By: (Patrick Wall /Chalkbeat)
Superintendent Roger Leon

School board members of New Jersey’s largest school district have defended Superintendent Roger Leon’s contract extension, saying it was not hidden from the public.

During Saturday’s Newark Board of Education meeting, Board President Don Haynes suggested this reports that Leon the contract was automatically renewed in May and community questions about the process were a misunderstanding of the actions taken on a public meeting in 2019.

“I just want to make it clear that any misunderstandings or talk that’s going on in the media is what was stated,” Haynes said of the contract approval process during the meeting. “This is what happened according to our schedule and what we know to be true.”

Leon, 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 expired on June 30, 2021, according to board filings. U 2019, Chalkbeat Newark reports that the “sparsely attended” public hearing — which was not advertised online in advance — was held before the school board’s scheduled August business meeting to discuss Leon’s contract extension.

During that meeting, board members unanimously approved an amendment that added two more years to Leon’s original five-year contract to “achieve goals” in Newark’s 2020-30 strategic plan. The move extended his contract through 2023.

Both the original contract and the extensions included clauses extending the superintendent’s tenure, Haynes said. County spokeswoman Nancy Dearing was quoted in the Star-Ledger as saying “the contract automatically renewed in May.” It remained unclear on Saturday why the contract was extended until the end of 2023.

Leon’s employment contracts for 2018 and 2019 have not been made public. Deering did not respond to multiple requests for comment or to review the contracts from Chalkbeat.

Haynes also applied for Leon’s salary increase, which was the result of a cost-of-living adjustment, she said.

He was paid $260,000 in 2019-20 and 2020-21, according to public school salary data. After the superintendent salary cap was lifted in 2019, Leon’s salary increased, as did superintendent salaries in most districts in the state. U 2021-22, Leon’s salary was $282,425 2022-23which rose to $290,050.

The question is how it happened

Meanwhile, board member A’Darian Murray-Thomas introduced a resolution for separate counsel for board members, which passed with four votes in favor and five abstentions. The council is currently sharing advice with the district.

More than a dozen community members showed up for Saturday’s board meeting, but after the meeting stretched into several hours and a lengthy recess, some residents decided to walk out before public comment. Several remained to question the process of renewing Leon’s contract and demanded that board members be transparent about the district.

“It seems that our community is kept in the dark. It feels like I’m not trusted as a community member to support you. And what it sounds like is an unethical practice,” said Shanelle McCloud, the company’s chief executive officer. The project is ready.

Some members of the community were upset that they didn’t know about the public hearing on Leon’s contract in 2019.

“I don’t recall any public engagement regarding your contract. But we need to know how it was automatically renewed. I don’t know how it happened,” said Dr. Viva White, a Newark parent.

Others wondered why the May update of the chapter was not made public.

“The manager’s contract may have been automatically renewed, but you still have to write the contract. You still need to submit this contract to us to comment. Now I’m commenting,” said Denise Cole, a longtime education advocate.

While Leon didn’t talk about a contract extension, he did give an hour-long presentation about the department’s accomplishments, projects and renewal since he took the job in 2018.

The Newark Board of Education will meet on January 26th at 6pm for the regular school board meeting.

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