WALL – Betsy Cross, the longtime Wall Township Board of Education critic who won a write-in campaign for the board, says she will not take her seat when the board reconvenes at Tuesday night’s reorganization meeting.
Cross, one of two candidates who won a write-in vote during November’s election, said her pending lawsuit against the board forbids her from serving.
“I have been instructed by counsel to not accept the elected position at this time, due to the obvious conflicts of interest,” she said in a statement emailed to the Asbury Park Press. “My decision is based upon facts, research, and state statutes.”
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Cross cited state statute 18A:12-2, which states, “No member of any board of education shall be interested directly or indirectly in any contract with or claim against the board, nor, in the case of local and regional school districts, shall he hold office as mayor or as a member of the governing body of a municipality, nor, in the case of county special services school districts and county vocational school districts, shall he hold office as a member of the governing body of a county.”
But Wall School District Business Administrator Brian Smyth said that the litigation would not preclude Cross from joining the board, citing an opinion from the district’s legal counsel.
“With regard to her lawsuit against the district for the purpose of obtaining government records that don’t exist or obtaining records in a less redacted form, the Wall Board of Education obtained an opinion form board counsel, Sciarrillo, Cornell, Merlino, McKeever & Osborne, that the lawsuit would not preclude Ms. Cross from serving on the board,” Smyth said via email. “Ms. Cross was also advised of the board position on this matter.”
Cross’s lawsuit, filed in June 2021 in state Superior Court in Monmouth County, relates to public documents she had requested through the state’s Open Public Records Act, or OPRA. The documents included invoices for legal services performed by outside attorneys for the school district and school board meeting minutes.
Cross’ lawsuit contends that portions of the documents she received were overly redacted. In subsequent hearings, the board has been ordered to provide less-redacted copies of some documents, but the case remains in litigation.
The most recent hearing was held Monday, in which Cross’ attorney Walter Luers and board attorney Dennis McKeever agreed that more than 29,000 pages of disputed documents would be released and that Cross would pay up to $1,400 in fees to receive them.
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Cross was one of three residents set to be sworn into the governing body on Tuesday night and the second write-in candidate.
Incumbent Adam Nasr will be sworn into another term after receiving the most votes in the election, 6,274 out of 8,251. He was the only candidate who filed to run for one of three slots.
Fellow board member Christine Steitz, who had not run for re-election, took 340 out of 1,995 write-in votes cast.
Cross received the most write-in votes, 565, and would have filled the seat being vacated by Board Member Andrew Krupa, who chose not to run for re-election in 2021.
Who will fill the seat?
If Cross does not take the seat, it will then be filled by the Monmouth County Superintendent of Schools, according to Smyth. He said there is no deadline for that appointment but said it would likely be done after applicants have time to submit their names for consideration to the county superintendent.
The board must also appoint a new member to fill the unexpired term of former board member Russell Gartz, who resigned in November in the wake of the ongoing Wall High School football team hazing investigation, which has already forced the suspensions of seven students, three coaches and the former athletic director.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office is continuing the investigation.
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Gartz, the father of a football player, said in a resignation letter that he could no longer serve, adding it is “not worth the risk anymore,” citing “visceral, mean-spirited comments about many children and their families over recent days” that have “made being in a volunteer position no longer valuable for me and my family.”
His replacement, yet to be named, would complete Gartz’s term, which ends on Dec. 31, 2022. The board is expected to fill that seat at its Jan. 18 meeting, officials said.
Smyth said Cross has not responded to numerous requests in recent weeks for information required by state law for her to join the board, including a background check.
“This office has sent a number of emails to Ms. Cross regarding her status as a write-in member elect to the Wall Board of Education, including a request for her to let us know if she planned on accepting the seat on the board,” Smyth said via email Monday. “Ms. Cross has not responded to any of my emails to date and has not advised of her intention to accept or not accept the seat.”
Smyth provided copies of emails he had sent to Cross since November requesting background information and answers to standard questions related to her voter registration, any criminal history and residency status. They also indicated she was required to provide a background check by Dec.15, 2021, and has not.
Cross referred indirectly to the background check and other items requested by the district in her statement: “I have no intention of taking the seat on the Wall BOE at this time and do not need anyone in the Wall BOE to have any of my personal information.”
She later stressed that she intends to continue commenting and offering her views on issues related to the board and “will be at the Wall BOE meeting on January 4, 2022, at 6:15 p.m. in the audience at the high school cafeteria and hope to see others there in hopes of seeking the best education for Wall students and the best use of the $80,000,000 the district has been given for the coming year.”
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and several local communities for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of three books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp