Equity & Diversity

Hispanic Leader’s Dismissal Roils N.J. District

By Catherine Gewertz — March 10, 2004 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 3 min read
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Corrected: The story incorrectly stated that Annette D. Knox was the first African-American superintendent of the Camden, N.J., schools. She is the district’s first female African-American superintendent.

The firing of the highest-ranking Hispanic schools administrator in Camden, N.J., has reignited bitterness among school district leaders about the governor’s right to override their decisions. And it has rekindled resentment among Hispanics about insufficient representation in school leadership.

Acting on the recommendation of Annette D. Knox, the district’s first African- American superintendent, the predominantly black school board voted 6-1 on Jan. 29 to fire Esmeralda Vargas after 13 months as an assistant superintendent.

The firing prompted the board’s only Hispanic member to resign, and some Hispanic leaders to claim that discrimination played a role in Ms. Vargas’ termination.

Ms. Vargas, who is of Puerto Rican descent, had three weeks earlier filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office, claiming Ms. Knox discriminated against her because of her ethnic heritage.

Lawyers for the 18,500-student district have advised Ms. Knox not to comment publicly on the firing, but in a series of statements, she said that Ms. Vargas was fired solely because of her job performance.

“At no time has ethnicity or race entered into any decision made by me or my staff,” Ms. Knox wrote.

On Feb. 20, Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey vetoed the board’s firing of Ms. Vargas, saying that neither his office nor Ms. Vargas had been given proper notice.

It was not the first time the Democratic governor has stepped into district affairs. Last May, he vetoed the board’s decision to loosen anti-nepotism rules, and in July he nixed the board’s proposed contract with Ms. Knox, insisting that it be tied to student performance.

The governor’s powers to intercede stem from the Camden Recovery Act, which he signed in mid-2002. In exchange for giving the city of Camden $175 million in state revitalization aid, the governor gained the right to appoint three school board members, receive advance notification of board actions and veto its votes, and to oversee the city’s financial health.

A legal challenge to that law by the school board is pending. Neither Ms. Vargas nor her lawyer could be reached for comment.

Racial Accusations

In the wake of Ms. Vargas’ firing, resentment about its racial overtones—or the accusation of racism—persists.

Luis A. Lopez, a gubernatorial appointee to the school board who resigned to protest Ms. Vargas’ termination, said she was a hard- working administrator who was viewed by Hispanic parents as a critical conduit for their concerns.

“The Hispanic community was outraged over what happened, because she was the only Hispanic assistant superintendent in the history of the city,” Mr. Lopez said. “We need Hispanic representation.”

Some African- American leaders dismiss the claim of racism as illogical, questioning how Ms. Knox could have engaged in discrimination against someone she herself chose. Other leaders note that those who objected were not privy to the personnel information on which Ms. Knox based her recommendation.

“There were some individuals who chose to politicize a personnel matter,” said Stella J. Horton, a former school board member who now heads a nonprofit youth-service organization in Camden.

Gov. McGreevey’s actions rankle those who view the Camden Recovery Act as an unwanted intrusion and loss of local control.

“The people of this city have been disenfranchised,” said school board member Sara T. Davis. “It’s just a back-door way of doing a takeover.”

Edwina M. Lee, the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, which has joined the Camden school board in suing to overturn the law, said the association challenges “the assumption that aid from the state requires loss of control by the population.”

‘Asking for Problems’

Although Gov. McGreevey is using powers granted to him by law, they carry political risks, said David P. Rebovich, the managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics, at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.

“It seems to me that the governor would be asking for more problems by getting involved, especially in a personnel decision,” Mr. Rebovich said. “Doesn’t it look like a political decision when he steps in?”

Said Juliet Johnson, a spokeswoman for the governor: “Our only objective in Camden is to make sure the children of that city receive the best education they can. All our actions have been guided by that principle.”

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