ELIZABETH — Like rats fleeing a sinking ship, associates of Rafael Fajardo are departing the city’s public school system as criminal prosecutions, political defeats and economic setbacks mount among those who remain near him.
Superintendent Pablo Muñoz appears to have taken a $100,000 pay cut to get out of Elizabeth, accepting a new assignment at the helm of the Passaic public schools.
Several school board members and district employees connected with Fajardo’s political empire, including the former board president, were indicted on charges of fraudulently enrolling their children in a federally subsidized lunch program.
Labor attorney Karen A. Murray, of Colts Neck, was unceremoniously fired as the executive director for Human Resources, a job for which she was paid more than $200,000.
Two other lawyers associated with the school system have been arrested on allegations they tried covering up a board member’s involvement in the free lunch scandal.
The state Supreme Court recently ruled that Fajardo and Muñoz must pay nearly $63,000 in legal fees related to a defamation lawsuit filed at taxpayer expense after they were the subject of an anonymous mailing to city residents during the 2006 primary election campaign for city council.
After state Sen. Raymond Lesniak and his allies delivered a severe beating to Fajardo and his friends in the 2013 Democratic primary election, Mayor Chris Bollwage called on state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf to take over the district’s search for a superintendent.
“The kids of the city and the taxpayers deserve better,” Bollwage said by phone. “At some point you need oversight of this school board.”
Five school board members — Fajardo, Carlos Trujillo, Armando DaSilva, Elcy Castillo Ospina, and Paul Perreira — lost their Democratic county committee seats in the primary election.
Fajardo, Trujillo and two appointed board members — Stefano Calella and Anthony Padlo — have filed petitions to run in the November school board election, where only three seats are at stake.
Calella was appointed to replace John Donoso on June 20 and Padlo was appointed in January to fill the seat formerly held by Marie Munn. Donoso and Munn are among those charged in the free lunch scandal.
Fajardo’s political machine was built upon the city’s public school system, with its half-billion dollar annual budget funding 4,000 jobs and lucrative contracts for everything from legal services to office supplies.
Many school employees religiously turn out for fundraising events and volunteer activities when summoned by Fajardo, who is called by some of his admirers “el jefe” (a Spanish term meaning “the Chief” or “the Boss” and a nickname for former Cuban President Fidel Castro).
For a while, Fajardo’s persistence appeared to be paying dividends as his candidates came close to prevailing in primary elections between 2006 and 2011, but the last two voting cycles have resulted in crushing defeats.
Now, Bollwage and Lesniak appear to be energized, willing to stop him at all costs, while the public is noticing failures in the city’s educational system that eviscerate the storied success claimed by Fajardo and his friends.
Gordon MacInnes, a former assistant state education commissioner who had responsibility over many of the urban districts, said the heavily subsidized Elizabeth school board wrongfully used district money for political purposes and overstaffed with patronage hires.
A 2011 Star Ledger report asserted that school employees were pressured to make political contributions that funded Fajardo’s campaign operations. Similar reports exposed excessive spending on legal fees and a track record of discriminatory employment practices.
Meanwhile, Fajardo’s claims of delivering quality education are confronted by cold facts that suggest that’s not the whole story.
An average of just 66 percent of Elizabeth students graduate after four years, according to a recent non-partisan assessment that ranked the district 261 out of 295 New Jersey high schools.
Only 71.3 percent of students were proficient or above across reading and math, while a 12 percent achievement gap divides average scores among low-income and minority students compared to those of white and non-low-income students.
Some pundits expect Fajardo to drop out as a candidate while others suggest the composition of his team in the election is immaterial, because the waning power base signals a likely defeat.
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