New Jersey School Board Electee Angry Over Background Check

By Michael Klazema on 1/15/2016

A recently elected school board member in a New Jersey county erupted at a swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday, January 6th, furious about being barred from taking his position due to background check findings. According to a report from the Paterson Times, a local publication in Passaic County, where the elected official was set to take office, the man stormed the stage at the swearing-in ceremony and "unloaded several racial epithets" at the district superintendent. The man later apologized to the community members and students who witnessed his outburst.

The man did have reason to be upset, however. According to the Paterson Times report, he had been elected to the Paterson School District Board of Education position in November of last year. He was set to be sworn in on January 6th. Instead, he was handed a letter by a district official, informing him that he was disqualified from taking office at all—on that day or any other. The reason was his background check, which had come back with criminal history findings. The Paterson Times report did not detail the nature of those criminal history findings but did note that the records were 25 years old—apparently with no repeat or additional offenses in the years since.

Another source, the Paterson Press, did have information about the criminal records that led to the disqualification of the elected official. According to the Press, the school board electee was convicted in 1991 of theft by deception or forgery. The forgery offense was a fourth-degree conviction; additional details are not available about the theft charges. The electee was convicted on the charges and sentenced to four years in jail—time that he served.

While shouting at the Paterson School District superintendent and using racial epithets was not the best way of responding to his disqualification from serving on the school board, the electee in this case certainly seems to be the victim of an injustice. The electee was the people's choice for the school board, having gained traction after repeatedly heckling New Jersey Governor Chris Christie about the state of the public school system at a town hall meeting in Paterson in 2013.

As a result, it's not entirely fair that the school district just passed the electee's school board seat onto the next highest vote getter. First of all, theft or fourth-degree forgery are not typically offenses that bar individuals from serving on boards of education. (The crimes that lead to those disqualifications in New Jersey include murder, burglary, and drug possession, but the theft here wasn't burglary.) Secondly, the time that has passed since those offenses—25 years in 2016—should have been taken into account. The electee served his time for his crimes and has evidently turned over a new leaf and rebuilt his life since. There is a reason many employers will only look back at criminal records five or seven years in the past.

Finally, it was rather tactless for the Paterson School District to notify their new elected official that he had been barred from taking office the morning he was to be sworn in. The electee had no time to dispute the findings of his background check at all. He was, in essence, blindsided, and as a result, he snapped. Seeing as how the man was elected to his post all the way back in November, the district could have completed his background checks and notified him of his disqualification weeks or months ago—and in less embarrassing circumstances.


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