Morristown town attorney prepares to take seat on school board…as board challenges his eligibility

Vij Pawar has won his first race for the regional Morris School District Board, representing Morristown, Nov. 6, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Vij Pawar, pictured after winning his first race for the regional Morris School District Board, representing Morristown, Nov. 6, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Vij Pawar is scheduled to be sworn in as a board member of the Morris School District this evening, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019.

But will he be allowed to stay?

The board has asked the School Ethics Commission of the state Department of Education to determine if Pawar’s employment as Morristown’s municipal attorney poses a conflict of interest.

Lisa Pollak, a veteran of 21 years on the Morris District board, was named its president, Jan. 2, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Lisa Pollak, a veteran of 22 years on the Morris District board, was named its president, Jan. 2, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Board President Lisa Pollak, responding to MorristownGreen.com via email this week, said the board seeks an advisory opinion “to get clarity as to whether Mr Pawar can serve on the school board given his current position as Town attorney (i.e. whether that poses a disqualifying potential conflict) and, if he can indeed serve, under what, if any, parameters.

“It is our responsibility, as a board, to obtain this clarity, which will benefit Mr. Pawar as well,” Pollak said, noting Pawar “will serve with us unless we are instructed otherwise.”

Pawar, who in November won nearly 60 percent of the vote to defeat John Creamer for an unpaid, three-year Morristown seat on the regional board, maintains the board has no grounds to bar him from serving.

“We have a school board that should be concentrating on schools and students and parents and teachers, rather than wasting school resources on political nonsense,” said Pawar.

District Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast referred questions about board policy to Pollak.

Morristown Green reached out to the state Department of Education for a comment over the New Year’s holiday. This story will be updated with any the state’s response.

Pawar’s ability to serve two masters was questioned by Creamer during the school board race.

“As town attorney / school board member, will he advocate for town business or for the needs of our schools and our students?” Creamer said during an election forum in October.

The candidate criticized Morristown’s municipal government for allowing developers to skip paying school taxes, ostensibly as an incentive to develop “blighted” properties.

Creamer’s remarks brought a sharp response from Pawar, who said he was motivated by concerns for the education of his two children in elementary school, and for all children attending the District’s 10 schools, which serve about 5,200 pupils from Morristown, Morris Township and Morris Plains.

“Don’t you dare question my integrity,” Pawar told his opponent. “I have skin in the game.”

He also vowed to bring more transparency and an immigrant’s perspective to the diverse District. His family emigrated from India when he was 13.

NOT SEEING EYE TO EYE: Morris School District candidates Vij Pawar, left, and John Creamer, at League of Women Voters forum, Oct. 16, 2018.Photo by Kevin Coughlin
NOT SEEING EYE TO EYE: Morris School District candidates Vij Pawar, left, and John Creamer, at League of Women Voters forum, Oct. 16, 2018.Photo by Kevin Coughlin

No state law prohibits a town attorney from serving on a local school board, a spokesperson for the New Jersey School Boards Association told Morristown Green prior to the election.

Pawar, a close friend and political adviser to Mayor Tim Dougherty, raised nearly $17,450 and spent about one-third of it, mostly on campaign mailings, to beat Creamer, according to reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Creamer did not report raising or spending any funds.

Before the election, Pawar said, the school board advised him he could not run. The board wrote to the ethics commission after he won, but the commission answered that it lacked jurisdiction to issue an opinion because Pawar had not been sworn in yet, he said.

While reiterating his intention to recuse himself from any board matter posing a potential conflict, Pawar asserted that in nine years as town attorney, there have been “zero instances where I…had to opine on a school issue.”

Pawar added he legally is obligated to protect confidential information discussed in closed sessions.

District funds could be better spent “buying pencils or school supplies,” rather than trying to oust him, Pawar contended.

Two Morris Township trustees also are scheduled to start on Wednesday: Six-term incumbent Ann Rhines, and newcomer Linda Murphy. (She is not former Morristown High School Principal Linda Murphy.)

Murphy edged out Alan Smith in a three-way race for two seats. Rhines keeps one of those seats; Prim Minchello of Morris Township relinquished the other after one term.

Pawar replaces Jeannette Thomas, who left after two terms.

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