The Jersey City Board of Education will soon begin the process of finding a replacement for School Superintendent Dr. Charles Epps, a process the board expects to complete in time for the 2012-2013 school year.
Epps’ position will officially become vacant Jan. 1, 2012 after he steps down at the end of December, a departure that was negotiated with the board in a Tuesday meeting.
Board of Education President Sterling Waterman said Wednesday that it was “premature” to talk publically about how the board will find Epps’ replacement, or which qualifications board trustees might seek in a new super. Five of the board’s nine trustees have in the past indicated that they favor a national search for Epps’ replacement.
‘Whatever we do, it will be very transparent and I would like public input.’ – Sterling Waterman
End of an era
In split vote of 5 to 4, the Board of Education on Tuesday agreed to a six-month contract with Epps that ends Dec. 31. He will receive a $268,000 payout and agrees to vacate his post on Dec. 31. Epps had been working without a contract since the end of the 2010-2011 school year.
His new contract, which is retroactive, covers the months of July through December.
The agreement settles a months-long contract dispute between Epps and the school board, during which a divided school board has wrangled over whether to give Epps a new contract.
During the 2010 Board of Education elections, a majority of voters backed Waterman and Carol Lester – who had each called for a nationwide search to replace Epps.
During the most recent Board of Education elections, held in April, school board candidates Carol Harrison-Arnold and Marvin Adames also won their elections, and longtime board member Suzanne “Sue” Mack was re-elected. Harrison-Arnold, Adames, and Mack ran together on a slate and ran on the promise that, if elected, they would replace Epps.
The board’s remaining four trustees, who support Epps – Sean Connors, William DeRosa, Pat Sebron, and Angel Valentin – opposed the settlement agreement this past week because it opened the door for his removal.
“The school board majority not only slapped Dr. Epps in the face last night, they also made a terrible deal for Jersey City taxpayers,” Connors said in a public statement released Wednesday. “Dr. Epps has faithfully served Jersey City’s children for over 40 years, and he’s being tossed aside like yesterday’s trash. Meanwhile, Jersey City taxpayers are on the hook to pay his $270,000 salary while he sits at home and the board conducts a so-called ‘nationwide search’ for his replacement. This is money the board could use to hire more teachers and improve classroom instruction. If the board majority was unhappy with Dr. Epps’ leadership, they should have worked within the confines of his contract. This is nothing but political gamesmanship by the new board majority.”
Because Waterman, Lester, Mack, Adames, and Harrison-Arnold received the endorsement of Ward E City Councilman and 2013 mayoral candidate Steven Fulop, Epps’ supporters have questioned the motives behind their push for a new super.
Waterman acknowledged Epps’ dedication to the district, stating, “Dr. Epps has led this school district forward for the last 10 years. His legacy speaks for itself.”
That legacy, according to Epps’ supporters, includes significant overall improvements made within the school district. The district’s early childhood development programs have been specifically praised by several parents at Board of Ed meetings in recent months.
But his legacy also includes years of low test scores. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, most Jersey City schools have failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and the district has failed to meet other federal benchmarks for the past decade.
Epps was appointed by the state, which took over the Jersey City schools in 1989. The district is gradually being returned to local control.
Epps also served as an assemblyman from 2006 to 2008, while he was running the schools.
Beyond the Epps era
Waterman said he expects that board trustees will meet within the next two weeks to officially begin the search for a new school super.
“As board president, I’ve taken the initiative to reach out to the New Jersey School Boards Association, which is the governing body for us as a school board,” Waterman told the Reporter. “I’ve begun to receive a ton of information that I have yet to share with the other board members. So, it’s a bit premature to talk about how we’re going to proceed.”
He added that it’s not uncommon for school boards to hire a consultant or head-hunting firm to assist in the search process for a new school superintendent.
Waterman said finding a candidate who can improve the district’s annual AYP scores will be a priority. Under No Child Left Behind, schools are graded on how well students perform on standardized math and reading tests.
“The majority of our schools are failing AYP. We need to address that issue first and foremost,” Waterman said. “I think it’s not a fair measuring stick. It’s not a fair measuring stick of the students, of the educators, or of the district. But that’s the only measuring stick we have right now. Until the federal government changes it, then we’re stuck with it.”
“Whatever we do, it will be very transparent and I would like public input,” he added. “I think the majority of the board members would love for the public to be involved. The public needs to be engaged in this.”
On Wednesday, however, Connors questioned whether the school district will be able to find qualified candidates who match Epps’ level of experience and understanding of urban education, particularly given the new superintendent salary caps pushed by the administration of Gov. Christopher Christie.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.