In a tumultuous Board of Education meeting last night, five trustees voted to oust the president and vice-president. The vote came a day after the president filed an ethics complaint against a fellow trustee and after years of building tension over issues involving the superintendent, hiring, promotion, and school conditions.

Newly elected trustee Dejon Morris was elected to replace President Natalia Ioffe and Younass Barkouch was elected to replace Vice President Noemie Velazquez.

The five insurgents said they had acted out of frustration with the Ioffe's and Velasquez's failure to perform their duties, their lack of transparency with the public and fellow board members, and their lack of accountability.

Overshadowing the vote was an ethics complaint filed by Ioffe on Wednesday against Morris. Ioffe alleged that since his election in November, Morris had lobbied her to meet with the law firm Souder, Shabazz & Woolridge Law Group, including at the New Jersey League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City. She declined, she said, because “any personal engagement would be unethical.” Morris, she said, then brought up hiring the law firm at several meetings and, most recently, at Monday's caucus saying “If we have a quorum today, why can’t we vote on it today?”

The ethics rules prohibit a trustee from giving “an unwarranted advantage” to a vendor, making “personal promise” or taking a “private action” that compromises the board.

According to Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco, Morris admitted during a fundraising event that he had been wined and dined by the firm. “Mr. Morris told us ‘oh, I had this fabulous dinner at the Borgata casino in Atlantic City with this lawfirm. And I said ‘did they buy you dinner' and he said ‘yes.'”

“We all make mistakes, but then all of a sudden Monday night you're pushing and pushing...I want put a vote on the floor, I want to have this law firm. You look suspicious.”

“The severity of the situation compelled me to take this step for full transparency,” Ioffe told the Montreal Olympics.

Morris, a detective with the Jersey City Police Department, was suspended for 90 days in November for failing to preserve video evidence in a stabbing two years ago. According to Morris, a board member had called the police department to ask “‘Hey, do you have any information on this particular person because we need to get rid of him.’”

Morris did not respond to a request for comment.

Superintendent Dr. Norma Fernandez, and all members of the administration left the premises during the vote. Trustees Christopher Tisdale, Paula Jones-Watson, and Afaf Muhammad joined Morris and Barkouch in voting for the removal.

According to former trustee Gina Verdibello, the concerns were unsurprising. “It was inevitable that the board would turn on the leadership,” she said. “When I was there, Lorenzo [Richardson] and I were made to be the scapegoats for why the board was dysfunctional. That was far from the truth.”

According to Verdibello, the pressure the teachers’ union exerts over the board was overwhelming. “It’s a hostile environment to work in and because everyone was endorsed by the JCEA they had to follow what they wanted. I was a good soldier but in the end it didn’t matter,” she said.

Morris, who was endorsed by the JCEA, said that he made it clear to the leadership, including Greco, that his opinions would be independent and potentially at odds with what the union wants.

Morris claimed that Ioffe was too close to Superintendent Fernandez. “We are not allowed to hold certain members accountable for certain things that are taking place because of a relationship between a particular board member, who is our president, and the superintendent.”

Muhammad said that Ioffe “pretty much lost the confidence of the majority of the board because of [her] inaction” and is “doing everything for your personal gain for you to stay in position, and that’s against the ethics of a board.”

Ioffe said that the vote would be illegal and non-binding.

Greco said the Board is entitled to choose its leaders but he said the process violated Robert's Rules of Order. “The process has to be respected...it boggles the mind that there can be such breakdown of law and order in a school building” said Greco. “I don't believe any of it is legal...the Department of Education needs to intervene.”

“If what we’re doing tonight is not legal, it’s not ethical, it’s not right, we will get some sort of notification, but for you to reject it… this is not leadership, this is dictatorship” said Barkouch last night.

Noting the district's mediocre test results, Mayoral candidate Jim McGreevy said the events “highlighted the dysfunction and chaos of the present Board of Education.” Ward E Councilman James Solomon called the evening's events “a disgrace.”

This is the second time in recent years that a law firm has roiled the Board of Education. In 2021, then Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas was indicted for bribery after allegedly promising to hire a real estate attorney to do Board of Education work in exchange for a contribution to his campaign for city council.

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The meeting also featured the board’s first implementation of a new public comment system in which the public is allowed to speak only on agenda items before voting is completed. Those who wish to speak on any topic can do so at the end of the meeting.

Darren Martin said “I’m just hoping and praying that democracy will remain something that’s in the forefront, and democracy certainly won tonight.”

Elizabeth Perry said, “This is the calmest our voices have been in a very long time.”

Former trustee Lorenzo Richardson said, “This has been the best blessing that I have ever had.” He said Morris had nothing to worry about because “if you’re guilty of something, she is as well” when it comes to socializing with vendors.

Ryan Kilkenny was born and raised in New York. He graduated with a BS from Tulane University and a JD from Rutgers Law School. Ryan worked as an attorney for almost two years before switching careers and...