Flexing its new authority, Newark school board blocks some staffing changes sought by incoming superintendent

The Newark school board on Tuesday rejected several of the district leadership changes initiated by incoming Superintendent Roger León, dealing him a significant setback even before he begins his new role.

After five hours of closed-door deliberations, the board voted down three assistant superintendents León sought to appoint, and blocked the firing of nine current officials he had hoped to remove.

However, the board did approve several of León’s chosen cabinet members, including former Newark principal Gerald Fitzhugh as his deputy superintendent and current South Street School Principal Havier Nazario as his chief of staff.

Still, the rejections effectively punctured a tire as León seeks to speed through a staffing overhaul before officially taking over the district on July 1. On Friday, he tried to encourage more than 30 district officials to resign by offering buyout packages that had not been authorized or even reviewed by the full board.

The “no” votes sent a message that at least some members intend to assert their new sway over the district and the superintendent, whom the board selected last month. In February, the board regained full control over the district after the state ended its decades-long takeover.

“We made a very clear statement last night, that while Mr. León is the superintendent — and we fully respect that — the ultimate authority is the board,” board member Tave Padilla said on Wednesday.

“He can make any recommendation that he wants,” Padilla added. But, “just because you want it, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”

In a statement provided to Chalkbeat on Wednesday, León said the board has been “methodical and purposeful” over the past month as it reviewed a total of 264 staff changes for next school year — a group of employees beyond the top-level officials discussed at Tuesday’s meeting. It has approved 95 percent of those changes, he added.

“I commend the Board for their diligence and action and extend my appreciation to the community for their patience and support,” León said, calling Tuesday night’s meeting a model of “how democracy works.”

“This is one of many more examples to come of local control at its best,” he added. “I am proud of Newark.”

The other appointments approved by the board include former principal Shakirah Harrington, who will become an assistant superintendent; current Assistant Superintendent Kathy Duke Jackson, who will remain in that role; and Robert Gregory, the interim superintendent who will step down into the role of assistant superintendent. Brenda Liss, an attorney who specializes in education law, will become general counsel.

León had sought to remove 31 district officials and administrations who were hired by his predecessors, former state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf.

The board agreed to fire 14 of those employees, including Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Chief Information Officer Troy Fischer.

But it refused to remove several people on León’s list, including Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees the district’s controversial enrollment system. Board member Padilla said he was concerned that León had not made clear who would replace Ramos-Solomon, raising concerns that the enrollment process could be disrupted.

Most of the other terminations that were rejected by the board appeared to be lower-level administrators.

León had hoped the buyout packages would convince some of the 31 to leave without having to be fired. The buyouts provide additional pay to employees who resign voluntarily. In exchange, they must waive their right to sue the district and agree not to make disparaging comments about it.

It appears that only eight staffers took the buyouts. While the board approved those, some members were not happy with how the offers were made.

First, the buyout offers, which are known as “separation agreements,” are legal contracts between the board and the employees who accept them. However, multiple board members did not learn about the offers until after they were made.

For instance, board member Leah Owens said she first saw the agreement several days after it was sent to employees, and that was only because she was copied on an email by an employee asking questions about the offer.

Second, the agreements include León’s name and title as “superintendent.” But while the agreements go into effect June 30, he does not become superintendent until July 1.

Third, the staffers were given a deadline of noon Tuesday to sign the agreements — about four days after they received them. However, the agreements that went out Friday said that employees would have 21 days to review them.

“It was rushed,” Owens said about León’s attempted staffing overhaul.

She attributed some of the confusion to the fact that the board and superintendent are still adjusting to the new dynamic under local control. During the 22 years when the state ran the district, the board had only advisory powers, and the state-appointed superintendents could veto board decisions whenever they wanted.

“We’re still learning exactly what the process is,” she said, adding that she hoped the board and superintendent would “tighten up” their communications.

Tuesday’s meeting attracted a capacity crowd to the district’s downtown headquarters. León sat by the wall on one side of the room, while many of the district employees he hoped to fire sat on the other.

One of those employees, Tammi Oliveira, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Now an executive legal assistant in the general counsel’s office, she was previously an assistant to former superintendent Cerf.

She explained that she attended Newark Public Schools, and that her first job in the district was translating calls to the Family Support Center. She asked the board several pointed questions about the buyout offers and whether they knew about the offers in advance.

“I’m not asking this to cause a disruption,” she said, fighting back tears, “but I would like to find closure.”

The board later voted to reject Oliveira’s firing.

Several public-school parents at the meeting said in an interview that they supported León’s effort to remove officials from the previous administrations.

Carol Williams, whose daughter attends Central High School, said the new superintendent needed to bring in staffers who share his “mission, vision, and goals.”

“Not everybody’s going to be a good fit,” she said.