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South Brunswick school board members defer to School Ethics Commission for decision on board president’s possible ethics violations

SOUTH BRUNSWICK – The South Brunswick School District Board of Education has passed a resolution asking the members of the New Jersey School Ethics Commission to review a recent controversy that involves the board president.

During a March 24 meeting, board Vice President Mike Mitchell read a statement on behalf of the board pertaining to allegations which have been before the board since January involving board President Joyce Mehta.

Mehta was accused of and finally acknowledged not being transparent about conversations she had with the board’s attorney. The matter caused controversy because Mehta was denying the details of the conversation and thereby invalidating the hours billed by Kerri A. Wright to the school district.

Mehta also allegedly interfered with contract negotiations as a member of the Early Start Committee and possibly tried to remove a sitting board member from a committee.

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

“It is 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.

However, members of the board and dozens of members of the public spoke about their lack of confidence in Mehta moving forward.

Thus, the allegations cited in the board’s March 24 resolution include misrepresentations made to the public and to board members by Mehta, improper social media posts, comments that negatively impact the district and employees, and emails sent to district employees, Mitchell read.

The statement said these actions have negatively impacted the board and have become a distraction from board business. The resolution asks for Mehta’s alleged conduct to be reviewed by the School Ethics Commission as an impartial and third party panel.

“This action is critical to ensuring and preserving the public’s confidence in its elected officials while providing the board president the ability to defend against the allegations,” the statement reads.

During the meeting on March 15, Mehta requested an opportunity to provide evidence and witnesses on her behalf.

The March 24 statement allows for such actions, but states that the board is not the proper venue for such a hearing to occur, which is why members of the School Ethics Commission should make the determination.

Mehta would be entitled to an attorney, paid for by the board, the statement says.

The resolution was supported by the members of the board. The board can now submit the ethics violations to the commission, which will proceed with a hearing and determine if there were in fact any ethical violations committed.

After listening to public comments that were made during the past few meetings, board member Dr. Smitha Raj said, “I believe South Brunswick deserves better, deserves answers to all of their questions. There cannot be an effective democracy without accountability.”

Raj said a review of the matter by the School Ethics Commission will allow for due process for Mehta. She also clarified that the decision is not based on any individual, but on the role of what a board president should be.

“What we do here today sets a precedent for the future members of this board. I strongly believe we should set a precedent and normalize accountability, transparency and due process,” Raj said.

Board member Deepa Karthik said she supported Mehta for the position of board president during the Jan. 6 reorganization meeting.

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

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

Mitchell then nominated Mehta for the position of president. Mitchell’s 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.

“I always believe in supporting motivated and competent individuals,” Karthik said on March 24, mentioning that she believed Mehta had done a lot of good things for the district during her four years on the board; and that Mehta promised a collaborative, transparent and futuristic approach for the district.

“This has been a very testing and very challenging time for me, personally,” Karthik said, saying that based on everything she has learned, now is the time to support the resolution.

Kuehner said he does not want the message of the board to be that it is acceptable to deceive or lie when asked questions; and that if you fail to be truthful, there is a price to pay. He also said an apology does not make everything OK.

“There has been damage to this board over the past few months,” he said, saying he wants other school boards to emulate South Brunswick once again.

Rodgers said there has been a lot of anger stemming from hurt, embarrassment and frustration during 2022.

She said there is also disbelief, since people from outside of South Brunswick spoke during the public portion of the March 15 meeting, defending Mehta, when they do not know what is best for the South Brunswick community, and they disparaged the board members and administration, she said.

“We have all done good things for this district, but that doesn’t give us a pass,” Rodgers said.

She said the tenets that shape the culture of the district are honesty, kindness, respect, responsibility and service.

“We do not condone dishonesty from our students and we will not condone it from any of our board members,” Rodgers said. “The title doesn’t honor you, you honor the title. … In each committee, united, we will meet the goals of this district.”

Nathanson agreed with the notion of being united and said, “We agree, we disagree, we agree to disagree, but I believe we are united in wanting the best for our district.”

Scaletti said now is the time to turn the page and let the board get back to the work it needs to do.

“The children need our voice” for a safe and great learning environment, he said.

Krishna said running a school district is a very challenging task to “ensure the continued success of our children and to make sure there are no obstacles in doing so.”

Mitchell said he stands united with his colleagues and supports the central administration.

“We are one of the best (boards) in the state and we don’t want this to put a damper on that. We are a great district, we have great parents, we have great teachers, great administrators,” he said, later thanking the board members for their guidance and patience as he conducted his first full board meeting.

Mehta decided not to resign from the board nor to step down as president as of March 15, but she was not present at the March 24 meeting.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com

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