PISCATAWAY, NJ — Three-time elected Piscataway School Board member, Ralph Johnson will be able to officially continue in the role, according to a decision by the Department of Education Commissioner announced on Wednesday.
Interim Commissioner of Education, Kevin Dehmer held up an administrative law judge’s ruling that Johnson was improperly removed from his seat amid claims that he missed meetings without cause and ordered that he be fully restored in time for the next board of education meeting this Thursday.
Dehmer’s decision also orders the board to end its search for an interim replacement to fill Johnson’s seat, and to end its push elect someone this November to fill the last two years of the three-year term.
Johnson, who was removed from office in July filed suit for wrongful termination after Board President, Shelia Hobson claimed he had missed more than three consecutive meetings without cause and without proper notice, violating the Piscataway School Board’s bylaws.
However, attorneys for Johnson, an essential worker under orders from Governor Phil Murphy showed evidence that he notified the district’s superintendent by email with a copy to Hobson each time he would have to miss a meeting due to job responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The board’s bylaws do not specifically define “without cause” and who is to be notified in the event of an absence.
For one meeting in question, April 9 which was held electronically due to pandemic restrictions, “Johnson has repeatedly said he was present, and was marked as such according to the Board’s own minutes, for a portion of that meeting and was disconnected as a result of technological issues,” said his attorneys.
Administrative Law Judge Kim Belin agreed, writing:
“The Board offers no rational basis for its determination that thirteen minutes does not qualify as attendance at a board meeting, especially under the circumstances presented here where absent the technical difficulties, Johnson would have remained on the call. Indeed, following the Board’s logic would render the statute as a “gotcha” law wherein a Board member can be removed for committing a violation without being advised of the conditions which will warrant their removal (i.e. that attending a board meeting for thirteen minutes constitutes a violation of the attendance statute). This ‘fits the very definition of arbitrary and capricious action’ and is an untenable position.”
Johnson said he is appreciative of the decisions announced by the court and the commissioner and to the community for their support.
“I am so glad to be returning to the board this week,” said Johnson. “Now more than ever, our students, faculty and families need board members who stand up for them and put their needs first,” said Johnson. “I am thrilled to be able to get back to work at this challenging time, when our students are starting the year remotely. I am deeply grateful to the students, parents, staff and community members who stood with me and sought justice.”
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