Education advocates in Newark planned to show up at Saturday’s school board meeting to question why Superintendent Roger Leon’s contract was reportedly secretly extended last May.
The Newark school board extended Leon’s contract for five years at an annual salary of about $290,000, according to The Star-Ledger , which first reported the news in opinion piece posted Thursday on NJ.com.
County spokeswoman Nancy Dearing was quoted in the article as saying “the contract was automatically renewed in May.” She also added that the district does not normally comment on staff performance, but Leon received a “positive performance evaluation.”
An email, phone call and text message to Dearing requesting details of the contract were not immediately returned.
A Chalkbeat review of school board documents from four meetings held in May found no agreement by the board reflecting the superintendent’s contract extension, suggesting the contract was renewed without public notice or a hearing.
There is no public discussion
Whether public notice or a hearing was required is open to question. But extending Leon’s contract for five years without discussion with the school community raised questions about the Newark Board of Education’s promise to be transparent.
Residents, education advocates, union members and parents were upset to learn Thursday that the nine-member elected school board had not informed them of the quiet contract extension.
“I’m saddened by what happened,” said Denise Cole, a longtime education advocate. “I don’t like it when my rights are violated.”
Even if state law and contract provisions allowed the school board to renew Leon’s contract without public notice, the board still had to notify the community, Cole said. Failure to do so, she added, deprived her of the right to express her concerns before the extension.
“You’re not paying attention. You are not listening. You are not doing the job you were elected to do for the community,” Cole said in a phone interview Thursday, directing her message to board members.
State code provides that when the original contract term expires, “the superintendent shall be deemed to be reappointed to another contract term” of the same length, unless the board reappoints the superintendent to a different term length or not at all.
While Leon originally had a three-year term, the board extended it for another two years in 2019. The renewed contract is for five years.
Janet Bamford, chief public affairs officer for the New Jersey School Boards Association, noted in an email that state code does not mention a board vote or contract renewal discussion with superintendents.
“As we understand it, the public notice and public hearing requirements … will be triggered when the board discusses and votes on changes/updates to the superintendent’s contract” – wrote Bamford.
Leon was hired in 2018 board when the district regained local control after 22 years under state control. A former principal and lifelong resident of Newark, he had supporters throughout the city, including politically influential elected officials such as Mayor Ras Baraka and Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, the state Senate majority leader.
Calls and emails to the offices of Baraka and Ruiz were not returned.
Leon’s salary has increased by about $30,000 over the past four years. He was paid $260,000 in 2019-20 and 2020-21, according to public school salary data. After that, there was a limit on the wages of foremen raised in 2019, the district manager’s salary increased dramatically, as it did in most districts across the country. U 2021-22Leon’s salary was $282,425, and 2022-23which rose to $290,050.
Parents and other education officials said the superintendent’s contract extension is important and deserves public attention.
More transparency is required
“It’s their duty to preserve and protect the interests of the voters who put them in office,” said Jasmine Morrison, a Newark resident and parent advocate. “Maybe you didn’t have to inform the families by law, but understanding where we came from and just giving local control back, it would have been the right thing to do.”
“I think it just shows a lack of respect for the people of the city to renew a contract that is so important and will have a lasting impact on the future of our city,” Morrison said.
Maggie Freeman, another parent and longtime Newark resident who previously ran for the school board, said she thinks it’s time for families to demand more transparency from the board.
“Maybe we’re going to have to come together as advocates in the community and figure out how best to approach this because it’s not right,” Freeman said.
“It’s despicable,” said John Abeygon, president of the Newark Teachers Union.
“They came promising transparency and that it would no longer be business as usual. They made that commitment to the taxpayers and the stakeholders,” Abeygon said of the school board. “It’s insulting.”