Jersey City BOE trustee hit with ethics complaint days before reorg meeting

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An ethics complaint against a Jersey City Board of Education trustee questions whether or not he would profit off an entity’s potential partnership with the school district, also being accused of not providing the proper disclosure in media reports and political literature. 

Luis Fernandez

By John Heinis/Hudson County View

The complaint, filed with the state Department of Education by Monique Andrews, Joan Terrell-Paige and Shanna Givens, accuses JC BOE Trustee Luis Felipe Fernandez of several local and state ethics violations.

The most serious allegation in the 120-page ethics complaint claims that “Lipe,” a pastor at the Fountain of Salvation church on Communipaw Avenue, openly advocated for the district to enter a formal agreement with the Bergen-Lafayette Montessori School.

Through the complaint, Andrews, Terrell-Paige and Givens accuse Fernandez of being “the landlord” of the school, already earning $3,250 a month in rent and asking for a $4,000 rent increase if the school reaches a deal to receive district funding.

The school made a proposal to the school district on January 17, 2017 by Myani Lawson, according to the complaint.

“JCPS has the opportunity to impact this perception with the addition of a K-8 public Montessori program that will bring diversity across income levels, race, ethnicity, ability and learning styles, under a successful program, operating within the structures of the public school system,” the proposal listed in the complaint says.

According to their website, the school is currently “a dual-language (Spanish / English) preschool, kindergarten, and lower elementary school offering an affordable, high-quality education for children 18 months – 9 years old.”

In a 30-minute phone interview with Hudson County View, the pastor denied having any role in the school and said that to call him a landlord of the establishment was a mischaracterization – also claiming the current and potential rent figures were off.

“First of all, with the Bergen-Lafayette [matter]: the school applied for the charter. I have nothing to do with the school. Anyone in the city or state could apply to the charter. I had no idea or knowledge that they would fill out the charter school application,” Fernandez said.

“My board, for my church, did reach an agreement with the Bergen-Lafeyette School, not the charter. It’s a little concerning to me that [the complainants] had the lease because that is not a public document … Just because the organization applied for it also doesn’t mean they will be using our space for the school.”

Fernandez continued that his church board consists of six people, including himself, but he has no role in deciding who rents their space. He also disputed that the BLMS’s current rent is $3,250 or that there was ever the possibility of raising the current rent by $4,000.

According to a copy of a lease between Fountain of Salvation and BFMS, which was valid from August 1st, 2014 through August 1st, 2017, the monthly rent was for $3,295 for the first three years – and it would be increased by an undisclosed amount in the final year.

A copy of BLMS’s January presentation to the JCPS included in the complaint did not make any mention of how much funding they were asking from the district or how much they would be willing to pay in rent costs.

Furthermore, BLMS still does not have any sort of financial agreement in place with the JCPS.

Another charge listed in the complaint claims that Fernandez attended an education conference in New Orleans, Louisiana and was reimbursed by the district, despite the fact that “the proposed participation of Fernandez in this conference was never proposed or discussed in the preceding months.”

However, an agenda item from the board’s September 28th, 2017 meeting appears to refute this claim, since Fernandez and a handful of district employees, including Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marcia Lyles, are listed as part of a “conferences” resolution.

The resolution, listed with many other conferences that were approved by the board, authorizes the attendance of the JCPS officials at the Panasonic Foundation Leadership Associates Program “from October 26-28, 2017, in New Orleans, LA, at a total cost not to exceed $2,847.08.”

The complaint also says Fernandez needed explicit approval to write goals and a strategic plan to the board based on the conference and although Lyles said she asked all board members if they were interested in attending, the plaintiffs claim no such formal request exists.

Fernandez seemed puzzled that this was even a subject of the complaint, given that several other members of the board have attended the exact same conference in recent years.

When being informed of the pastor’s defenses, Andrews doubled down on the allegations made in the voluminous complaint.

“The bottom line is you can’t do these things. You’re a pastor, you got sworn in to protect public schools. He’s been on the board a year, he’s received the legal training. There’s no need for him to be doing all of this,” she exclaimed over the phone.

“Supporting charter advocates, supporting a charter school in your building … you’ve got to be accountable to what you do. He’s kicking the taxpayers in the behind because the money is coming from the taxpayers, to the BOE and then his pockets.”

Additionally, the complaint says that Fernandez did not use a proper disclosure when submitting letters/comments to the media, as well as endorsing candidates for school board.

The pastor again shot down the accusations when questioned, claiming he has followed all district and New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (NJ ELEC) guidelines before, during and after his successful 2016 campaign.

Fernandez, who said he did not receive a copy of the complaint until HCV emailed it to him, concluded that he did not run for the BOE with the intention of lining his pockets, it was to help those less fortunate – something he’s been doing his whole life.

“When I thought about running for school board, it was never about bettering myself: it was about bettering students, helping the homeless and other community initiatives,” he said.

Supporters of Fernandez, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, called the complaint “bogus” and said the only reason it was filed was to create confusion ahead of Tuesday’s reorganization meeting, where a new board president will be named.

Board Vice President Sudhan Thomas, whose personal and campaign finances briefly came into question last year, is another trustee rumored to be eyeing the presidency in 2018.

He declined to comment on the reorg meeting or the complaint against Fernandez.