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Suspended schools chief files suit, ethics complaints, against Mt. Olive Board of ed members

Published on: 11/25/2022

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Source Url : https://www.newjerseyhills.com/mt_olive_chronicle/news/suspended-schools-chief-files-suit-ethics-complaints-against-mt-olive-board-of-ed-members/article_9f975668-6ce0-11ed-87ef-83d20d886ee9.html

MOUNT OLIVE TWP. - Robert Zywicki, the grades K-12 district's schools chief placed on paid administrative leave by the Board of Education last month, has filed a whistleblower complaint against the school board president and three others in state Superior Court, claiming retaliation after he questioned their "ongoing violations of policy, code, and good practice."

Zywicki also has filed ethics complaints against those four, Board President Anthony Strillacci, Board Vice President Christopher Zeier, and board members Antoine Gayles and William Robinson with the state's School Ethics Commission, according to documents obtained by the Mount Olive Chronicle.

The filings are the latest in a series of lawsuits and complaints Zywicki filed after he was put on administrative leave, with pay, in October. A show cause hearing is set for 10 a.m. Friday, Dec. 2, before state Supreme Court Judge Louis S. Sceusi, in Morristown.

The show cause hearing was scheduled after Zywicki filed a lawsuit arguing his suspension, initially happening behind closed doors at a Monday, Oct. 10 Board of Education meeting, is a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act.

Zywicki’s lawsuit pertaining to that suspension follows four tort claim notices he filed against Board of Education President Anthony Strillacci and board members Bill Robinson, Antoine Gayles and Elizabeth Ouimet. In those, Zywicki said he could seek $5.13 million from each, for a total of more than $20.4 million. 

A tort claim is not a formal lawsuit, but rather a “heads up” that a suit, or suits, could be filed down the road. The claim must be filed within 90 days of the alleged incident, and filing a claim within that timeframe guarantees that, while a suit may not be filed immediately, it might be sometime down the road. The notices are not related to the latest civil actions.

Zywicki could not be immediately reached for comment.

'Orchestrated Scheme'

Filed with state Superior Court in Morristown on Wednesday, Nov. 23 by Zywicki's attorney, Stephen Edelstein, the latest civil action notes that Zywicki seeks compensation "for multimillion-dollar damages...as a result of an orchestrated scheme" by the defendants "to punish him and to destroy his reputation."

According to the complaint, Zywicki, contracted under a five-year contract that runs through June 30, 2025, "cannot be dismissed except by way of the Tenure Dismissal process."

According to the complaint, Zywicki said that, during this time, he "complained about and pointed out to members of the board multiple instances of actions by board members which violated board policy, statutes and regulations of the New Jersey Department of Education."

According to the complaint, Zywicki alleges Gayles tried to get Zywicki to help him in a personal job search. In addition, Zywicki was sought to "intervene with the Commissioner of Education on a matter involved Gayles' personal career, obtain board reimbursements to which Zywicki claimed he was not titled, challenged Zywicki for following with state Covid protocols, made false statements about the district's fiscal condition, and tried to pressure a principal into "improperly giving him confidential documents."

The complaint also alleges Strillacci, on or about June 16 of this year, tried to interfere with Zywcki's ability to talk with district supervisors, although Strillacci's daughter is employed by the district.Board members must recuse themselves from personnel matters if family members are employed in the district.

The complaint also says that Zywicki, on July 21, filed an internal human resources complaint against Strillacci for conduct, including "using his position to intimidate me into purchasing clothing from his personal business, which is a clothing store."

In the matter of Robinson, according to the complaint, on or about July 25, Zywicki notified the board that Robinson "was openly discussing Zywicki's employment and other confidential matters with private individuals outside of the district."

Despite the complaints, however, the complaint says that none of Zywicki's claims were investigated and "were, instead, swept under the rug."

Instead, the complaint alleges, "At the direction of Defendant Board President Strillacci and defendant Board Vice President Zeier, board legal counsel Marc Zitomer, Esq. pressured Zywicki to withdraw his complaints and threatened him with adverse employment action if he did not."

The complaint further alleges that, besides not investigating Zywicki's charges, "Gayles, Strillacci, Robinson, and Zeier orchestrated and carried out a plan to retaliate" against Zywicki. Zeier, according to the complaint, "allowed the evaluation process to be compromised and confidentiality breached and failed and refused to complete the evaluation," with the goal of "coercing" Zywicki "into resigning and making it more difficult" to find another job.

