Mehta decides not to resign from school board despite ongoing controversy

Joyce Mehta

SOUTH BRUNSWICK – Joyce Mehta, the president of the South Brunswick School District Board of Education, has decided not to resign from the board nor to step down as  president despite months of allegations surrounding her conduct on the board.

At the end of a special board meeting held March 15, Mehta said she was wrong and “truly regrets” her actions. She apologized for her lack of transparency over the past few months.

The issue at hand dates back to Jan. 6, when the board held its annual reorganization meeting. For the election of president, there was some disagreement among the board members.

Lisa Rodgers nominated Ray Kuehner for the position of president. Her nomination of Kuehner was supported by Joseph Scaletti, Barry Nathanson, Kuehner and herself.

The nomination of Kuehner was opposed by Deepa Karthik, Mike Mitchell, Raja Krishna, Mehta and Dr. Smitha Raj. The 5-4 vote defeated the nomination of Kuehner.

Mitchell then nominated Mehta for the position of president. His nomination of Mehta was supported by Karthik, Krishna, Raj, Mehta and himself.

The nomination of Mehta was opposed by Kuehner, Rodgers, Scaletti and Nathanson. The 5-4 vote gave the board presidency to Mehta for 2022.

Mehta has served two terms on the board, is chair of the Policy Committee, is a delegate for the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA), is liaison to the South Brunswick Commission on Women, and is part of the Municipal Alliance Against Substance Abuse.

As her first order of business after being elected president, Mehta asked for a nomination for vice president.

Krishna nominated Mitchell for the position. Mitchell is the vice chair of the Elections Committee for the Middlesex County School Boards Association and attended meetings for the delegate assembly and legislative committee.

Mitchell’s nomination for the position of vice president was supported by Karthik, Krishna, Mehta, Raj, Nathanson and Mitchell, and opposed by Kuehner, Rodgers and Scaletti. The 6-3 vote gave the vice president’s position to Mitchell for 2022.

The tension among board members continued less than a week later.

Mehta, as chair of the Early Start Committee, on Jan. 10 opted for the third time in as many meetings to offer up reduced instruction time for staff, even though that was an inappropriate suggestion because it is compromising to negotiations with the teachers union, Superintendent of Schools Scott Feder said.

Mehta also tried to remove a board member from the task force to replace them with her own choice.

Feder sent Mehta a letter about the possibility of an ethics violation as a result of those actions.

Mehta spoke with the board’s attorney, Kerri A. Wright, on Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, but said she did not recall speaking to Wright about Feder’s letter, but instead discussed the details of Robert’s Rules of Order which govern a meeting, and proceedings from the reorganization meeting.

This caused controversy because Mehta was denying the details of the conversation and thereby invalidating the hours billed by Wright to the school district.

During a March 3 board retreat, Mehta said she had text messages between herself and Wright about the questions concerning the reorganization meeting; as of March 15, those text messages had still not been provided to Mehta’s fellow board members. She continued to deny discussions about Feder’s letter.

Mehta said she spoke to the NJSBA’s attorney about Feder’s letter that concerned the task force meeting, not Wright.                 

“I looked at my paper trail. I do not have any emails about this letter about the ethics,” Mehta said on March 3.

During the March 3 retreat, Feder read the letter he wrote verbatim. In the letter, he said Mehta’s attempt to remove a board member from a committee to place her own choice on the panel could be seen as a lapse in integrity.

Feder again cautioned Mehta that asking for the removal of a board member to appoint a “likeminded advocate” of her own position can be viewed as using her authority to get the desired outcome, “thereby losing impartiality in others’ eyes.”

The superintendent’s letter did not state that Feder was going to file ethics charges, but did ask Mehta to step down as chair of the task force.

“I am not advocating for ethics charges to be filed, but I do want you (Mehta) to fully understand how all this could be perceived,” Feder read, noting that sentence was in bold in the letter.

Mehta responded by saying she did not agree with the letter and at no time did she offer any reduced time of instruction as an idea to the task force members. She said she merely suggested what other school districts do in terms of changing their start times.

“There is nothing on my part that I did wrong to compromise the board or compromise the negotiations,” she said.

Feder noted that Mehta’s conversations with Wright cost the school district $2,500 in attorney’s fees.

When asked about the line items, Mehta said she “100%” called the NJSBA’s attorney about Feder’s letter and denied talking to Wright about the same issue.

However, when questioned, Wright said on Jan. 12 that she explained that attorney-client privilege belongs to the board as a whole; and that on March 3 she and Mehta spoke prior to the retreat about whether the legal invoices could be discussed in executive session.

Wright said she told Mehta “to own it,” a statement Mehta later confirmed; Wright told Mehta to admit to their conversations since those conversations would not be kept confidential.

Mehta also said she did not recall sending any documents to Wright, but Wright has nine emails of correspondence between herself and Mehta.

In addition, Wright said that in all her years as board attorney, and as a school board president/member in another district, she has never had a board member question her bills, which she reviews and certifies before sending them to the school district.

Wright explained the billing was related to 13 phone calls, reading of documents, time to research the questions and attendance at meetings, leading up to $2,000 in charges.

“This entire situation began with one false statement and has mushroomed into a two-week ordeal,” Feder said on March 15.

Raj challenged Mehta, saying she did not find it convincing that Mehta would call the board attorney for an explanation of Robert’s Rules, but Mehta maintained she did so because she needed clarification.

“It’s better for us to know what the rules are and follow the rules,” Mehta said on March 3.

On March 15, Raj added that although Mehta knew she had to “own it,” she was still evasive and continued to waste taxpayer dollars on more meetings, and she did not even take the advice of counsel.

“It’s my fault and I take responsibility of that and I apologize to all of you for any trouble I caused in the process,” Mehta said on March 15.

