WESTFIELD — A member of the Westfield Board of Education who was previously accused of missing too many meetings will not face removal from office. On Monday, during a special meeting held at the district’s administrative offices on Elm Street, the board voted by the unanimous consent of all present members to rescind a motion that would have forced the board to vote on whether or not to remove Sahar Aziz from her elected position after missing three consecutive advertised meetings in violation of the board’s established bylaws.
According to official minutes provided by the board, Ms. Aziz was absent from two regular meetings — held on July 18 and August 29 — and one special meeting held on August 22.
Ms. Aziz explained Monday that she had been out of the country on a planned vacation during the special meeting and that she had notified the board of her intentions to travel ahead of time. The other two absences were attributed to scheduling conflicts related to her work as a professor at Rutgers University Law School.
“Like anyone in my position, I asked myself what would have motivated the Westfield school board to make such a hasty decision without even asking me why I could not attend an emergency [Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying] appeal in the middle of the summer that was scheduled with just four days notice,” Ms. Aziz said of the special August 22 meeting.
The motion, made by member Brendan Galligan at a regular meeting of the board held on August 29, was initially approved by a vote of 6 to 1, with Board President Sonal Patel, Vice President Robert Benacchio and members Mary Wickens, Kent Diamond and Kristen Sonnek-Schmeltz voting inline with Mr. Galligan. Charles Gelinas, the board’s newest member, voted against the measure, and board member Leila Morelli opted to abstain.
Mr. Galligan was absent from Monday night’s special meeting.
Though state law does allow a board to remove one of its members due to attendance records, Mr. Gelinas said Monday that doing so would have been “profoundly un-Democratic.”
“These actions would have been against the wishes of the majority who voted Sahar into office in the first place,” Mr. Gelinas said. “That’s not to say that consequences should never be imposed for board member infractions, but I think we should take such steps thoughtfully, carefully and with extreme hesitation.”
District records indicate that Ms. Aziz was absent from nine of last year’s 20 advertised board meetings and that she was marked late to five others.
Westfield resident Kyle George noted during the public comment portion of Monday night’s meeting that Ms.Aziz has the highest absentee rate of any current board member with the same tenure. He pointed out that she had previously missed four consecutive meetings.
Mr. George’s wife, Stephanie Siegel, filed a complaint against Ms. Aziz with the New Jersey School Ethics Commission earlier this year for allegedly engaging in anti-Semitic behavior. The Commission has not yet returned a decision.
Several other members of the public, among them individuals who had traveled from other parts of the state to participate in the meeting, spoke out in support of Ms. Aziz during Monday night’s proceedings.
Dyaa Terpstra, a member of the Jefferson Township Board of Education and an employee of the New Jersey Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said that while he could understand the board’s concerns about attendance, he could not abide the fact that a Muslim-American like Ms. Aziz was “being tossed out” in such a hasty manner. Several other individuals also took to the podium to express their concerns that the board’s decision to support the initial motion had more to do with Ms. Aziz’s racial identity than it did with her performance as an elected official.
“In New Jersey, where there are more Muslims elected to office than any other state in the nation, we are especially interested in the wider issue of how Muslims have been treated for their expressions of free speech or their religious beliefs while in office,” Mr. Terpstra said.
Ms.Aziz echoed similar sentiments, stating that she has often encountered opposition from the board in relation to her work on the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
“Had Brendan Galligan’s motion been planned as part of a collective attempt to remove me, the first Muslim and Arab woman elected to the Westfield school board, from office? Why had Brendan Galligan been tracking my attendance so closely during the summer months, when so many of us travel out of town on vacation?” Ms. Aziz asked, reading from a prepared statement on Monday. “What are their motivations, and are these motivations a pretext for something else?”
The next regular meeting of the Westfield Board of Education will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 19, in the high-school cafeteria.