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Thursday, April 12, 2018

School election issues: Zisas, higher taxes, overbilling of legal fees, sexual harassment

WHAT ELSE IS HE HIDING? Hackensack Board of Education President Jason Nunnermacker, in black hoodie, hiding from the camera at a May 2016 City Council meeting, above and below. Nunnermacker, a key ally of the Zisa family political machine, and two other school board members are seeking  new 3-year terms in next Tuesday's board and budget election.




-- HACKENSACK, N.J.

By VICTOR E. SASSON
EDITOR

Nearly 5 years after the Zisa family political machine was thrown out of Hackensack City Hall, their allies retain an iron grip on the local school board.

Even as enrollment declined, the budget for Hackensack schools long ago soared past $100 million -- exceeding the city's own -- and the proposal for 2018-19 totals $117,143,515.

This budget would rely on $82,865,444 in local taxes -- or nearly half of every property taxpayer's bill -- plus state aid, tuition, state and federal grants and other funds. 

Ten years ago, the tax levy was $56,698,771, so about half of any increase in property taxes in the last decade was driven by higher school budgets.

Next Tuesday's school election ballot asks residents to vote "yes" or "no" on the proposed school budget; a "no" vote would allow the City Council to review the proposal, cut it or leave the budget as it is.

NorthJersey.com (The Record of Woodland Park) published two stories on next Tuesday's election, but the first, on March 25, stated incorrectly the proposed school budget is $112 million. 

The second, on March 27, used the correct, $117 million figure.


Frances Cogelja, Lance Powell and Carlos Velez are running for Hackensack Board of Education seats in next Tuesday's school election.

The Zisas

Mayor John Labrosse and his slate of reformers defeated allies of the Zisa family political dynasty in the 2013 City Council election, and again in 2017.

But Labrosse says Jack Zisa, a former four-term mayor; and brother Ken, the disgraced former police chief, "and their friends still control the Hackensack Board of Education."

"Yes, voters tired of their waste and corruption threw them out of City Hall, but they're still in control of our schools," the mayor said.

Jack Zisa "owns and operates companies that have received millions of tax dollars in insurance premiums" from the school board, which is controlled by friends and allies like President Jason Nunnermacker and school board attorney Richard Salkin.

Sweetheart deal

Since 2000, Jack Zisa also has collected rent on a Main Street building he acquired in a sweetheart deal made possible by friendly Bergen County officials, while he still was mayor.

The initial six-year lease with the Bergen County Special Services School District more than doubled the purchase price, and as of May 2017, the district has been paying more than $380,000 a year to rent the building at 293-295 Main St.




School for scandal

"Did you know that School Attorney Salkin has ruled there is 'nothing wrong' with school employees doing political work for Zisa candidates on school time and on school property," Labrosse says in campaign material for school board hopefuls Francis Cogelja, Lance Powell and Carlos Velez.

"Did you know that Salkin ovebills the school district by tens of thousands of dollars, and Nunnermacker and other school board members do nothing to stop him?"

Anthony Zisa

In the April 2016 school election, Hackensack High School teacher Anthony Zisa apparently supplied the addresses of members of the teachers union to the Zisa-backed board candidates.

Over the objections of the teachers union president, Team Hackensack invited teachers to a meet-and-greet barbecue at Anthony Zisa's home, 337 Maple Hill Drive in Hackensack.

Anthony Zisa, son of disgraced Police Chief Ken Zisa, lives in the home of his late grandfather, Frank C. Zisa, family patriarch and onetime mayor of Hackensack, once known derisively as "Zisaville."

State probe sought

Now, the "Putting Our Kids First Team" -- Cogelja, Powell and Velez -- are calling for a state investigation of Salkin, who, they allege, has raised his compensation by 50% and is working without a contract.

They say Salkin, the school board attorney, received $144,000 in the current school year, compared to $95,000 two years ago.

Last year, Salkin was the campaign manager for the Zisa-backed slate that lost the City Council election.

Referring to an Open Public Records Act request, Cogelja said, "We did learn that he overbilled taxpayers by $13,000 last year and we demand that he return these funds to the school district."



Candidates

Frances Cogelja, a member of the Fairmount School PTA, wants to increase school security by providing retired police officers in every school to protect children and staff members.

Her running mate, Lance Powell -- an education and health-care professional, and a public school parent who lives in Hackensack -- wants to upgrade school facilities, and stop insurance and legal-fee abuses.

The third member of the team is Carlos Velez, a city resident who is a public school principal in the Bronx.

Velez is concerned about the Zisa-controlled school board mismanaging a potential $30 million school construction project.

'Sex toys' suit

As a footnote to the election, a former Hackensack Middle School assistant principal said her boss touched her inappropriately, asked her about buying sex toys and made other lewd comments -- once while touching his crotch -- before abruptly leaving the job after she complained to district officials, according to news reports.

On April 4, Denise Vega Moore filed a lawsuit in Superior Court, Hackensack, against the Board of Education; and Nicole Adams and Rosemary Martin-Marks, both of whom were assistant superintendents of schools and later interim superintendents.

The suit says that in August 2014, she was introduced to her direct supervisor, Corey J. Jones, principal of the middle school.

"With plaintiff present, Jones would frequently make unsolicited and unprompted comments about other employees accusing him of sexual harassment," she says in the suit.

"Jones repeatedly grabbed plaintiff around the waist during her first several months of employment."

On Aug. 18, 2015, while plaintiff was speaking with her co-workers, Jones approached, said "don't you look tan," hugged plaintiff and "kissed her on the cheek." 

Plaintiff reported Jones' sexual harassment to Superintendent of Schools Joseph Cicchelli on June 17, 2016; the board investigated Jones' behavior and he was permitted to resign in July 2017, according to the suit.