But other board members, such as Krishna and Kuehner, had previously challenged Mehta, saying she could have asked a fellow board member or the board’s administrator or Feder before spending money on an attorney.

“What you are saying is false and you (Mehta) have lost my trust,” Rodgers said. “Every one of us has to be neutral, not just you. But moreso, the board president must ensure that nothing is stated in public because then it is taken as vital.”

Mehta also said she sent an email to Feder advising him of the phone call with Wright on Jan. 12, but as of March 10 she could still not locate that email.

Mehta acknowledged she contacted the board’s attorney on Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, which she was allowed to do. However, when questioned repeatedly about the line item for the billing, “she was not forthcoming,” Feder said.

Mehta also admitted she “became defensive” during the March 3 retreat and therefore was not honest about her discussions with Wright because she thought they were protected by attorney-client privilege.

During a March 10 meeting, Mehta read a statement she posted on Facebook earlier in the day clarifying there was a misunderstanding of attorney-client privilege in this case, since she did not fully comprehend that the school board’s attorney represents the entire board as a client, not any individual board member.

“I subsequently learned I was wrong,” Mehta said, apologizing for her lack of transparency.

On March 15, Mehta said she was a lawyer in London, but did not practice in the United States, so she was unclear on all laws, and is not familiar with billing, and at one point said there could be a language barrier or something “lost in translation.”

She reiterated that she thought her communications with Wright, the board’s attorney, would be confidential.

“I regret not being 100% transparent and forthcoming in response to the questions from my colleagues and the public,” she said. “I have nothing to hide about my discussions with the board attorney. … When a board member is accused of unethical behavior it would be negligent not to consult with the board attorney for legal opinion. … I apologize without any reservation for not being completely transparent.”

Most residents who spoke during the public comment session of the March 10 meeting were concerned with Mehta’s conduct.

“Are you leading by example? Are you leading with integrity?” Eric Schlesinger asked. “Our children are watching. They are watching your conduct. They are watching your example.”

Tina Schlesinger said Mehta should have called her personal attorney and not spent taxpayers’ money on the issues.

Debra Buonocore, a recently retired teacher, asked Mehta to step down to “allow an experienced person to lead for the betterment of our students, our district and our town.”

Another issue was that Mehta left in the middle of the March 10 meeting; Mehta said it was at the advice of Wright, but Wright said she did not encourage the board president’s departure at all.

Therefore, the special meeting was planned for March 15. Mehta called the continuation a “smear campaign” run like a trial, but without offering her the chance to properly defend herself.

“I will not be bullied by anyone, including our superintendent, who is our employee and not our boss,” she said. “I do humbly request that the personal attacks end.”

During the March 15 meeting, opinions from members of the public were mixed. Some residents claimed Mehta was being bullied and harassed.

Umesh Mahjan said, “I felt this was a one-way personal attack for three hours of a meeting.”

Eric Schlesinger said there is a difference between bullying and holding a public official accountable.

Jyotsna Sharma said all of the meetings have been “appalling,” but said any person is prone to making mistakes and should be given a chance and move on.

Many residents spoke in support of Mehta and clapped as she apologized.

Other residents shouted at each other and called people who supported Mehta her “fan club.” Those residents said what Mehta did for a friend 15 years ago has no bearing on her conduct during 2022.

Manoj Chaudhari said Mehta “has contributed a lot. … She had done a lot of good things” and understands the students. “I have seen her do all her work so far with integrity.”

“Being not truthful is bad. Creating drama is bad. Not answering to authority can be a crime. Evading questions can be deemed a crime in some circumstances,” Saba Irfan Shamsi countered. “South Brunswick is my home, my family, my community. Anyone who says lying is OK is attacking my family. .. A nice human being is truthful.”

Mohin Patel and Jerry Shi from the Edison Township Public Schools Board of Education spoke in support of Mehta and called the South Brunswick meetings “despicable” for putting Mehta on a pyre.

“She apologized. Move forward. That’s what everybody wants,” Patel said.

Shi said holding three sessions to take down a board member shows the priority of the school district.

Mehta’s personal attorney, who she hired during this process, spoke on the board president’s behalf, offering to volunteer to “help with the peacemaking.” He said there are a lot of people on the board who do not like each other, but they have to “respect the roles.”

“Whether you like (Mehta) or respect her or not, she is the board president,” he said.

Lisa Garwood, a retired teacher, said the underlying issue is the fact the public was lied to continuously by Mehta.

“We need role models who, when they are put in a position of power, do it humbly. … The board can’t work together with a dishonest leader,” Garwood said.

“Get your act together and work with each other. We have a good town on the governmental side and the school board side. … look out for the future,” said John O’Sullivan, who is a former township councilman.

Also during the March 15 special meeting, the issues of overall board conduct arose. 

Many residents chided all of the board members for their behavior during the March 3 retreat, citing yelling, cursing and fist-banging. Most said the board now needs to move forward and set an example for the children in the district.

In response to Mehta’s decision to remain on the board, Karthik said the meetings show how democracy works and spoke to students, saying the board members are paving the way for future leaders.

Kuehner said he “truly believes” Mehta did not know this issue would wreak such havoc, but did say this all could have been avoided if she just told the truth.

“Answer questions when asked, don’t dance around,” he said. “In order for us to move forward we have to have trust. It’s going to take sacrifice. Our students cannot be the sacrifice. We need to do a reset.”

Rodgers, who was very vocal for months in opposition to Mehta’s actions, said when a board member displays a lack of values, it is disappointing and unacceptable. 

“If we cannot trust our fellow board members, where do we go? Where do we go from here?” she asked. “This is not a trial, it’s about board governance.”

Contact Jennifer Amato at [email protected]