In a move that was not a surprise, except that it happened at the first meeting of the new year on Jan. 2, the Jersey City Board of Education voted 8 to 1 to seek a new superintendent of schools.
Two surprise resolutions officially put Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles on notice that her contract will not be renewed when it expires in June 2020, and to authorize the establishment of a search committee to find her replacement.
The resolution was introduced by Trustee Marilyn Roman, who had just been sworn in for her third term. Roman led a union-backed ticket to victory in November, giving the anti-Lyles faction on the board an overwhelming voting majority.
Since being hired in 2013, Dr. Lyles has been at the center of political conflict.
She made reforms to the hiring of substitute teachers and other employment practices that put her at odds with the local and state teachers unions. Those groups spent heavily on Board of Education campaigns and supported candidates who would remove her in favor of a more union-friendly superintendent.
In December 2016, just before the balance of power on the board was scheduled to change to a majority of anti-Lyles trustees, the lame duck board pulled a series of legal maneuvers that renewed her contract for three years without an official vote.
In the legal challenge that followed, the courts sided with the pro-Lyles faction and upheld the renewal.
The swearing-in of Roman, Mohammed Ali, and Joan Terrell-Page at the reorganization meeting prior to passing the two resolutions gave the anti-Lyles faction a six vote majority on the nine member board, leaving only Matt Schapiro and Rev. Luis F. Fernandez as pro-Lyles and Amy DeGise as an independent.
With Rev. Fernandez absent and DeGise voting by telephone, the board reappointed Sudhan Thomas as president and Lorenzo Richardson, vice president.
Thomas and Richardson were the only people nominated.
No discussion of Lyles’ merits
Schapiro, who was the only trustee to vote against both, said he was not surprised by this vote as much as he was surprised and dismayed by the resolution notifying Lyles.
“Because Lyles was not issued a Rice letter, we could not discuss her job performance,” Shapiro said. “This violated procedure.”
Normally, the board would issue a “Rice letter,” which alerts an employee that the board will be discussing him or her. The matter would then be brought up in caucus where board members would review the employee’s performance and then take a vote whether to give notice.
“This wasn’t done,” Shapiro said. “So we were legally prohibited from discussing her performance. We could have done it correctly and still given her notice. But it seems clear to me, the board did not want to talk about her performance – which I think for the most part has been good. One example of this is the fact that the state gave back local control to the district and that was her doing.”
Shapiro said he believes that the surprise resolutions were not a surprise at all.
“These had to have been discussed by some of the board members ahead of the meeting,” he said, concerned that the removal of Lyles may bring back many of the bad practices that forced the state to take over control in 1989, such as the imposition of politics into the schools.
Although the board is not legally required to give Lyles notice until next November, Thomas justified the early move to give the board time to do an adequate search for a replacement.
He said when the board did the search that eventually led to Lyles being hired in 2013, they basically were looking at people who had left other school districts or were planning to leave.
“We want to attract talented people to apply,” Thomas said, “not just people who are leaving another job. By giving notice early, we will have to time to sell the virtues of Jersey City to some qualified person.”
While a surprise to Shapiro and perhaps the handful of the public who attended the meeting, Lyles appears to have expected something like this to occur. Remarking prior to the meeting, when asked about her prospects, she said, “We’ll see what happens.”
The reorganization meeting usually provides a platform for new leadership and newly elected trustees to state their goals. Despite the fireworks involving Lyles, some of the trustees laid out their aspirations for the upcoming year.
Terrell-Page said she hoped the community would be more involved with the schools now that the district has regained local control. Roman has similar plans to engage the public.
Ali, who cited a number of successes by the prior board, hoped to build on those in the new year.
Thomas said he hopes to reverse the state’s historic shortchanging of state aid to the district, noting that the unfair funding has left the district at the edge of a “fiscal cliff.”
He said the board will need to work hard to make sure the district’s students get an adequate education. He’s also concerned about safety. Three students from the district in the last three months were victims of gun violence.
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“Because Lyles was not issued a Rice letter, we could not discuss her job performance.” — Matt Shapiro