’s list. The recent letter he received from the state simply urged school board members to comply with the background check law, Hodges said. He didn’t view the letter as a problem.
“I have complied,’’ said Hodges. “I’m trying to get the state to figure out where they made this screw-up.
Hodges said officials at Paterson Public Schools as well as at the state school board association have told him that he simply needed to take the first step by signing up for the background checks before January to comply with the law. Irving said he was told the same thing
In late December, PatersonPress.com asked the education department exactly what board members needed to do in order to comply with the new law. “Board members have to start the process for background checks by the Dec. 31st date,’’ said Kobus in an email. “You’ll need to reference the law for details regarding disqualification.’’
Since the bill was signed into law at the end of May 2011, three notifications were sent to school boards and chief school administrators, in July, October and early December, according to Kobus’ statement.
Hodges has said he registered for the background check on December 30 and has his fingerprinting scheduled for February 20. Irving said he signed up for the background check on December 22 and had a January 3 appointment to get the fingerprinting done. But then, Irving said, a conflict with work emerged, so he rescheduled the fingerprinting for the third week of January.
The state, however, is providing an opportunity for board members to be back in their positions soon enough. Under state law, the 21 county superintendents of schools have the authority to pick people to fill the seats that become open because of the background check law, Kobus said.
“The person who is not in compliance and therefore removed from the board by receipt of the ineligibility letter could be appointed to fill the vacancy,’’ according to Kobus’ statement. “However as a new appointment, that person would have to abide by the law which dictates that new appointees must comply with the criminal history background check in 30 days. The person who was deemed ineligible is not given statutory preference over other candidates.’’
The number of New Jersey school board members and charter school trustees in danger of losing their seats as a result of the background check law could grow higher than 185. The education department said some filled out the forms incorrectly, while others have not yet paid the requisite fees. As a result, the records of their background check have not yet been released to the education department, the state said.
“Our office is still reviewing these cases and the information will be released once the issues are resolved,’’ said Kobus.
The education department did not say whether any New Jersey school board members have been removed because they failed their background checks.
It was not clear yesterday whether Passaic County Superintendent of Schools planned to appoint Hodges and Irving back onto the Paterson Board of Education.
Paterson Public Schools spokeswoman Terry Corallo said there had been a “communication issue that we’re trying to get resolved.’’ As of Thursday afternoon, the school district had received no official word from Trenton on Hodges’ and Irving’s status, she said.
For Hodges, the prospect of being disqualified from the school board over the background checks is particularly upsetting because he had considering not going through with the fingerprinting because he saw it as an infringement of his privacy. He called the law “capricious and arbitrary” because he said there are no known cases of school board members with criminal records who have harmed students.
“I reluctantly went through this unjust and unnecessary system,’’ he said.