Newark Board of Education won’t take action to seat new board member despite ethics review

Three people walk on a sidewalk in front of a grey brick building.
The Newark Board of Education has yet to seat its newest member, Thomas Luna, after he won a unanimous vote in October to fill a vacant seat on the board. (Screen Grab of Google Maps)

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More than a month after Thomas Luna was chosen to fill a vacancy on the Newark school board created when the former president abruptly resigned in September, the KIPP charter school teacher has yet to be seated.

Luna was set to be sworn in during November’s board meeting where board President Hasani Council attributed the delay to information they received from a public records request and a review of School Ethics Commission opinions regarding conflicts of interest for board members.

But details about the records request, reasons for the delay, the board’s review of opinions, and the conflict of interest remain unclear.

Under New Jersey law, the Newark Board of Education had 65 days to fill the vacant seat. In an email to Chalkbeat Newark last week, Newark Public Schools spokesperson Nancy Deering said the board had “no further comment beyond the information provided” at November’s meeting and would not take further action regarding the vacancy on the board. She did not cite a legal reason why the board declined to comment on the delay.

Luna, who was set to serve on the board until April when school board elections for the new year take place, told Chalkbeat on Monday that he hasn’t received updates on when he’d be seated, and “no further information has been shared” with him.

The district also did not say if Luna will be sworn in during December’s school board meeting.

Luna’s selection to the board was the latest reshuffling of members this school year after Council was sworn in as president in September following former board President Asia Norton’s abrupt resignation two weeks after the start of the school year. It also comes as board members continue to demand a separate attorney for the board

Under New Jersey law, the state does not make any recommendations on the process a board should follow in filling a vacancy, however, it requires the board to fill a vacant seat within 65 days with a majority vote from the remaining members of the board, according to Janet Bamford, chief public affairs officer for the New Jersey School Board Association.

Ultimately, the process to fill a vacant board seat “is left to the discretion of the local district — and a district would typically have policy or bylaws on this topic,” Bamford added.

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The board’s bylaws say it must publicly announce the vacancy and solicit applications from the public, which it did in September on its Facebook page following Norton’s resignation.

Newark received 10 applications, including one from former board member Flohisha Johnson, and invited the candidates to attend the October school board meeting where they were interviewed by the current board in an executive session during the meeting. The board then returned to the public meeting where it unanimously voted to move forward with Luna.

Under state law, school boards are required to include a public comment period during each public meeting, but “there is no specific requirement that the public comment on the topic of filling a board vacancy,” Bamford added.

The Newark Teachers Union, whose negotiations with the district begin in the next months, said it has “always objected to allowing any corporate charter school employees on the school,” said John Abeigon, union president.

The board’s bylaws also say members should avoid actions that could prompt questions about “the integrity of any board decision.” They also cite state law, which says board members should not take paid or volunteer positions that “might reasonably be expected to prejudice” their official decisions.

Previous board members have also held ties to the KIPP charter school network while being on the board.

Former board president Norton, who was first elected in 2018, was a kindergarten teacher at KIPP Life Academy charter school when she ran for a seat on the school board. She left that position in June 2018 according to her LinkedIn profile. In 2021, board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas’s appointment to the board of directors of the KIPP Foundation, a nonprofit that assists KIPP charter schools through training and fundraising, sparked ethics questions. She remains on the board.

Luna, a science teacher at KIPP RISE Academy, ran for the school board twice before.

Both times, he lost to the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate, which included Council and board members Josephine Garcia and Allison James-Frison in 2023. It included board members Daniel Gonzalez, Murray-Thomas, and Crystal Williams in 2022. Historically, the slate has had strong backing from powerful state and local politicians including Mayor Ras Baraka and state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, who oversees Essex County.

The board must also fill another vacant position after Murray-Thomas won the Nov. 7 general election for a seat on the Essex County Board of Commissioners. Murray-Thomas ran as a Democrat against Khalil Kettles, who ran as an independent, to represent District 2, which includes Newark, Irvington, and Maplewood.

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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