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Wainstein files ethics complaint in school-expansion saga

Accuses Superintendent Solter of political motives for explaining the stalled project

A rendering of the expansion project that is still on hold, months after a December referendum

The controversy between North Bergen mayoral candidate Larry Wainstein and the township’s superintendent of schools is escalating.

Wainstein, represented by attorney Mario Blanch, has filed an ethics complaint with the state’s School Ethics Commission against Superintendent of Schools George Solter, alleging that he violated the School Ethics Act by sending a letter explaining the stalled expansion of the high school.

Two lawsuits against the school board 

On Dec. 11, 2018, the Board of Education held a referendum and the voters by a 3-to-1 majority approved issuing bonds for a $60 million high school expansion project, with a voter turnout of about 5,000. A key part of that project was the board’s purchase of High Tech High School’s former campus at 85th Street and Tonnelle Avenue.

Days before the referendum, Wainstein filed a lawsuit in Hudson County Superior Court, claiming the referendum vote was in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. He alleged that the referendum wasn’t advertised  enough days in advance of the vote to adhere to the law. He was represented in this suit by Blanch as well.

That suit was thrown out on Dec.7, four days before the vote.

This prompted Diana Ortiz, one of Wainstein’s running mates, to file another suit against the board the day before the referendum vote, alleging the dismissal of Wainstein’s suit was improper. Blanch also represented her.

With Ortiz’s lawsuit still active, the referendum passed. Subsequently, in board of education meetings, Solter had reported that the high school’s expansion project was in the beginning stages. Experts had been consulted, and the public had weighed in at meetings.

But after an appeals hearing in mid-February on Ortiz’s suit, the court placed a moratorium on the expansion that is still in effect until the suit is settled.

Solter’s letter

The moratorium prompted Solter to issue a letter to North Bergen parents explaining the status of the expansion.

The letter stated, “We have had a number of inquiries as to the status of this project, and we want to provide you with an update. While we continue to work toward implementation of the project, the project has been delayed by two lawsuits filed by two individuals, Larry Wainstein and Diana Ortiz. Mr. Wainstein and Ms. Ortiz seek to block the project from moving forward. While their lawsuits were rejected by the trial court within days of being filed, Mr. Wainstein and Ms. Ortiz continue to press their arguments in the appellate court. They argue that voters should have been prevented from voting on this project in December.”

The previous sentence refers to Wainstein’s original suit alleging that there was not proper legal notice of the referendum vote. Wainstein says he has not filed an appeal of the dismissal.

The letter concludes, “We are confident that the appellate court will reject the arguments from these two individuals and uphold the will of North Bergen voters so this project can proceed in a timely manner for the benefit of the township’s children.”

Political, or informative?

After this letter was distributed to North Bergen residents, Wainstein filed the ethics complaint with the School Ethics Commission. He alleged that Solter’s letter was politically motivated, and was “sent out using district funds with the purpose of defaming Larry Wainstein.”

He accused his electoral opponent Mayor Nicholas Sacco, a retired assistant superintendent of schools, of “using taxpayers’ money to help advance his political agenda,” and said it was in violation of the law.

The ethics complaint also states that Wainstein never took his lawsuit to an appeals process; only Ortiz’s suit got an appellate hearing. Wainstein accused Solter of disseminating false information for a political purpose.

“Solter used his position as superintendent to carry ‘Boss Sacco’s’ water,” Wainstein said in a written statement. “The fact of the matter is I am not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, and I am not listed on the complaint.”

The ethics complaint also alleged that because Solter “didn’t address the merits of the suit” the letter he distributed was in further violation of the School Ethics Act.

“Furthermore, Solter fails to provide both sides of the issue at hand, instead choosing to reinforce Sacco’s political propaganda,” Wainstein later said in a written statement.

Wainstein’s ethics complaint reads: ”Solter used information not readily available to the public to secure gain for a business organization, mainly Nicholas Sacco. Specifically, Solter used the names and addresses of children not readily available to send out political literature directed at defaming Larry Wainstein.”

The complaint basically alleges that Solter used a letter to parents to malign Mayor Sacco’s opponents.

Wainstein disapproves of High Tech high purchase

Wainstein also said in a written statement that he is in favor of building a new school, but opposes using the former site of High Tech High at 85th Street and Tonnelle Avenue.

“First, cars travel at high rates of speed and students crossing the highway will be at risk,” Wainstein wrote. “Second, the school will be in close proximity to the proposed power plant that Sacco supports building. The pollution and chemicals will travel right over the school.”

“There is no traffic study, no environmental report, and no public meeting,” Wainstein said. “Instead, there was a rush to bond for $60 million by holding a special election in December.”

Sacco campaign backs Solter

Sacco campaign spokesman Wendy Martinez was quick to denounce Wainstein for implying Solter’s letter had political motives.

“Larry Wainstein and Diana Ortiz are the only thing stopping North Bergen children from finally having the school facilities they deserve.” Martinez said, noting that voters overwhelmingly approved the plan. “Superintendent Solter wrote to parents simply to explain these facts, and now Wainstein is personally attacking him by filing a baseless ethics complaint just for keeping the school community informed.”

She also accused Wainstein of hiding his involvement in Ortiz’s ongoing appeals hearing.

Attorney Jack Gillman, who is representing the Board of Education, said that the letter did not serve any political purpose, but that the ethics complaint Wainstein filed was an attempt to politicize an improvement to the high school.

“The School District is in receipt of the complaint and will respond accordingly,” Gillman said. “Contrary to the complainant’s position, the Superintendent’s letter is accurate and was not prepared to serve any political purpose. Instead, it served to inform the parent and student population of the status of the bond referendum lawsuit, and the lawsuit’s resultant delay to repairs and construction of school facilities. The complainant’s attempt to politicize a badly needed school project, to the detriment of students, is unfortunate.”

For updates on this and more stories check hudsonreporter.com, or follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at mikem@hudsonreporter.com.

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