School board battle rages

Lyles asks for Thomas’s removal

Dr. Marcia Lyles has asked the state to remove the president of the Jersey City Board of Education.
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Dr. Marcia Lyles has asked the state to remove the president of the Jersey City Board of Education.

In the ongoing conflict between former Jersey City Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marcia Lyles and the school board that removed her earlier this year, Lyles has filed a petition with the state Department of Education asking to have Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas ousted.

Filed on April 18, her petition claims the Jersey City Board of Education is “dominated” by members whose elections were supported by the Jersey City Education Association (JCEA), the local teachers’ union, and its state affiliate, the New Jersey Education Association.

The petition said that Thomas “grossly exceeded his lawful responsibility as a board member and board president to act impartially and has instead acted as the puppet of the JCEA.”

Trustees on the board voted in January not to renew Lyles’s contract in June 2020. After Lyles filed a federal lawsuit, the board voted to relieve her of her duties, assigning the day-to-day operations to two assistant superintendents while the board searches for a permanent replacement.

Thomas counter-punches

Thomas said the petition is the latest in a series of attempts by Lyles to reverse a vote by the board that the state Commissioner for the Department of Education had already approved.

“Lyles’s federal lawsuit is going badly,” Thomas said. “We filed a motion to dismiss last week. So this is an attempt to bring this in front of a state court as well. The commissioner will have to put this before an administrative judge to hear and that will be an 18- to 24- month process.”

In this latest round, Lyles accused Thomas of “bias, his malice, and failure to follow even the most basic rules of lawful procedural conduct.”

Lyles filed suit in federal court on Jan. 31, claiming her civil rights had been violated and that the board and the teachers’ union had created a hostile work environment.

In what some Lyles supporters believe may have been retaliation for the lawsuit, the board voted in early February to relieve Lyles of her duties, although the district will continue to pay her salary until the termination of her contract.

Lyles added more charges to her lawsuit on Feb. 19, claiming that the four board members who voted to remove her acted improperly because she had not been properly notified.

Under state law, a school employee must receive what is called a “Rice Letter,” which notifies the employee that his or her job will be discussed at a public meeting. Lyles says this was not done for either the January non-renewal vote or when the board relieved her of her duties in early February.

Job interference alleged

Lyles’s original suit alleges that school board members, who had teachers union support to get elected, had conspired with the union to interfere with her job as chief administrator of the school district.

In justifying her removal earlier this year, Thomas claims Lyles mismanaged the school’s finances. But Board Trustee Matt Schapiro argued that the loss of surplus in the budget was tied to loss of state aid, not mismanagement.

Thomas and other trustees who voted against Lyles also said she hired allies to positions and that key people on her staff had worked for the district without necessary civil service designations. This led to the firing of eight people last June and set the stage for Lyles’s removal early this year.

Lyles defenders, including former board members, claim the attacks are engineered to wrestle hiring power away from her, so the board can control hiring, in what her defenders see as a return to the bad old days of patronage. It was this practice among other factors that spurred the state to take control of the city school system in 1988.

Lyles helped to restore local control

Lyles has been credited with reforming the district over the last seven years, allowing the restoring of local control. The state took control of the district in 1988 after reports showed widespread corruption and political manipulation in the district, along with students’ poor test scores.

The reforms led to gradual restoration of control, with the last segment returned to the district in October.

This battle with Lyles has been ongoing since her hire in 2012, when she began administrative changes that included how substitute teachers were hired. Former school board members who supported her hiring and defended her later claimed that the teachers’ union opposed Lyles when she did away with a number of teacher perks under the old system of substitutes. She also apparently instituted other reforms and began a review process that put her at odds with a number of teachers.

Critics of Lyles, however, said she relied heavily on consultants and that she overspent on some contracts, such as the one for hiring substitutes, sometimes as much as 50 percent more than the contracted amount.

Thomas has been particularly concerned about the district’s reduction of surplus, much of which he said was spent on consultants.

“This is about good management,” Thomas said.

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com