Newark school board blocks attempt to stop superintendent’s contract renewal

Newark schools Superintendent Roger Leon speaks while standing at a podium against a colorful tile backdrop at First Avenue School, with the backs of several audience members in the foreground and an American flag on the left.
Newark Superintendent Roger León speaking at First Avenue School in May 2021, a year before a clause in his contract automatically renewed his term as superintendent. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

A Newark school board member’s attempt to stop Superintendent Roger León’s contract renewal and to allow public input went nowhere Thursday, following continued questions about transparency of the process. 

Board member Crystal Williams, who was elected last year, introduced a motion to issue a letter of nonrenewal to León before Jan. 31 “in order to reassess his contract” and “give the public the opportunity to voice their concerns.” But the motion died for lack of a second by any of the other eight members of the Newark Board of Education. 

Williams’ motion was the first challenge by a board member since last week’s revelation that León’s contract was quietly renewed in May 2022. Once that renewal takes effect on July 1, 2023, León’s term will extend to June 30, 2028, according to his contract.

“The voice of the community is paramount,” said Williams as she introduced the motion. “Let’s take their concerns seriously and do this the right way; there’s no reason to go around it.”

Dozens of Newark parents, teachers, students, and advocates filled the room during Thursday’s board of education meeting and raised a range of issues affecting public school students. Current and former students at Newark’s School of Global Studies brought up concerns over patterns of racist harassment at the school, high school teachers shared their worries over the lack of bilingual teachers supporting English language learners, and advocates criticized the board’s handling of the superintendent’s contract renewal.

Newark school leaders have been under fire after reports that León’s contract was automatically renewed due to a clause in his previous contract that said board members needed to alert him by May 15, 2022, if his term wasn’t going to be extended the next year. 

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Deborah Gregory Smith, president of the Newark chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, pointed to the community interest in holding the board accountable after it regained full control of the district from the state

“Since the return to local control, those of us who fought to have it reinstated have not dropped the ball or stopped being involved,” Smith said. “You have not been listening to the community and as a result have not been transparent or accountable for your decision.”

Others like Newark resident Deanna Harrell said they felt compelled to attend Thursday’s meeting because of the concerns over León’s contract renewal. 

“I’m not normally here at these meetings, but hearing about things like that made me want to be here at these meetings and I will be here going forward,” Harrell said.

Following Williams’ motion, board member Flohisha Johnson, who was part of the board that approved León’s initial contract in 2018, defended the contract renewal and process.

“I stand behind my superintendent because you know why? I elected him into this office and we appointed him as a board, as a whole, and we don’t have a problem with him,” said Johnson, who was first elected to the board in 2017.

She also read a state law that does not require boards of education to provide public notice or hearings for new contracts, including contracts that replace expired contracts for tenured and non-tenured employees. According to the law, a public notice and public hearing are required only for renegotiations, extensions, amendments, or other alterations to the terms of existing contracts. 

John Paff, a longtime advocate for government transparency and a member of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said the state law surrounding superintendent contracts should be amended to ensure the public is aware of contract renewals and decisions.

“This whole problem is nothing but lousy public policy. Nothing like this should be automatically renewed,” Paff said.  “The average member of the public is not informed enough and shouldn’t be responsible to be involved enough to pay attention to statutes like this.”

New Jersey state leaders should review the mandates set by law to ensure the public’s protection, he said.

“The Legislature should repeal the statute and change it so that a public hearing provision is included prior to the end of a contract. That’s the only way the public could be protected,” Paff said.

The groundwork for the terms of the automatic renewal was set during a “sparsely attended” public hearing held before a regular school board meeting in 2019, as Chalkbeat Newark reported at the time. After the hearing — which was not advertised online ahead of time —the board extended León’s contract by two extra years and added the renewal clause.   

León, a former principal and lifelong Newark resident, did not address the controversy at the meeting or at Saturday’s board retreat. Instead, he addressed questions about his contract during an interview on “Chat Box” that aired on YouTube and NJ PBS on Thursday.

“The fact that people didn’t know is really an important factor and just educating the community and having conversations with them is something that we obviously think is important … and will be doing as we get through the end of the term of this contract and as we begin the next one,” León said when asked about the public scrutiny the district is getting in light of the quiet renewal.

He was hired in 2018 for a three-year contract that extended to June 30, 2021, according to board documents. 

“I was part of this board when we gained back local control,” Johnson said during Thursday’s meeting. “I was part of this board when we voted the superintendent in, who I think is doing an awesome job.”

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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