School board members for New Jersey’s largest school district defended the renewal of Superintendent Roger León’s contract, saying it was not hidden from the public.
During Saturday’s Newark Board of Education retreat meeting, Board President Dawn Haynes suggested that reports that León’s contract was automatically renewed in May and community questions about the process were a misunderstanding of actions taken at a public meeting in 2019.
“I just want to make it extremely clear that whatever miscommunication or talk that’s happening in the media, that is what was stated,” said Haynes about the contract approval process during the meeting. “That is what happened according to our timeline and what we know to be true.”
León, a former principal and lifelong Newark resident, did not address the controversy at the meeting. He was hired in 2018 under a three-year contract that originally ended on June 30, 2021, according to board documents. In 2019, Chalkbeat Newark reported that a “sparsely attended” public hearing – which was not advertised online ahead of time – was held before the regularly scheduled August school board business meeting to discuss León’s contract renewal.
During that meeting, board members unanimously approved an amendment that added two more years to León’s original five-year contract in order to “accomplish the goals” in Newark’s 2020-30 strategic plan. This action extended his contract through 2023.
Both the original contract and the extensions had renewal clauses for the superintendent’s employment, Haynes said. District spokeswoman Nancy Deering was quoted in the Star-Ledger saying that “the contract automatically renewed in May.” It remained unclear Saturday why the contract would have been renewed before the 2023 expiration.
León’s 2018 and 2019 employment contracts have not been made publicly available. Deering has not replied to multiple requests for comment and to see the contracts from Chalkbeat.
Haynes also addressed Leon’s salary increase, which was a result of cost of living adjustments, she said.
In 2019-20 and 2020-21, he was paid $260,000, according to state school salary data. After a cap on superintendent salaries was lifted in 2019, León’s salary went up as superintendents’ salaries did in most districts throughout the state. In 2021-22, León’s salary was $282,425 and in 2022-23, that went up to $290,050.
Meanwhile, board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas introduced a resolution to secure a separate counsel for board members, which passed with four yes votes and five abstentions. Currently, the board shares counsel with the district.
More than a dozen community members showed up to Saturday’s board meeting, but after the meeting stretched for several hours plus a lengthy recess, some residents opted to leave before the public comment portion. Several stayed to question León’s contract renewal process and pressed board members about the district’s transparency.
“What it looks like is our community is being kept in the dark. What it feels like is that I am not being trusted as a community member in doing my part in supporting you. And what it sounds like is unethical practices,” said Shennell McCloud, chief executive officer of Project Ready.
Some members of the community were upset that they didn’t know about the public hearing on León’s contract in 2019.
“I do not recall any public participation about your contract. But we need to know how it was an automatic renewal. I don’t know how that happened,” said Dr. Viva White, a Newark parent.
Others wondered why the superintendent’s May renewal wasn’t presented to the public.
“The superintendent’s contract may have automatically renewed but you all still have to write a contract. You still have to present that contract before us to comment. I comment now,” said Denise Cole, a longtime education advocate.
While León did not address his contract renewal, he gave an hour-long presentation on the district’s accomplishments, projects and department reinstatements since he took the job in 2018.
The Newark Board of Education will meet on Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. for its regularly scheduled school board meeting.
Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at email@example.com