Rothman's Speech at City School Event Draws Fire From Board President
Thursday, May 24, 2012 • 8:42am
PATERSON, NJ – Steve Rothman’s appearance at a city school event last weekend has prompted criticism from Board of Education members who say it was an inappropriate intrusion of politics at an academic competition.
Rothman gave the keynote speech on the opening day of the Math Olympics at New Roberto Clemente School on May 19, an event organized by Pedro Rodriguez, a former school board member.
Rodriguez was among the local officials who announced in January they were remaining neutral in the Democratic congressional primary between Rothman and former Paterson mayor Bill Pascrell. But questions have arisen about Rodriguez’ neutrality because his recent campaign in the 1st Ward council election received more than $8,000 in donations from political action committees that had gotten funding from Rothman.
Paterson Board of Education President Christopher Irving said he has asked state-appointed schools superintendent Donnie Evans to look into Rothman’s appearance and to take some sort of “formal action” on it. Irving said he thought Rothman’s speech violated district rules against political activity during education events.
“He should have known better,’’ Irving said of Rodriguez. “It goes to the changing climate of politics in this town. There are folks who do not care about the laws and about ethics.’’
Rodriguez questioned the sincerity of Irving’s criticism, arguing that the board president had not complained last year when other political figures whom Irving supported appeared at the Math Olympics, including state Senator Nellie Pou and Assemblyman Shavonda Sumter.
Pou, then an Assemblywoman representing Paterson, was among the people who gave keynote speeches at the five Math Olympic competitions in 2011, Rodriguez said. Pou and Sumter, who held no office at the time, ran together on the Democrats’ 2011 legislative ticket. Rodriguez said Sumter did not give a speech. But he said he announced her presence at one of the events as a courtesy.
Pou and Sumter, however, were not engaged in a political campaign anywhere near as competitive as Rothman’s primary battle with Pascrell.
Rodriguez, who launched the Math Olympics last year when he was still a school board member, said he tries to get speakers who have backgrounds in math and who could inspire the students. “We should provide our children with the right examples of people they could look up to,’’ said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez said he asked Rothman to speak because of his work on a congressional appropriations committee. At the next session of the Math Olympics on June 2, Rodriguez said he planned to have someone from Wall Street give the keynote speech.
“I hope he’s not mixing politics with a great event that has been supported by students and parents,’’ Rodriguez said of Irving.
The Math Olympics pits teams of six students from all city elementary schools against each other in a series of Saturday competitions until one winner is crowned. More than 100 parents attended Saturday’s opening event.
It was not clear what action – if any – Evans was taking in response to Irving’s complaint about Rothman’s speech. The district’s communications office did not answer PatersonPress.com’s questions on the issue.
“I don’t want the program to stop because it benefits kids,’’ Irving said. “But I don’t want this to happen again.’’
At the Math Olympics, Rothman spoke for slightly more than six minutes, as shown on a .be">video of the speech provided by Rodriguez. At no time did he mention that he is a candidate for election nor did he ask the audience for its support in any way.
Rothman started off by praising Rodriguez, whom he called a “visionary.’’ Rothman then told the crowd that his grandparents were immigrants and his family had been poor, but said education had helped him make it to Congress where he has become friends with President Barack Obama. Rothman emphasized the importance of math and several times saluted the parents for their support of their children.
During his introduction, Rodriguez called Rothman “our congressman.’’ In fact, Rothman represents the 9th District, which currently does not include Paterson. But changes in the congressional map as part of the census process have shifted Paterson into the new 9th District that will take effect after this year’s elections.
Rothman’s spokesperson did not return a phone message seeking input on his appearance at the Math Olympics.
Irving took umbrage at Rothman’s presence at a city school during the campaign, insisting that Rothman never attended local education events before his race with Pascrell.
The Board of Education’s vice president, Kenneth Simmons, also said he thought Rothman’s speech was “inappropriate.’’ Simmons said there a “fine line” between elected officials’ participation in school events and the politicization of those events.
For example, Simmons said, Evans had raised concerns when Simmons and Irving were involved in an eye screening program and a boys’ leadership conference at city schools while they were considering running for city council.
Board member Corey Teague said he was “not real comfortable” with Rothman’s role at the Math Olympics and questioned why there had been no announcement that the congressman would attend beforehand.
“It was real disrespectful to the board itself to try to sneak it in,’’ said Teague. “It was a backhand move to try to lure the parents in.’’
Two city school board members, Alex Mendez and Wendy Guzman, had joined Rodriguez last January in declaring their neutrality in a congressional primary in which most local officials had backed Pascrell as the hometown candidate. Neither of them could be reached for comment. Federal election finance records show Guzman’s mother, Lucia Guzman, had been paid $600 to work on Rothman’s campaign.