EDUCATION

Firings at Schools Development Authority fuel calls for further scrutiny

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Twenty-six state workers were fired without warning from New Jersey’s Schools Development Authority last summer. Some of the career state workers described the sudden purge.

“I’d like to know why I was fired, why I was let go,” said Adele Bonar, who worked as an accountant at the agency for 15 years.

“It had the qualities of a vendetta,” said David Barie, who worked at the SDA for over a decade.

“We need justice. Not just for myself, but for all of the employees who went through this,” said Sameer Shah, another veteran staffer, employed at the agency for 16 years.

It happened after Gov. Phil Murphy’s new appointee Lizette Delgado-Polanco took over and proceeded to restructure the entire agency.

“It was 10 percent of the workforce of the SDA, in one fell swoop, that was let loose [ …] so that the orgy of patronage hiring could subsequently take place,” Barie said.

Delgado-Polanco, is a former carpenter’s union official and vice-chair of the Democratic State Committee. According to a report by Northjersey.com and The USA Today Network, after cleaning house at the SDA, she went on a hiring spree. She signed up 38 new staffers — including union contacts and members of her extended family, whose salaries totaled more than $3 million, and most of whom lacked relevant experience in an agency responsible for building schools across New Jersey.

“It’s one thing to be replaced by qualified people who are making a reasonable salary, but when you’re replaced by people who apparently don’t have the qualifications and are getting huge salaries compared to you, we wonder where is the fairness? Where’s the justice?” asked Bonar.

In Jersey politics, it’s expected that transitions award patronage spoils to the victor’s team. Moreover, so called at-will employees can be fired for no reason. But the sheer scope of staff changes at the SDA shocked even veteran politicians.

“From everything I’ve seen thus far it’s a totally different scale. And if this the new norm in New Jersey, it’s a very disturbing new norm,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.

Several fired SDA employees recently sent a letter to several state officials, claiming their personnel files “ … are being tampered with by, and likely at the direction of, members of the SDA’s management”, and that it’s “ … clearly related to the turmoil currently surrounding the improper hiring and firing practices.” They want copies of their files. The Governor’s Office and the SDA had no comment.

“Here you have allegations of nepotism. There have been allegations that personnel records were tampered with. There are allegations that there was a whole host of things done improperly for improper reasons,” Schepisi said.

“Normally the rank and file don’t get replaced. You know, they’re the ones that are in the trenches. So it is a real concern, and it has to be looked at and I’m glad the governor is looking at it. We intend to look at it, definitely in the Senate,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Members of the Select Oversight Committee think the issue merits a separate investigation, although they’re still busy with the Katie Brennan and Al Alvarez scandal. In fact, Alvarez served as the SDA’s chief of staff until last October, got a $30,000 raise, and acted as Delgado-Polanco’s hatchet man during the purge.

The SDA’s board chairman’s launched an in-house investigation and Murphy’s also ordered a thorough review. Murphy also demanded other independent authorities across New Jersey provide the last three years of hiring records and protocols.

“Before the press started reporting on this, we had already been reviewing what the facts are there and we continue that review. And the extent to which we’ve got something to say, when we do, we will say it,” Murphy said last week.

Delgado-Polanco makes $225,000 a year, which is more than the governor. She refused requests for an interview, but said in a statement that she “ … hired a team that I knew had proven experience working with communities and had a proven track record of doing what they were hired to do.”

“This is a new administration that was coming on. Obviously, like any other new administration, with the Christie administration, you’re going to want to bring in certain people, right, to be part of your team. However, I think with that said, it depends how it was done,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, co-chair of the Select Oversight Committee.

The SDA’s walking an existential knife-edge. It’s currently supervising $2 billion in active projects but it’s almost out of money and needs approval to borrow more from the Legislature. Sweeney’s raised red flags about both adding to New Jersey’s debt and refunding the SDA.

“Steve Sweeney and others see this as an opportunity to get the power advantage, to get the upper hand within Trenton, over these kinds of issues. They feel they can use this for their own leverage and that’s where the danger really lies,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

The workers understand the politics, but with unemployment compensation running out, their need is far more basic.

“I’d like to get my job back. We’d all like to get our jobs back,” said Bonar.

The Murphy administration set a March 15 deadline to get hiring data from independent authorities.