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Union County Freeholder candidate Lourdes Leon.

Victim of Elizabeth school board war returns as a freeholder candidate

Lourdes Leon spent almost seven years fighting political retaliation

By David Wildstein, February 06 2020 11:57 am

The political wars at the Elizabeth Board of Education for much of the last 20 years were among the most toxic in the state, as allies of Mayor Christian Bollwage and then-State Sen. Raymond Lesniak battled with a group aligned with a bitter enemy, former school board president Rafael Fajardo.

The battle resulted in school board races costing hundreds of thousands of dollars – and even the creation of a super PAC.  It included allegations of voter fraud, and millions of dollars in litigation.   The fight sometimes spilled over into county and legislative races and it wasn’t settled until Fajardo finally lost his grip on city Board of Education election six years ago.

Few people experienced the noxious aspects of Elizabeth school board politics as much as Lourdes Leon, a former principal who was picked on Sunday to run for freeholder on the Union County Democratic organization line.

Opponents of the county Democrats have already begun to circulate opposition research they might use against Leon in the upcoming primary.

But to Leon, she was the victim of political retaliation.

While running the Donald Stewart Early Childhood Center about fifteen years ago, Leon took action against an under-performing employee who was a relative of a top school administrator and a Fajardo ally, people familiar with the issue told the New Jersey Globe.

Leon found herself facing allegations that she falsified records and the Fajardo-led school board sought to remove her.

The fight lasted six years and after affecting her health, Leon accepted a compromise.  She agreed to retire in 2012 as part of a settlement of the dispute that reached the acting state Commissioner of Education, documents show.

Leon voluntarily agreed to a five-year suspension of her administrative certificates in 2014, documents show, although she steadfastly refused to admit to any of the allegations made by Team Fajardo.  She retained her teaching license.

Democrats picked Leon to replace seven-term freeholder Angel Estrada, who is not seeking re-election.

Some Democratic leaders have complained that Leon’s issues were not shared with the screening committee.

The New Jersey Progressive Democrats of Union County are recruiting candidates to run on a separate line and have already picked Justin O’Hea, a mental health clinician, to run for freeholder.

Fajardo did not immediately respond to a 4:12 PM email on Tuesday seeking comment.

This story was updated at 12:47 PM.

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