Did the Jersey City Board of Education violate state law last summer when it voted to give Superintendent of Schools Dr. Charles Epps a two-year contract extension? A court will decide next month.
On Jan. 25, a hearing will be held in the state’s Office of Administrative Law in Newark about a complaint that the school board gave Epps an extension to his current contract without public notice.
Last June 22, the board cast a 6-2 vote with one abstention – but even the board members themselves seem to differ on what the vote was for. The members who opposed the resolution say the vote was to extend the superintendent’s contract, while the board majority claimed it was simply to authorize negotiations with Epps on a new deal.
“We just want as much transparency as possible.” – Steven Fulop
The complaint charges the school board did not follow a state law that requires 30 days of public notice for the resolution. If they were going to have a hearing on the resolution, they’d need 10 days’ notice.
The board members who voted affirmative on June 22 challenged the assertion that the vote was illegal, and criticized the opposition for their accusations, claiming they were angry at the board for not voting in the spring to authorize a search for a new superintendent.
The board eventually held a public hearing on the contract in August, but did not vote because the Hudson County Superintendent of Schools, Timothy Brennan, had to study the contract before sending it back to the board for approval. Brennan has yet to respond to the board about the contract.
The school board filed a motion in August to have Fulop’s complaint dismissed, but in November, Administrative Law Judge Margaret Monaco dismissed the board’s motion and allowed the hearing to proceed.
Alternatives to Epps
Fulop said last week he is “optimistic” that a judge will rule in favor of him and others contesting the board’s vote and have it overturned.
“If a judge decides in our favor, it is a big win from a legal standpoint and ethical standpoint,” Fulop said. “We just want as much transparency as possible.”
Fulop believes if the complaint convinces a judge the vote was done improperly, then the contract and Epps’ performance as a superintendent for the past 10 years should be reexamined. Epps oversees a school district of more than 28,000 students. The district has been under state control since 1989 as the result of poor test scores, although it has been slowly transitioning back to local control.
“We had 35 out of 40 schools [in the past year] fail in terms of test scores, which is unacceptable,” Fulop said. “I still want to see a nationwide search, including Epps as a candidate, to see how if we could get the best person in there.”
Fulop thinks the contract will be subject to change if voted on again, because a superintendent pay cap imposed statewide by Gov. Christopher Christie would reduce the amount of Epps’ salary. The contract extension called for Epps to receive a base salary in the 2011-2012 school year of $268,200, plus stipends and other benefits.
Epps said after the monthly Board of Education meeting this past Thursday that he had no comment on the upcoming hearing.
But Ramon Rivera, special counsel to the school board, said the board’s vote at the June 22 meeting was done properly and believes a judge will see that as well.
“I feel confident that the board was compliant with the law,” Rivera said.
Also confident that the board will be cleared of any wrongdoing is board member Sean Connors. “I don’t think the board will vote any differently, because I think they see the difficult job that Epps has and that he has been doing a pretty good job,” Connors said.
Connors was one of six board members who voted affirmative at the June meeting. Also voting in the affirmative were Bill DeRosa, Frances Thompson, Pat Sebron, Angel Valentin and Dr. Peter Donnelly. Voting against was Sterling Waterman and Sue Mack. Carol Lester abstained.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com.