The complaint also alleges Zeier "personally, without express board approval to do so, conducted bogus investigations of Zywicki, bragging that he would 'call in a favor'," suggesting the Morris County Prosecutor get involved, "which the Prosecutor refused to do," the complaint alleges.

The complaint goes on to say it was Strillacci, Zeier, Gayles and Robinson who "engineered" Zywicki's suspension on Oct. 10 "by illegally voting in closed session to do so, an action which is the subject of a separate Open Public Meetings Act Superior Court Complaint," then tried, allegedly through Zitomer, "to attempt to extort Zywicki into resigning."

The complaint goes on to allege that Robinson and Gayles served "as public criers" to spread news of "a confidential personal matter" throughout the township "in an effort to punish him and otherwise injure his personal and professional reputation."

The complaint also alleges that Zywicki had failed to be properly notified prior to the public vote to suspend him, a move that is subject to a complaint filed in state Superior Court which is also the subject of

According to the complaint, "The aforesaid conduct constitutes violations of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act.

"As a result, Zywicki has suffered and will suffer financial damages, damages to his reputation, and extreme anguish and emotional pain and suffering."

According to the complaint, the defendants' "unlawful conduct was egregious, willful, wanton, and/or in reckless disregard of Zywicki's rights and involved the participation of the Board's upper management, wanting the imposition of punitive damages."

Ethics Charges

Zywicki also filed ethics complaints with the state School Ethics Commission for what he alleges is violation of several state ethics rules.

In the matter of Gayles, Zywicki's complaint alleges that Gayles disclosed private personnel information, on Oct. 11 telling a meeting of the Mount Olive Special Education Parents Advisory Group to contact Sumit Bangia, the assistant superintendent, for all concerns before Zywicki's suspension was formalized on Oct. 18.  Bangia was appointed that night as Acting SUperintendent.

The complaint also charges Gayles with making statements against Zywicki after the Commission issued an advisory pertaining to Gayles' connection with the County College of Morris.

According to the complaint, "The advisory was requested by the Board in June of 2022, when Zywicki alerted the full Board that a contract between the District and CCM, signed by Gayles, had been placed on his desk overnight following the June Curriculum Committee Meeting, which was chaired by Gayles. The contract was not on the Committee's agenda and was the product of neetings between Gayles in his capacity as a CCM employee and senior Mount Olive administrators in late April and May of 2022 from which Zywicki was excluded."

According to the complaint, following the July 25 board meeting, in which Zywicki's complaints were discussed in closed session, Gayles "and another board member" used their CCM email accounts "to back channel information regarding Zywicki and confidential matters discussed in the closed session." The college, the complaint alleges, later gave the email to a citizen making an Open Public Records Act request.

In the matter of Robinson, that complaint alleges that on the morning of Oct. 11, Robinson "disclosed Zywicki's status to multiple employees at Mount Olive High School and the District Office," and again during the meeting of the high school's parents club.

Robinson, the ethics complaint alleges, then announced the suspension "in front of dozens of parents in the stands of the home football game" on Oct. 14. The complaint also alleges that Robinson, "made public statements in which he promised that he would see to it that the Complainant was fired by Oct. 10."

The ethics complaint filed against Stillacci alleges that the board president, on  June 13, "improperly voted on motions related to administrative personnel, then, three days later, in a phone call threatened Zywicki, stating that support for the superintendent "was waning and that he had the votes to rescind the contract of board attorney Marc Zitomer, the intended implication being that without Mr. Zitomer as counsel, my job was in jeopardy.

Zeir, meanwhile, allegedly breached confidentiality and, as board vice president, took no action on the human resources complaints Zywicki filed on June 16, July 25, and Sept. 16. "None of these claims of violations of Policy, Code, and good practice was investigated by the District," the complaint says.

Instead, the complaint alleges, Zeier retaliated against Zywicki "by personally conducting bogus investigations...causing the Board of Education to suspend him by an illegal closed session vote and encouraging Board Counsel to attempt to extort his resignation."

In addition, the complaint alleges Zeier accepted reimbursements for attending a June 2022 conference, "even though he spent no money on those meals, which were paid for personally" by Zywicki.

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