With almost no public discussion as to why, the Jersey City Board of Education voted on Jan. 31 to remove Dr. Marcia Lyles as superintendent of schools.
The board named associate superintendent Franklin Walker as interim superintendent. The district will pay Lyles’s $231,000 salary through the end of her current contract in June 2020 while seeking a permanent replacement.
Lyles was named superintendent in 2012 after the board forced out then superintendent Dr. Charles Epps.
The 7-1-1 vote – Matt Schapiro voted against the move and Amy DeGise abstained – came after hours of public comment from hundreds of teachers and members of the teachers’ union laying out their complaints against Lyles, and one day after Lyles filed a federal lawsuit claiming the board’s termination of her contract was part of a campaign of harassment and defamation orchestrated by some board members in conjunction with the union leadership.
“The Jersey City Board of Education with the backing of the Jersey City Education Association (JCEA) have been on a singular mission for years to remove their boss, Dr. Lyles,” Schapiro said in voting against the move. “They care nothing of public feedback. There’s been no examination of student outcomes under Dr. Lyles’s tenure or any other performance metrics or even a transition play for the next superintendent.”
Lyles, perhaps suspecting the board might relieve her of her duties, did not attend the meeting. Requests for comment from her earlier in the day were denied with a spokesperson saying Lyles would not comment during the pending lawsuit.
“This board cares nothing for the chaos they have caused and continue to cause with their reckless actions.” – Matt Schapiro
The board’s action came after about a half hour closed session.
Many of the hundreds of protesting teachers held anti-Lyles signs. Ronald Greco, president of the Jersey City chapter of the New Jersey Teachers Association, refused to relinquish the podium after his five-minute time limit expired, forcing the board to hold a vote to go into closed session even as he continued to shout.
Thomas report details dissatisfaction
Board President Sudhan Thomas did not directly comment on Lyles’s removal, but his report to the board highlighted a litany of alleged problems.
He said when Lyles took over, the school district had a surplus of nearly $72 million which shrank to $200,000 last year, with an overall budget deficit of $70 million.
“The same period of five years also coincided with the largest transfer of planning, policy and oversight responsibilities away from the board elected by the citizens of Jersey City and instead concentrating them in the hands of the district’s administration,” Thomas reported, claiming that the Lyles Administration did not allow the board to make a number of key decisions regarding the budget. The board was also excluded from negotiating employment contracts, which was put into the hands of consultants instead.
“Employee morale is at an all-time low,” Thomas said.
His report said Lyles also oversaw creation of district policies which had been in the hands of the board previously.
Thomas claimed state vendors were hired with little or no control by the board, and payments were made and money transferred without prior board approval. Capital projects were labeled “repair and maintenance,” allowing the administration to award contracts without board approval. He said the administration allegedly bought computer software programs but did not provide a means for the board to track their success.
Legal fees to select attorneys, professional development costs, and massive overtime to some employees allegedly were paid without board oversight. Thomas claimed vendors were also awarded contracts without board approval, and often resolutions presented to the board lacked the name of the vendors being given the contract.
Thomas also said that Lyles employed people connected to Gov. Christopher Christie, whose administration began a massive withdrawal of state aid from the district.
Thomas’s report claimed student test scores were manipulated by “cherry picking and packaging” scores from different grades across the district and did not reflect actual accomplishment, making the scores seem better than they actually were.
Under the Lyles Administration, Thomas claimed, there was no information or tracking regarding which colleges students attended or other data about progress or jobs they obtained.
“We have no idea what happens to our children when they graduate out of our schools, and importantly, when they drop out,” Thomas said. “Parental input is not sought, and every day we receive communication from frustrated parents.”
Thomas also alleges the Lyles Administration failing to report “alleged sexual harassment, sexual assault cases and financial mismanagement complaints with the relevant authorities,” instead transferring the alleged perpetuators within the district and failing to provide enough information and communication to the board.
Thomas’s report said some employees worked for the administration for as long as five years without a contract, board approval, or civil service certification.
Thomas also said the Lyles Administration appears to have ignored the results of a 2012 forensic audit that showed serious problems in the district, an audit the board was never made privy to. Thomas also claimed that the Lyles Administration ignored a facilities report issued in 2016 that showed issues with the district pre-K programs.
“We have no idea what happens to our children when they graduate out of our schools and importantly when they drop out. Parental input is not sought and every day we receive communication from frustrated parents.” Sudhan Thomas
Lyles sues after denied renewal
Claiming her civil rights were violated when the Jersey City Board of Education voted Jan. 2 not to renew her contract, Dr. Lyles has filed a lawsuit against the school board, two members of the board as individuals, and the Jersey City Education Association and its president Ronald Greco.
