Councilman Steven Fulop and thousands of residents are trying to get Gov. Christopher Christie and state Commissioner of Education Bret Schundler to overturn a June 22 Board of Education vote to extend the contract of Jersey City’s superintendent of schools for two years, claiming the vote was illegal.
But a member of the school board last week refuted Fulop’s description of the vote.
Epps was originally appointed to the top slot by the state in 2000 while the school system was under state takeover. Under the contract extension, he is to receive a base salary in the coming school year of $268,200, plus stipends and other benefits.
Fulop and supporters have been circulating a petition since July 6 addressed to Christie and Schundler, the latter of whom is a former Jersey City mayor.
“I was very dismayed by what took place because no one was ready for it.” – Sterling Waterman
The petition says: “On June 22, the Jersey City Board of Education voted to extend the current Jersey City Public School Superintendent’s contract to 2013. They held this vote at what was essentially a closed door meeting with no genuine attempt to notify the public … New Jersey State Law 18A:11-11 mandates that: ‘A board of education can not in any way take action on a superintendent’s contract unless notice is provided to the public at least 30 days prior.’ ”
The state law also requires a school board to hold a public meeting on any action regarding a superintendent’s contract and give 10 days’ notice of that meeting.
Fulop said over 2,000 people have signed petitions, and they have been sent to the governor’s office and the Department of Education.
Gov. Christie’s spokesperson, Michael Drewniak, said last week that he did not know whether the petitions were received by the governor’s office and by the Department of Education, but said they will be “responded to” once when they are received.
Fulop is far from alone in this battle. On Wednesday, the City Council passed a resolution by a 6-3 margin calling for Christie and Schundler to reverse the board’s vote.
And last week, Fulop, along with three other petitioners filed a ‘Verified Petition of Appeal’ with the state Department of Education that requires Schundler to formally decide Epps’ future.
Epps or no Epps
The Jersey City school district has been gradually returning to home rule after the state took it over in 1989 due to failing test scores and other issues. Some residents believe Epps has not done enough to improve education in the state’s second largest school district. In particular, they point to recent state data showing that 35 of the city’s 40 schools are failing in several categories. They also want to see a nationwide search conducted to find a new superintendent.
Epps’ supporters say he should continue as superintendent since he has over 40 years of experience in the Jersey City school district, because the district has earned numerous education accolades during his tenure, and because of his dedication and work on such programs such as early childhood learning.
They also say the people advocating the superintendent search don’t have their children enrolled in the regular Jersey City public schools, but in charter schools (which are actually public schools but don’t follow all of the Board of Ed’s rules) or in private schools.
Board members differ
The vote on Epps’ contract by the Board of Education at the June 22 special meeting was 6-2 with one abstention.
The board members voting affirmative were Sean Connors, Patricia Sebron, Dr. Frances Thompson, Angel Valentin, William DeRosa, and Dr. Peter Donnelly.
Connors took issue last week with how the vote has been portrayed to the public by Fulop.
Connors said the vote was to authorize negotiations between the board and Epps’ lawyers on the terms of the contract extension. So he said that the board has not yet voted to extend the contract.
Once the terms have been worked out, he said, a public meeting on Aug. 11 will allow residents to speak out on the contract before it is voted on by the school board.
Connors also said the special meeting was advertised in the local daily newspaper several days before the meeting, but he was not sure if it was 10 days as required by law.
He said Fulop and his supporters are making accusations for the wrong reasons. “This whole effort by Fulop is a political smokescreen because he and others are claiming they want a nationwide search, but really want to put in a person of their choice,” Connors said.
Voting against the extension were Suzanne Mack and Sterling Waterman, while Carol Lester abstained.
Waterman, Valentin and Lester were endorsed by Fulop in the April 20 school board election.
Waterman’s account of the meeting different from Connors’. He said there was indeed a vote on the contract.
He said that going into the meeting, he didn’t know there would be an actual vote “behind closed doors” by the board on extending Epps’ contract, but thought there would be just “conversation” on three options regarding Dr. Epps future employment – extension of the contract, negotiation of a contract, and/or a possible nationwide search for a new superintendent.
“I was very dismayed by what took place, because no one was ready for it,” said Waterman, who favors a nationwide search.
Waterman is planning to file a complaint in the near future with the state’s School Ethics Commission, citing the board’s vote as a violation of state law.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com.