PISCATAWAY, NJ - Ralph Johnson, a three-time elected Piscataway school board member who was ousted for missing meetings to be at work as an essential employee during the COVID-19 pandemic will be able to continue serving his three-year term, a judge ruled on Friday.
“It is my intention to move forward, continue to serve this wonderful community, and transform this suffering into an empathic and creative force,” said Johnson thanking his supporters on Saturday. “I look forward to returning to my work on the board immediately.”
Johnson filed suit after board president, Shelia Hobson said he missed three consecutive Board of Education meetings and did so without good cause or proper notification to her, thereby making him unable to fulfill the responsibilities for the position. He was removed at the July 9 board meeting after a 6-3 vote.
In an order on emergent relief, Administrative Law Judge Kim Belin found that Johnson “had trouble attending several meetings during an unprecedented global pandemic and state of emergency which required that he work longer hours without breaks. He communicated his inability to attend the meetings with the Superintendent and copied the Board President. In addition, he requested a shift change which was granted and since the change, has attended all board meetings until his removal in July.”
Belin further determined “the board failed to demonstrate that it was unable to conduct its business as a result of Johnson’s truncated attendance on April 9, 2020. Johnson has more than two years left on his term and thus his removal undermines the will of the public who elected him and unduly smears his reputation.”
BOE meeting minutes show he was on the video conference call for a brief time at the April meeting in question, before documented connectivity issues prevented him from continuing despite repeated attempts.
In the lawsuit, Johnson, a lieutenant and shift commander with the Essex County Department of Corrections said he notified Superintendent Dr. Frank Ranelli and copied Hobson on messages indicating that as an essential employee during the COVID-19 pandemic, he was required to be at work and would have to miss the March 12 in-person board meeting, and video conference meetings on April 30 and May 14.
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.
According to Belin’s ruling, the Commissioner of Education has 45 days to accept, reject or modify the decision. If the commissioner takes no action, the ruling is considered final.
The ruling also prevents board officials from appointing a replacement to fill Johnson’s seat or from moving forward with an election to fill the remainder of his unexpired term.
Requests for comment from Shelia Hobson and other district officials were not answered by press time.
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