The suit filed on Jan. 30 claims that the board acted illegally when it voted at its reorganization meeting not to renew her contract, which expires in June 2020.
The suit named Board President Thomas and trustee Marilyn Roman as individuals for their part in orchestrating her nonrenewal.
Roman introduced the resolution at the reorganization meeting without prior notice, raising concerns from Schapiro, who ultimately voted against the measure.
Schapiro said the nonrenewal was not announced in advance, and Lyles was not given a Rice Letter – a notification required to be given to any employee of the school district that his or her employment or termination would be discussed by the board.
Defendants defamed her, Lyles claims
Lyles’s suit filed in federal court claims that the defendants “motivated by their personal and political agendas,” influenced the board to refuse to give Lyles the tools she needed to run the district “in an attempt to cause her to fail as superintendent.”
She said the board members in conjunction with the teachers’ union “arbitrarily, capriciously and in bad faith” rejected needed personal appointments recommended by Lyles as she tried to fulfill her statutory obligations.
The suit refers to actions taken by the board in June, 2018, when it axed the school district attorney, human resources chief, and facilities director, and five others.
Lyles allies on and off the board claim the firings were designed to take control of the district’s hiring, and that the board, working with the union, sought to replace the human resource person with a candidate more union-friendly than the one Lyles recommended.
The Lyles suit also claims that she was defamed, and that the board and other defendants created a hostile work environment. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
The Lyles lawsuit targets Thomas in particular, claiming that he “grossly exceeded his lawful role as a board member” and “continually harassed the superintendent” as well as bypassed her and dealt directly with her employees “sometimes to threaten them.”
The suit claims that Thomas along with union president, Greco “repeatedly defamed and attempted to diminish Lyles in the eyes of [the board].” The suit claims Thomas has micromanaged the district in a fashion that violated legal and ethical requirements.
Schapiro agreed with some of Lyle’s charges
“The concern which I have mentioned repeatedly over the last year is that the board has taken numerous actions in order to subvert or undermine the authority of the superintendent,” Schapiro said. “This drive to diminish the superintendent and increase his own authority has appeared to be the prime focus of Sudhan Thomas and his cronies ever since he became board president.
“Our board has engaged in none of the future planning or academic goal-setting for which it is purposed,” he continued. “Instead these board members have made it their mission to wage political war on district leadership. The schools, teachers, children, and communities of our district have all become collateral damage during this board’s vindictive crusade.”
Thomas called the suit “a fake complaint.”
“I am extremely disappointed that the superintendent has chosen to file this frivolous and clearly retaliatory complaint against Jersey City.” — Sudhan Thomas
“This will be another financial burden on the district in defending these baseless allegations which will lead to further diversion of resources away from the 30,000 students in the classrooms,” Thomas said. “Jersey City Board of Education is confident that we have acted appropriately and legally with the right legal counsel advice in dealing with the Superintendent of Schools, and the district will take all steps possible to have this ‘fake complaint’ dismissed.”
Does board have too close a relationship with teachers’ union?
The suit outlines a history in which the teachers union, working with some members of the board, sought to block Lyles’s reappointment in 2016.
Lyles’s contract was renewed in December 2016 without a vote of the board, at the last meeting before union-backed board members took control of the board.
The union filed a petition with the New Jersey Department of Education to block the appointment. When this was dismissed, the union filed a lawsuit which was also later dismissed.
Lyles suit claims that the board and union violated her right to privacy when board members shared personnel comments with the union and others.
Lyles was hired in 2012 to replace Dr. Epps as superintendent when the board was dominated by members backed by a group of progressive parents seeking to change the way the school district operated. At the heart of the conflict were hiring practices – including those of substitute teachers, and awarding of contracts.
The progressives at the time believed Epps and the previous board had a too-cozy relationship with the union, and wanted a superintendent who, unlike Interim Superintendent Franklin Walker, was hired from outside Jersey City and would not have traditional ties.
The JCEA routinely criticized Lyles at meetings, and authorized a brief walkout in 2018 in reaction to tough contract negotiations Lyles helped oversee.
The suit claims that the board has failed to give Lyles an evaluation since 2014, which is usually the foundation for justifying a non-renewal.
Unofficially, Lyles had been credited by supporters and others with upgrading the conditions of the school district to allow it to regain local control for the first time since 1989.
The state took control of the district citing massive corruption, poor student testing scores and various other issues. Over the last four years, the district regained control over most operations, with the final part restored in October 2018.
Lyles supporters claim that she managed to achieve this by clamping down on many of the traditional practices – in particular – how personnel were hired, and stopping jobs being used as political patronage as they were when the state took control of the district.
“Lyles didn’t do a perfect job,” Schapiro said. “But over all her record is pretty good.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org