Less than one week before an election that could shift the balance of power on the Board of Education, an administrative law judge has denied a move to rescind last December’s contract renewal for Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marcia Lyles.
The controversial four-year renewal came during a lame duck session prior to the seating of newly-elected board members opposed to extending Dr. Lyle’s contract. Those members tried to overturn the move in court, claiming it came without an official board vote.
Judge Richard McGill on Oct. 19 cited precedent in administrative law to support the renewal. He said a contract would be renewed unless the board specifically voted to reject the renewal, therefore the lack of a vote allowed the renewal to take place.
Unless overruled by the state Commissioner of the Department of Education, Lyles will remain superintendent of Jersey City schools until 2020.
Although it isn’t the final word on the matter – an appeal is expected, the court ruling rejected two petitions to have the contract award reversed. Board member Lorenzo Richardson argued that the board needed to vote for the approval. In the second petition, the Jersey City Education Association (JCEA) and three individuals argued that the reappointment was not legal.
Judge rules lack of vote on Lyles was appropriate
Lyles had been a center of conflict on the board since her appointment in 2012. She has been the target of teachers’ union complaints, partly because a number of policies she appears to have put into place removed some perks teachers enjoyed under previous superintendents.
Lyles was named superintended in a split vote in 2012, when her supporters still held a majority vote on the board.
Then school board members Sterling Waterman, Angel Valentin, and Marilyn Roman voted against the resolution. The remaining board members – Suzanne Mack, Carl Lester, Carol Harrison-Arnold, Sangeeta Ranade, Vidya Gangadin, Marvin Adames – voted to support Lyles.
“This decision shows that the opponents of Dr. Lyles continue to be on the wrong side of history and the law” – Matt Schapiro
Although a number of anti-Lyles board members were elected in the 2014 election, Lyles still retained a narrow majority of support, partly by invoking ethics rules that did not allow board members with relatives employed in the school district to vote in the last meeting in December 2015 just before her contract was to expire.
Three members of the board were declared ineligible to vote on Lyles’ contract last December because of those rules. These were largely anti-Lyle board members, and had their votes been counted on the night of the vote they would have made up a majority, since other board members were absent.
With the power shift likely in January 2016, the lame duck board managed to void a direct vote on Lyles, and so gave Lyles a four-year extension by default.
Richardson filed suit in March, 2016, challenging the extension. Board President Gangadin and the board attorney filed a counter claim, saying the contract was automatically renewed because the challenge came too late.
The judge, however, said it was clear the majority of the board intended to renew the contract and dismissed the challenges. He said the purpose of the law was to provide the superintendent with job security.
“This case presents a good example of a situation where a superintendent should not lose her employment because two members oppose her and the board of education cannot make a decision requiring a majority its full membership as the result of conflicts,” the judge said in his ruling.
Reactions to the ruling
Vice President of the Jersey City Board of Education John Reichart, speaking as an individual and not for the board, said: “It is my opinion that Judge McGill’s decision was correct. Dr. Lyles does indeed deserve a measure of job security, as do all employees, regardless of what position you hold. However, this unfortunate situation is yet another example of how flawed our system is with regards to the rules governing ethics and conflicts.”
Reichart called the rules that determine when board members are considered conflicted “obnoxiously overreaching. If they can’t be changed after review, those seeking the office should be forewarned and banned from running for the board. We are electing people to an office to which they cannot effectively serve. The board has one employee, the Superintendent of Schools. By choosing who that person is, the board thereby decides the direction in which they, as representatives of the citizenry that elected them, wish to see the district to move. The fact that three board members were considered conflicted at the time of this very important decision, is exactly why we find ourselves here. It’s just another distraction keeping Dr. Lyles and this board from the important business of educating the children of Jersey City.”
Matt Schapiro, currently a candidate for the Board of Education and strong Lyles supporter also chimed in on the judge’s ruling.
“This decision shows that the opponents of Dr. Lyles continue to be on the wrong side of history and the law,” he said.
The board has been split over the Lyles appointment from the start. But the teacher’s union became upset with her over a number of changes she made in administration, in particular hiring a private contractor to schedule substitute teachers. Some board members who supported Lyles said the new firm managed to bring more equity to awarding teaching slots. In the past teachers often took up these posts as a kind of perk, treating it more like a babysitting assignment. Critics of the private contractor said the firm was over budget and that parents often complained about the substitutes hired and other aspects of their performance.
In the last two years, the teacher’s union threw its support behind candidates who were seen as opposed to Lyles – although members of Education Matters, the group in which Valentin is currently running, said they are not opposed to Lyles.
Jersey City United, in which Shapiro is running, has defended Lyles, citing her success at returning to local control many of the school district’s programs. The state took control of the Jersey City school district in 1988 citing a number of serious ethnical problems. Lyles had been credited in bringing up local test scores and improving other standards that allowed the state to relinquish some of the control to Jersey City late last year.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.