The decision by the Jersey City Board of Education on Thursday, June 28 to begin contract negotiations with Dr. Marcia Lyles has raised more questions than answers for many residents in the community. Chief among the questions is the role the state may have played in her selection as the district’s next school superintendent, and whether mistrust over the process will cloud the start of her tenure in the fall.
After weeks of speculation that the Delaware-based educator was the inside candidate, few in the community were surprised when a divided Board of Education voted 6-3 to begin contract negotiations with her. That decision essentially means the board has agreed to offer the school superintendent post to Lyles, who is currently completing her third year as superintendent for the Christina School District.
“It’s not fair that a 15-year-old can’t read.” – Ranade
School board members Sterling Waterman, Angel Valentin, and Marilyn Roman voted against the resolution. The remaining board members – Suzanne Mack, Carl Lester, Carol Harrison-Arnold, Sangeeta Ranade, Vidya Gangadin, and Marvin Adames – voted to support Lyles.
The decision to select Lyles, in addition to public allegations made by board members, furthered charges that the New Jersey Department of Education and Acting Commissioner Christopher Cerf applied pressure to the board to go with this choice.
Both Cerf and Lyles have an affiliation with the Broad Superintendents Academy, a professional development organization for people in the education field. The academy is funded by private backers who favor school choice options, including charter schools and vouchers. Broad’s financial backers have also opposed tenure for teachers and have advocated for merit pay, both of which have made teachers’ unions skeptical of Broad and those who have been through the academy’s training programs.
For the past month there has been speculation that Cerf and others at the state Department of Education were lobbying behind the scenes for Lyles to be selected. At the June 28 Board of Education meeting two school trustees confirmed these allegations, and a third trustee implied that she was “told” who was “the best candidate.”
Parents and residents plan to ask the U.S. Department of Education to investigate these allegations and other concerns, including the exclusion of Interim School Superintendent Franklin Walker, a longtime school administrator who also applied for the job, but who was excluded as a finalist.
Arm twisting from the state?
The controversial and contentious vote began with Roman questioning why there was as resolution on the agenda to begin contract negotiations with Lyles when the board had not officially voted to offer her the job. Board Chairwoman Suzanne Mack said the resolution as added to the agenda after a “straw poll’ was taken of where the board members stood on the two candidates.
“I’ve never voted to negotiate a contract before I voted for the person I wanted,” said Roman, who voted against Lyles. Roman said that in her opinion Brathwaite was the better candidate.
“The board never officially voted to hire Lyles.
“Like Marilyn, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Valentin, who also voted against Lyles.
Valentin said that two weeks ago he went back and examined the applications of the 27 quarter-finalists whose resumes were supposed to be passed along to the board by two search firms that assisted with the search process. He said that was the first time he saw 22 of those 27 applications.
Of the six semi-finalists who were interviewed by the board, Valentine said all but two – Walker and Lyles – had applied for other vacant superintendent jobs across the country. The fact that Lyles did not apply for other positions, and gave notice at her current job in December 2011, implied that, “Dr. Lyles had been given a promise of employment [in Jersey City],” Valentin said.
Waterman, who has been at odds with some board members in recent weeks due to the search process, read a lengthy statement to the community in which he explicitly said that Christopher Cerf and members of his staff had personally contacted some members of the school board.
“This is not about Franklin Walker or either of the two candidates,” said Waterman, who was the board chairman when the search process began last year. “There has been considerable pressure and interference from outside entities and the state…Over the last week the state has called many of us. The state said, ‘You only have one infinitely qualified candidate: Dr. Lyles.’ The state made it clear, ‘Pick Lyles, and the school board will regain control from the state.”
Initially, the board was told that the state was comfortable with the semi-finalists who were under consideration for the position. This later changed, according to Waterman. The selection of Brathwaite, he added, would mean the state would continue to monitor the local school district.
Fellow board member Harrison-Arnold admitted that in a conversation with someone who she did not identify she was “told Lyles was the best candidate.”
Waterman said that both Brathwaite and Lyles were excellent candidates, although he thought Brathwaite was the better fit for Jersey City.
Until about two weeks ago, Waterman said Brathwaite still had the support of several board members who ultimately voted for Lyles.
Other board members, however, denied that they had been contacted by Cerf’s office.
Sangeeta Ranade said no one from the state had called her and that the board had to vote in the best interests of Jersey City’s 28,000-plus public school students. In response to parents who have alleged that Walker was treated unfairly, Ranade said, “It’s not fair that a 15-year-old can’t read. It’s not fair that a child in first grade can look to the left and look to the right and know that by high school one of the students sitting next to them won’t be there…Do not hold these children hostage.”
Mack also tied to downplay allegations that some board members had received calls from Cerf’s office.
Not everyone unhappy
While Walker’s supporters have been vocal at school board meetings in recent weeks, the June 28 meeting attracted more parents who openly demonstrated their support for Lyles and the school board’s decision to hire her.
Ellen Simon of Parents for Progress released a statement from the organization that said: “Parents for Progress applauds the…board members for their diligence and hard work in this long process and asks respectfully that the contract they eventually reach with Ms. Lyles includes specific goals and benchmarks.”
Several members of Parents for Progress and their supporters held up signs throughout the June 28 meeting supporting the board.
The acrimony over the selection of Lyles could cloud the start of her tenure as school superintendent.
Still, Robert Knapp, chairman of he Jersey City Employment and Training Programs, last week wrote to the U.S. Department of Education and has asked that an investigation be launched into the superintendent search process. He is specifically requesting that the department investigate whether the school board violated requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.