Jersey City’s incoming superintendent of schools, Dr. Marcia Lyles, had planned to start her new job this week. But in a stunning development, the school board failed to adopt her new contract during a special meeting held Aug. 15. The board rejected the contract by a vote of 4-4. A simple majority would have been needed to ratify the contract.
The contract will now have to be renegotiated and approved by both the local school board and the Hudson County Superintendent of Education – a process that could take a week or longer, thus delaying Lyles’ official start date. The first day of the 2012-2013 school year is set for Wednesday, Sept. 5.
Board members Sterling Waterman, Angel Valentin, Vidya Gangadin, and Marilyn Roman voted against Lyles’ contract, expressing dismay that it was – in the words of Roman – “too expensive and too vague,” and did not include language the board members had tried to get added. Board chairwoman Suzanne Mack voted for the contract, as did Carol Lester, Carol Harrison-Arnold, and Sangeeta Ranade.
There are nine seats on the Board of Education. However, the body’s ninth member, Marvin Adames, resigned earlier this month, and his seat remains vacant.
The four board members who supported the contract say the delay will hurt planning for the upcoming school year.
“We really cannot afford to wait any longer getting Dr. Lyles in the district,” said Mack. “Every day we wait to get her started the more time we lose getting her up to speed, getting the important planning done for the upcoming school year. This new delay is really discouraging.”
Those who voted against the contract argue the rejected contract lacked important details and did not adequately protect the interests of taxpayers and the school board.
The contract was drafted by board attorney Ramon Rivera, who negotiated the contract on behalf of the board with an attorney representing Lyles. The negotiated contract was also approved by the Hudson County Superintendent of Education, as required by law, and was reviewed by the New Jersey Department of Education.
According to Valentin and Roman, provisions that some board members had asked to be included in the contract were ignored, as were many of the board members’ concerns.
“If you want to know the truth, the truth is this contract was really written by the county and the state,” Valentin said after Wednesday’s meeting.
One sided contract?
According to the rejected contract, Lyles was set to receive an annual salary of $231,000. The contract was a four-year agreement set to begin Aug. 20 and expire on June 30, 2016. Her salary for the first year would be prorated. The contract also allowed for the possibility of merit pay on top of this base salary. This merit pay would be equal to “up to 14.99 percent of [Lyles’] annual base salary,” according to the contract.
While the contract required that criteria be developed for bonus pay by her third year of employment, the contract allowed for the possibility that Lyles could receive a bonus in the first two years of her contract as well.
Lyles was also entitled to receive a $10,000 moving allowance to cover her relocation expenses from Delaware. The contract also guaranteed access to a district-owned or leased car, which she will be allowed to drive for “incidental and personal use,” according to the contract.
Like all school board employees, she would also have 13 days of sick leave each year.
The contract, however, did not include specific goals and expectations for Lyles in her position. Instead, the contract stated, “The board shall, in consultation with the superintendent, develop quantitative and qualitative merit bonus criteria” for each year of employment. The contract also stated that “the superintendent shall propose a schedule for evaluation” each year and the “board and superintendent shall mutually agree on the evaluation format.”
“We will be holding our board retreat on September 15 and it will be at that retreat that we will come up with specific benchmarks we expect from the new superintendent,” Lester said.
But this explanation did not sit well with residents.
“I think it is completely ludicrous to have a contract without benchmarks,” said parent Gina Hoe. “Whoever heard of such a thing? What if she doesn’t agree to the benchmarks you set up, but you’ve already got a signed contract with her?”
Resident Lorenzo Richardson agreed. “This is like putting the cart before the horse. Why would you tell someone what you expect of them after you’ve already made a written commitment? Shouldn’t these benchmarks be spelled out in the contract, so there’s no disagreement or misunderstanding?”
Fourteen members of the public spoke out against the contract at last week’s meeting. Several residents asked the board not to ratify the agreement, arguing that it seemed to favor Lyles and did not adequately protect the interests of taxpayers and the school district. No members of the community spoke in favor of Lyles’ contract.
The lack of more detailed language regarding grounds for termination was another controversial point, according to some board members and residents.
Under the terms of the rejected contract, Lyles could only be terminated if she misrepresented her education or qualifications, misrepresented her background, had her superintendent’s certification revoked, or got arrested. If the board wanted to remove her from the position during the term of the contract, Lyles would still be entitled to receive her salary and benefits through June 2016.
Based on the contract, it appears the board cannot fire Lyles for poor performance. However, Lyles, according to the contract, can resign at any time, for any reason, so long as she gives the board 90 days notice.
“That was one of the concerns that I had,” noted Gangadin. “This contract leaves us no recourse if we hire Dr. Lyles and things don’t work out as planned.”
At press time it was unclear when a revised contract would be available for ratification.
Adames vacancy a factor
The unusual 4-4 vote last week was partially due to a vacancy on the school board. Earlier this month, board member Marvin Adames resigned after being confirmed as the municipal judge in Newark. Adames, who had been the acting municipal judge in Newark for several years, had been told that if he received the permanent position he would have to resign from the Board of Education in Jersey City, where Adames lives. Had Adames still been a board member last week, he might well have cast the deciding vote to ratify Lyles’ contract.
By state law the board has up to 65 days from Adames’ resignation to fill the vacancy. It is unlikely the vacancy will be filled in time for the next ratification vote. (For related story, see page 3.)
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.