PATERSON — The city school district is no longer checking the credentials of bus drivers from a student transportation company whose former manager pleaded guilty in March to using unqualified operators.
Officials from Paterson Public Schools have not provided an explanation of why they discontinued the driver credential checks that started in January after criminal charges were filed by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office against American Star Transportation and its owner, Jwel Khalique.
Those charges are still pending, but American Star’s former manager, Henry Rhodes, admitted his role in the crimes six months ago, and his lawyer said he has agreed to cooperate with state authorities in the ongoing case against Khalique and the company.
Paterson schools award new contracts to American Star
Despite the looming criminal case, the Paterson Board of Education this year awarded American Star 13 yearlong routes to transport Paterson students to School 6, School 28 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School as well as routes to several education programs outside the city, including North Hudson Academy in North Bergen, Glenview Academy in Fairfield and Celebrate the Children in Denville.
The Paterson board also awarded American Star 23 short-term routes for various schools and programs, most of which ended during the summer. American Star has $1.2 million worth of student busing contracts with Paterson Public Schools this academic year.
City education officials have said the pending criminal charges against American Star do not preclude the company from bidding on new contracts. District officials have said they would have to go through a lengthy legal process to stop the accused company from submitting bids.
Not guilty pleas entered
Khalique and his brother Shelim Khalique pleaded not guilty to the bus safety charges against them during a brief hearing on Monday at the Essex County courthouse. Rhodes’ prison sentencing originally was scheduled for Monday but was postponed to January. Prosecutors tend not to proceed with sentencing cooperating witnesses until after the cases they are helping with get resolved.
Shelim Khalique faces additional criminal charges accusing him of using unqualified drivers at another company that handled student bus routes in Paterson, A-1 Elegant. The Attorney General’s Office has alleged that Shelim simply transferred drivers, buses and assets from A-1 Elegant after the initial charges were filed in 2020 and passed them on to his brother’s company.
The Attorney General’s Office in 2020 charged Shelim Khalique with election fraud involving his brother Shahin Khalique’s successful campaign for City Council that year. But the state dropped the election charges against Khalique earlier this year.
On Monday, Shelim’s lawyer, Lee Vartan, issued a brief statement.
“Mr. Khalique has been wrongly targeted by the attorney general’s office for years,” Vartan said. “The first case, charging him with election fraud, was dismissed and his arrest expunged. This newest case likewise does not charge a crime, and we look forward to filing a motion to dismiss the indictment.”
Questions linger: Why did NJ drop 2020 election fraud charges against Paterson councilman’s brother?
NJ office to oversee safety still not set up
A USA TODAY Network investigation in 2020 brought attention to the limited options school districts have when they are bound to go with the lowest bidder and play whack-a-mole with “rogue” bus companies that try to disguise who owns them by using family members on registration documents and changing names, as state officials say American Star did after its operators were previously affiliated with A-1 Elegant.
As a result of that investigation, lawmakers passed three new laws, including one to create an Office of School Bus Safety at the state Department of Education to monitor bus companies and owners repeatedly identified for bad practices and to oversee the company debarment process. As of January, that office had not been set up.
But Paterson Public Schools told Paterson Press it did not want to pursue the lengthy process to debar American Star.
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press. Email: email@example.com
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Paterson NJ drops driver checks for school bus company