There’s not much to fight over in the borough of East Newark.
Hudson County’s least populous municipality — and second-smallest in the state, by area — comprises fewer than 3,000 residents and occupies little more than a tenth of a square mile on the Passaic River.
But over the past few months, East Newark officials have been engaged in an unprecedented power struggle over the board of education, the body that oversees the borough’s one school and roughly 220 students.
Last fall, the East Newark school board recommended switching to an elected body, instead of one whose trustees are appointed by the mayor. But last week, East Newark’s Borough Council voted to add two seats to the Board of Education — effectively allowing Mayor Dina Grilo to appoint new members before residents can vote on whether to strip her of that power.
“In my personal opinion it’s the mayor once again interfering with the BOE and attempting to take control and pack the Board with people that she can control,” said BOE Vice President Mark Balsam, who noted that he was speaking as a private citizen and not for the board.
It’s been 12 months since Grilo, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, replaced 32-year incumbent Joseph Smith to become the borough’s first female mayor, just the second in county history.
Those months have been both transformative and tumultuous for the tiny west Hudson borough. Last year, East Newark received a $300,000 grant from the Hudson County Open Space Trust Fund to renovate its recreation center. Federal agencies have proposed building a new five-acre waterfront park on the Passaic River as part of a superfund cleanup.
The owners of the Tops Diner on Passaic Avenue, a New Jersey landmark ranked among the state’s best diners, plan to upgrade the restaurant with a new building three times its size and almost double the parking space.
And the historic Clark Cotton and Thread Company Mill is slated for conversion into a massive mixed-use development with 616 new residential units. If filled, those units stand to increase the town’s population by more than 20%.
In another municipality, those developments might have minimal impact. But in East Newark, which boasts an area of 0.11 square miles and a population of about 2,600, they stand to be transformative.
“There is a lot going on, and there’s a lot going on within the next three years,” said East Newark Council President Hans Lucas.
But the new mayor’s tenure has also been marked by an conflict between the borough and the school board.
“The relationship (with) the prior administration was excellent,” Balsam said. “There were zero issues between Mayor Smith, the Borough Council and the Board of Education. As you can see and hear that is not the case with the current administration. The mayor and her administration are not supposed to interfere with the Board of Education business.”
In an email, East Newark Borough Administrator Kevin Catrambone, who was hired by the mayor last spring, said Grilo and the council have “zero interest in having power over the BOE.”
“The main objective is to refocus the BOE’s attention back onto our children,” Catrambone said. “As of recent, a couple members of the BOE have been controversial and uncooperative with the administration which has caused a distraction from their main purpose.”
The mayor’s plan to renovate the town recreation center, where the district held some classes and extracurricular activities, angered school officials. In September, East Newark Superintendent Dr. Richard Corbett announced that he was requesting a state investigation into what he called “outside political influences.”
That same month, the East Newark school board approved a recommendation that would change the board from Type 1 to Type 2 — meaning that voters would directly elect trustees instead of having them appointed by the mayor. East Newark voters will likely consider the question in the Nov. 2021 election, the borough clerk said.
But last week, the borough council voted to expand the BOE from five to seven members — with both new trustees set to be named by the mayor.
“With more members, you just have more people that can vote on the different situations,” said Councilwoman Rose Evaristo, who voted for the increase. “I just feel that the more voices, the better.”
Two years ago, the council had voted to do the opposite: a 2018 ordinance decreased the school board’s membership from seven to five members. (Meeting records show that Evaristo voted for that too, though she said she does not remember it.) Borough officials said the reduction was due to the fact that BOE members sometimes failed to show up for meetings, making it difficult to reach a quorum.
Candidates for the two new seats will be appointed in April or May, Catrambone said.
Corbet, the superintendent, declined to address the reported tension between the mayor and the BOE, but touted the district’s academic accomplishments. Test scores in the district have improved, Corbett said, and for the first time, East Newark has been classified by the state as “high-performing.”
“That’s the only thing that matters, is what we’ve done for these kids,” Corbett said.