PISCATAWAY, NJ – Since the start of social distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Piscataway School Board have held their business meetings via Zoom video conferencing, including on Thursday when they voted to remove board member, Ralph Johnson from office for not attending the March, April and May business meetings.
The 6-3 decision came on a motion from board president, Shelia Hobson who first introduced it at the June board meeting saying Johnson did not notify her ahead of time that he would not be able to attend those meetings as was the practice in the previous administration.
“We can’t function as a board if members aren’t going to let the Board President know they are not going to be present,” Hobson said at the time. “The purpose of the board is to function as a nine-member board and to at least extend the courtesy of letting the president know if they can’t make it, for whatever reason.”
The Piscataway School Board’s bylaws state that “a member who fails to attend three consecutive regular meetings of the Board without good cause may be removed from office.” They do not specifically state who is to be notified, or how if a member cannot attend a meeting.
Hobson expressed her concern that the 3-term board member might not be able to fulfill his duties with the board because of his responsibilities as an essential worker during the current health emergency.
However, Johnson, a Lieutenant with the Essex County Correctional Police Department said he had good cause for missing the meetings and that he texted her and emailed other district officials including Superintendent, Dr. Frank Ranelli each time he was not able to take time from work to be on the Zoom meetings or had connectivity issues, precluding him from being in violation.
“I also made attempts to call during board meetings to be conferenced in as an audio only call that were dropped calls,” Johnson said about when he didn’t have Zoom access which has become the board’s policy for meetings due to pandemic restrictions. “Now while at work I’m able to use a landline to call in to the meetings, but for me it’s audio only, no video.”
“Under executive order, as an essential employee, we cannot call out,” he explained.
While personnel matters of this nature are typically discussed privately in closed door, executive session, Johnson, who addressed the board along with his attorney, Nathaniel Davis, chose to have it done publicly during the general session.
Numerous residents emailed letters of support for Johnson during the public comment portion of the meeting, highlighting his many years of service to Piscataway, including the impact he has had as a youth sports coach. They asked Hobson and the board to reconsider their position referencing the magnitude of the pandemic, one saying “this is not the time to be vindictive.”
Johnson’s removal became effective at the conclusion of the board meeting.
From the Bylaws and Policies of the Piscataway Board of Education:
0145 BOARD MEMBER RESIGNATION AND REMOVAL
A member who fails to attend three consecutive regular meetings of the Board without good cause may be removed from office on the affirmative votes of a majority of the remaining Board members, provided that: 1. The member's removal was proposed at the immediately previous Board meeting; and 2. Notice of the proposed removal was given to the affected member at least fourteen days in advance of the meeting at which the vote will be taken.
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