Even this NJ city’s high school football is political — and racial — lawsuit says
ELIZABETH — John Quinn had more than 20 years of experience as a top high school coach, with six state titles under his belt.
After Elizabeth High School hired him as head coach in 2010, he took his team to a state championship victory. He was a New Jersey Football Coaches Hall of Fame inductee. He had a master’s degree in education.
But he wasn’t a minority. He wasn’t connected to the city’s governing establishment. And, he says, he didn’t play political ball.
And that’s what cost him his $140,000 coaching and athletics job last summer at one of the largest high schools in the state, Quinn alleges in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the school district this month.
Quinn becomes the 10th former employee of the Elizabeth school district to sue and claim political retaliation in the aftermath of the 2015 school board election, in which the balance of power on the board tipped in favor of the city’s Democratic leaders.
It’s also the latest accusation of political impropriety against the new board.
In March, an administrative law judge said four of the board’s nine members violated state ethics rules last year by voting to hire Councilman Frank Cuesta as an acting assistant superintendent because each of the four members — Daniel Nina, Maria Z. Carvalho, Stanley Neron and Jose Rodriquez — were employed by City Hall.
For nearly two decades, the school board was dominated by a coalition, led by longtime school board member Rafael Fajardo, who beat off challenges by candidates backed by Mayor Christian Bollwage and state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, who is now running for governor. School employees, in turn, often challenged Democratic candidates in council, mayoral and county races.
While in many communities across the state, school board elections are uncontested — or don’t even get enough candidates to fill the ballot — Elizabeth school board races are hard-fought. Last year, 10 candidates vied for three seats, spending more than $150,000 on the campaign. At stake is a budget of $507.2 million — nearly three-quarters of which is funded by the state.
The nine former employees who sued the district in December said they were fired as a result of their involvement in the city’s rough-and-tumble politics. They included one who ran for a seat on the City Council and another who challenged Bollwage in 2012.
Quinn’s lawsuit is different in that he wasn’t involved in politics at all.
His attorney — Mark B. Frost, of Philadelphia — says that’s just as bad because his position shouldn’t depend on any involvement in political activity.
The lawsuit claims the school board ignored the superintendent’s recommendation to keep Quinn and instead hired a less qualified individual because he was the brother of Malik Jackson, a city politician who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the school board in 2015. The lawsuit says Jamil Jackson, who was hired as the head coach, was unable to perform teaching duties that a head coach normally would be tasked with because he only had the credentials to be an aide or substitute teacher.
The board “effectively and unlawfully turned the head football coach of the Elizabeth High School football team into a political patronage position, in violation of the First Amendment,” according to the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by New Jersey 101.5.
Pat Politano, a spokesman for the district, said Wednesday that "the football coaching vacancy at Elizabeth High School was filled in the same manner as all other coaching vacancies.
“In accordance with state law, board policies and contractual obligations, the position was posted on the district’s website to enable all those who wished to apply to do so. Interviews were conducted with multiple candidates.
“Upon the recommendation of the Superintendent of Schools, the Board of Education voted to appoint the head football coach.”
The lawsuit says the stated reasons given by the school board for hiring Malik, including that the district wanted someone with connections to the community and who was less “vanilla,” were “code” to mean that they were looking for someone who is not white or had political connections. Jackson is black. The school board, however, is mostly white and Hispanic.
The lawsuit does not identify who exactly made the vanilla comment. In an interview with New Jersey 101.5, Frost attributed it to school board members he did not name. It's the lawsuit's only example of alleged racism.
Quinn says he was demoted to gym teacher and lost $30,000 in stipends that he would have received performing duties as a coach. As a result, he claims, he was forced to find another job.
Although Quinn was quickly hired in Plainfield as that district's high school athletics supervisor, the lawsuit says he’s earning less money, and his career has been harmed because he is now with a less prestigious program. He also says the turn of events caused him distress and a mild heart attack.
The lawsuit seeks damages of more than $100,000 for alleged violations of the First and 14th Amendments, the state Law Against Discrimination, the state Open Public Meetings Act and other federal civil rights laws.
The nine other former employees also suing the district in federal court:
— Lester Dominguez, transportation director who previously ran for city council against a Bollwage candidate;
— Oscar Ocasio, director of process improvement who ran against Bollwage in 2012;
— Donald Goncalves, assistant board secretary who worked as a campaign manager and once served on the Union County Board of Freeholders;
— Ismael Estrada Jr., a security supervisor who volunteered in political campaigns;
— Miguel Jimenez, assistant property maintenance director and campaign volunteer;
— Marvin Lehman, a district attorney who volunteered in campaigns;
— Joseph Padlo, assistant director of transportation who was a campaign manager and treasurer;
— Gonzalo Quesada, a security coordinator who volunteered on campaigns;
— Robert Stigliano, an investigator for the district who volunteered on campaigns.
All nine and Quinn are represented by the same attorney.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.