School Board Background Checks: Slow and Unsteady

John Mooney | October 13, 2011 | Education
Program unearths few criminal records thus far, but stirs up formal challenge from angry board member

Plainfield school board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq
When the state legislature and Gov. Chris Christie enacted the law requiring criminal background checks for local school board members, sponsors said they didn’t want to take any chances.

But since its unanimous passage in May, putting the law in place has been slow going. Only 2,122 have been checked, out of 4,800 board members statewide. And just seven board members have been tagged so far with disqualifying criminal records, according to the state.

The state would not disclose the individuals, their districts, or the nature of their offenses. What happens next often depends on the circumstances, said Allison Kobus, a state education department spokeswoman.

All seven districts have been notified, and three board members have stepped down. Others may seek to expunge their record, Kobus said, at which time their eligibility would be restored. One board member did so, and was allowed to remain on the board, she said.

And one high-profile member — backed by his board — has formally challenged the law and refused to give up his seat.

In an interview last night Plainfield’s Rasheed Abdul-Haqq said that he doesn’t plan on running again, but “I’m not going to let them force me to step down.”

Meanwhile, the education department is looking to speed compliance and has alerted school districts to report that their board members have completed the required reviews. In a memo sent this week, it told board secretaries that board members who have not completed the reviews are ineligible to serve.

“We will… confirm in our system and make notification that the board member/trustee is ineligible and must immediately be removed,” Kobus said in an email.

“At some future date, we will also do a reconciliation of all board members/trustees once we have established the database to assure compliance,” she said.

The memo did not set a deadline, but the law required that the reviews be completed within 30 days, which would have been late June.

However, the new requirement has not been without its glitches and concerns, and state officials over the summer allowed a grace period.

From the start, school board members opposed the measure as intrusive, not to mention expensive: It requires members to foot the bill for the FBI check. They also pointed out that school board members are the only local officials to face such a requirement.

Then there were problems with the registration site, further delaying the reports and forcing some members to re-register.

The New Jersey School Boards Association “is continuing to inform school board members of the importance of adhering to the requirement,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the group.

“I believe we will see the remaining board members schedule their background checks in the near future, so they will be in compliance with the law,” he said.

Of those who have been flagged, there has also been one legal challenge.

The Plainfield Board of Education and board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq have challenged the law on the grounds that Abdul-Haqq should not be forced from a duly elected position. He was convicted more than 40 years ago on a drug offense, and, now 68 years old, Abdul-Haqq has since become a local businessman and vocal community leader.

“I legally got elected, followed all the rules, and in a way have not been given my due process,” he said last night. “Voters should have the right to determine who is elected in a community. Maybe we should have to declare if there is a record, but it should be up to the community.”