By David Cruz
The selection of a new superintendent for the state-run Jersey City schools has been a contentious process, to say the least. Although the board settled on former Delaware schools superintendent Marcia Lyles last month, the process that led to her selection has come under scrutiny after revelations of a secret meeting last May that included Councilman Steve Fulop, two sitting Board of Education members, two board members-elect and acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. It’s a meeting that critics say shows that Cerf was taking sides in the superintendent search.
“During the period someone should have come forward and said, ‘Yes, we’re having those conversations with the commissioner,’” said Board of Education member Angel Valentin. “It would not have disturbed me that there were ongoing conversations, if they were public. If you want to be open and transparent, like you say you are, then you make it public.”
The meeting took place at a private residence right around the time the new board majority was trying to oust then superintendent Charles Epps. They needed the commissioner to agree to a waiver of a salary cap set by the state, so the board could then negotiate a buyout with Epps. City Councilman Fulop says that’s what the meeting was about.
“I needed to convey to them that there was a window of opportunity, that the board majority had changed, that parents were involved, that there was an opportunity because the superintendent didn’t have a contract finalized at the time, and unfortunately the state has veto power and pays the majority of the Jersey City school budget, so they’re stakeholders, so a conversation is perfectly reasonable,” said Fulop.
The meeting did not include a board majority so it wasn’t covered by the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. But one former prosecutor says it was still suspect.
“In this particular case, it’s not a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act but it gets pretty close,” said Jay Fahey. “It doesn’t smell right because it’s very obvious that the two board members who are about to take their positions and the two current board members are only meeting with the head of the Department of Education for one reason and that is to discuss business in Jersey City.”
We reached out to Commissioner Cerf to try to get more details about this meeting, but his office said he was too busy to speak to us. They did release a statement saying that the commissioner meets with a lot of people about a lot of stuff, all the time, but when we asked about the appropriateness of this specific meeting, they had no comment.
Lyles and Cerf both attended the Broad Academy, a program run by a foundation critics say advocates for expanded charter schools and school vouchers. The two also worked together in New York City under Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Lyles says she hasn’t spoken to Cerf since 2009, but former Board of Education President Sterling Waterman says that over the course of several other meetings, the commissioner’s office pressured the board to pick Lyles.
“Just last week, the state said you only have one infinitely qualified candidate — Dr. Lyles. So, I said to myself, what happened?” Waterman said at June 28 meeting. “We were told that all of our candidates were fine with the state, so this process was not seamless or perfect or even fair.”
The board is currently negotiating a contract with Lyles. Having already been granted a salary waiver, she will be allowed to make more than the $175,000 cap set by Cerf’s office. The acting commissioner’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled for tomorrow.