Hillside school board suspends super

Photo by Liv Meier
Superintendent Antoine Gayles’ chair sits empty following an executive session of the Hillside school board, which suspended him with pay.

HILLSIDE, NJ — School board members voted 6-2 to suspend Superintendent Antoine Gayles with pay at their Jan. 24 regular meeting. A contract extending Gayles’ employment by three years with salary increases was passed by the previous board during its lame-duck session, and is being contested by the current board.

The motion was introduced by Board of Education Vice President Kimberly Cook after an executive session meeting lasting more than two hours. Gayles did not return to the meeting once the closed-door session concluded.

Gayles, who was alerted that his employment would be discussed by the board by a Rice notice following the Jan. 3 reorganization meeting, was put on immediate suspension for an undetermined length of time. Debra Sheard, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, was appointed acting superintendent effective immediately.

The move comes less than two months after Gayles’ contract was rescinded at the Nov. 29 meeting and replaced with one that extended his term by three years and included a raise of nearly $18,000 annually.

“At this point, we’re waiting to see if his contract is valid,” board attorney Allan Roth said in a phone interview on Jan. 28.
The previous board approved the new contract 5-3 with one abstention, but with votes from two members who are no longer on the board. All three members who voted against the new contract — Joel Chapman, Juan Allende and Angela Menza — have remained on the board.

Roth told LocalSource that the state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet is in charge of superintendent contracts and will decide its validity.
Cook’s motion to suspend Gayles was seconded by Chapman. Shalanda Thomas and Hawaiian Thompson-Epps were the only board members to vote against it. Calvin Lofton, who was present at the beginning of the meeting, was not present to vote.

Cook introduced another motion to appoint Sheard as acting superintendent for $100 per day, which passed 5-1 with Menza voting against it and Thomas abstaining.

“We actually had a very pleasant (executive session) meeting, and I know that people think we’re all at odds with each other but we’re not,” Cook said after both motions passed.

In her closing statements, Thompson-Epps assured the public that the board is working together to resolve the issue. “And hopefully our district will move forward progressively,” she added.

Gayles, who holds a doctorate degree in education from Seton Hall University, was hired as superintendent in July 2016 and, according to former board member Joi Stanley, has made many improvements to the district.

“Prior to Dr. Gayles, we were so under the radar that we weren’t even being looked at by the county superintendent, but since he’s been there, he’s brought attention to our district,” she said in a phone interview on Jan. 28. “We were certainly not a STEM-ready community until he became superintendent.”

Before coming to Hillside, Sheard, who also holds a doctorate in education from Seton Hall University, served as assistant superintendent for the Plainfield Public School District from February 2017 until she was promoted to acting superintendent of there two months later. She also served as assistant superintendent in the Kearny Public School District.

Chapman told LocalSource he’s confident in Sheard’s ability to guide the district forward during Gayles’ suspension.
“Dr. Sheard has a lot of experience and has even dealt with bigger school districts than Hillside,” he said in a phone interview on Jan. 25. “I’m more than confident in her abilities.”

Hillside Democratic Party Chairman Anthony Salters continues to endorse the “Children First Team” of Chapman, Cook, Laquana Best and Pinchas Shapiro, and their efforts to improve the district.

“In November 2018, the Hillside voters elected the Children First Team by a 2,000-vote plurality. They voted for improvement and change. As a resident I would ask that we give them a chance to lead,” Salters said in a statement on Jan. 25.
“We believe this current school board leadership will make the necessary decisions to move this district forward dramatically to get better results in grades seven to 12 — grades K to six are fine. Again, we have some success stories but not enough. There is no denying our students, teachers, parents, taxpayers and business community deserve better.”

Thompson-Epps, the former board president, was sworn in for a one-year term before the meeting began. She had originally been sworn in for a three-year term at the Jan. 3 meeting — to fill a vacancy left by the disqualification of Dennis Kobitz after a background check revealed an unspecified criminal offense — but the board passed a resolution to have the vacancy advertised due to concern as to whether she should be appointed for the full term.

Roth said Executive County Superintendent Daryl Palmieri had sent a clarification regarding Thompson-Epps’ appointment.
“She should have been on for a one-year term,” Roth said at the meeting. “She’ll have to be re-elected if she wants to serve on the board for longer than that.”