HILLSIDE, NJ — The Board of Education rescinded the contract of the district superintendent at their Nov. 29 meeting and replaced it with a new one that will extend his term three years and boost his annual salary nearly $18,000.
The board approved the contract for Superintendent Antoine Gayles through June 2023, with a 5-3 vote despite some criticism from residents.
After a presentation by two high school students, the board went into executive session for about an hour before public comment, leaving many residents anxious to express their concerns upon the board’s return.
“Why are we negotiating a contract when you’re a lame duck board?” Barbara Rowen asked the board.
Her question was followed by applause from the gallery.
“You referred to this board as a lame duck board, but this board is still within its
right,” board attorney Derlys Gutierrez responded. “It’s not unlawful because this contract is not being renegotiated. The motion that is on the table is to rescind the contract and enter into a new contract.”
Gayles was scheduled to earn $157,500 for the remaining two years of his contract that was to expire in June 2020. Under the new pact, he will make $163,200 for the current school year, $166,362 in 2019-20; $168,431 in 2020-21; $171,800 in 2021-22; and $175,236 in 2022-23.
The new contract, effective as of Dec. 1, will pay Gayles more than $845,000 over its duration.
Rowen accused the board of trying to “tie the hands of the new board members coming in.”
Resident Aldina Mitchell commented that politics should not be part of school board decisions.
“He has a contract that is valid through June 30, 2020 and basically, this is just a tactic to guarantee that he is going to be there till 2023 and it is totally not fair,” she said. “There is no ethics here being shown and people need to learn the rules.”
Gutierrez said interim Executive County Superintendent Daryl Palmieri approved the contract prior to the meeting. A copy of a letter from Palmieri was included in the Nov. 29 agenda available to the public at the meeting.
“I have determined that the provision of the contract are in compliance with the regulations,” the letter said. “Therefore, I approve the contract for the period from December 1, 2018 through June 30, 2023.”
Dennis Kobitz, who was elected to the board in November and will take his seat in January, claimed that the decision violated state law, N.J.S.A. 18A:11-11, which governs public notice required for altering superintendent contracts.
The law states, “a board of education shall not negotiate, extend, amend or otherwise alter the terms of a contract of the superintendent of schools unless notice is provided to the public at least 30 days before the schedule action.”
“When was that done?” Kobitz asked at the meeting.
“The contract is not being altered, amended, or renegotiated,” Gutierrez countered. “The motion that is on the agenda is to end the current contract with the superintendent and enter into a new contract. That is the distinction.”
“If there was an impropriety with the contract with rescinding the old contract or entering into a new contract, the county superintendent’s office would not have approved it,” she said.
Like other residents present, Mattie Holloway wanted to know why the board had made the decision.
“Just sitting in the audience and then just watching the actions of you here, I see red flags all over the place. No. 1, can someone tell me what the urgency was when somebody already has a contract? Can someone please explain that to me and the community?”
After loud cheers subsided, she continued.
“It was modified and it was changed. I don’t see how you can say that it was not,” she added.
When the question did not draw a response, she persisted: “Are we mute on this issue?”
Gutierrez said school board members are not required to answer questions posed in public comment.
“But we need this one answered,” Holloway said. “What’s the hidden motive then? There has to be some hidden motive or something.”
Reginald Thomas, husband of board member Shalanda Thomas, asked the board whether the superintendent is doing a sufficient job, whether he is doing anything inappropriate, and whether district test scores have improved.
“This really is about the kids,” Reginald Thomas said. “And, as far as I know, any contract that is from January to December, doesn’t end until the next January, so if they are in their rights to do something, even if you don’t agree with it, they’re not doing anything inappropriate. Maybe the man deserves to be or maybe he has another offer.”
Hillside High School teacher Erica Sala Della Cuna pointed out at the meeting that the money the superintendent would earn in the next five years is equal to that earned by approximately six, step-one teachers, saying, “That’s a new teacher for every building.”
Before the vote on the resolution, board member Joel Chapman had one question for the board, “why now?”
After a brief pause, board President Hawaiian Thompson-Epps said, “we discussed this already in closed session, Mr. Chapman.”
“I think the people should know,” he responded. “So, why now?”
“Why not?” she responded.
Chapman, Juan Allende and Angela Menza voted against approving the contract. Thompson-Epps, Thomas, Kisha Chiles-Bass, Joi Stanley and Rayba Watson voted to approve it, and Calvin Lofton abstained.
The 5-3 vote drew jeers from the gallery.
“Shame on all of you,” Rowen said.
“The only thing I’ll say is that tonight, a dangerous precedent was set and voting is important, so just remember that,” Chapman said.
Several board members discussed their reasons for voting for the new contract.
“I’ve been on the board for eight years and I’ve been through four superintendents. I have to say, the last three years, more things have been done in this district than I’ve seen in my other five years,” Watson said. “Hillside was not in line with a lot of districts. But now we can say we have STEM and now we can say we have that our teachers’ contract has been passed,” Watson added. “A lot of good things have happened within the district recently.”
Thomas rejected the notion of anything nefarious in her vote, saying, “This is about the students and us wanting what’s best for them. There’s no hidden agenda.”
“What we are doing now is making progress and we need to continue this progress,” Chiles-Bass said. “What matters most are the students in Hillside.”