State Senator Calls for Investigation into Hiring of Jersey City’s New Superintendent, Meeting Between Board Members and Cerf

The co-chair of the state legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools (JCPS) says acting state education commissioner Christopher Cerf’s meeting secretly in a private residence in 2011 with some Board of Education members and Councilman Steven Fulop is something the committee would want to investigate, as is the way in which Jersey City’s new schools superintendent was hired.
 
“This calls for an investigation,” says state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-29) of Newark, co-chair of the 13-member committee, which consists of seven assemblymen and six senators. “A candidate for mayor, Mr. Fulop, arranges a meeting with Cerf, some residents and school board members in someone’s house to discuss pending issues not yet decided by the board? Where’s the transparency?”

According to a report Friday in the Hudson Reporter, Fulop convened a secret meeting on May 3, 2011 involving Cerf, some residents, two sitting board members and two board members-elect in a home at 274 Arlington Avenue to discuss future action on then-superintendent Charles Epps’ contract. Fulop has been accused of helping orchestrate the hiring of new superintendent Marcia Lyles.

At that time, the board was preparing to remove Epps. Ultimately, the board selected Lyles over a second finalist, South Carolina educator Debra Brathwaite.
 
In an email, Fulop invites current board members Marvin Adames, Carol Harrison-Arnold, Sterling Waterman and Carol Lester to attend the meeting. Others invited included Shelley Skinner, deputy director of the Better Education for Kids school choice advocacy group, and Ellen Simon, founder of Parents for Progress, the committee allied with Fulop that endorsed the three winning board candidates in the last election.

The meeting, however, would not be a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act, better known as the Sunshine Law. The law, which was passed in order to increase government transparency, requires that decision-making government bodies “conduct their business in public,” with a few exceptions such as when discussing pending lawsuits.

There are a number of stipulations for when a meeting would be required to be open, such as if a majority of a body’s members are in attendance. That was not the case in this instance, as two of the attendees were Board Members-elect and not yet technically public officials.
 
In 2010-11, Fulop, Skinner and two other residents were involved in litigation in the state’s Office of Administrative Law that blocked a prior board’s granting Epps a three-year contract extension
 
The Reporter notes that Fulop in the email, titled “Cerf meeting,” asks recipients to “please keep in confidence as always” information regarding the planned meeting.
 
Despite the circumstances, Harrison-Arnold and Waterman say they had no problems attending because they felt it was necessary to meet with Cerf, given the state still holds control over part of the district. 
 
“We were told a meeting was scheduled to be held with the acting commissioner and I thought it was in the best interests of the district to be present,” says Harrison-Arnold, adding that the nature of the matter under discussion at the time warranted keeping it private with Cerf. “When I got there, I did not realize other residents, who weren’t members of the board, would also participate.”
 
“At the time, a new majority dedicated to eventually replacing Dr. Epps was about to take control on the board,” explains Waterman, who would be named board president the following day, replacing William DeRosa. “Discussing the status of Dr. Epps’ contract with the acting commissioner was certainly a valid issue at that time.”

As for the participation of Fulop and Skinner, Waterman, who Fulop endorsed in his 2010 election bid, says, “They were involved in arranging the meeting. As a board member invited to meet with the acting commissioner, I thought it was important to participate.” 
 
In a response in the Jersey City Schools Yahoo group last weekend, Fulop explains, “What was needed from the state – They needed to sign a pay waiver for Epps and be comfortable that the board was going to truly do a national search and not revert back to politics of just hiring a friendly face.”
 
In further responding to the Yahoo group, Fulop insists he played an appropriate role regarding the meeting. “I am sure the conspiracies will say I am meeting with the DOE regularly but as I said before I urge you to OPRA them or me and you can see that is not the case.”

He went on to say, “As I always have said education is the backbone of what I am doing for the next 4 years and nobody should be surprised that the state is part of the conversation as they have had control of the JC system for 23 years and they pay 2/3 of the budget,” and regarding what was discussed, “I and the newly-elected board members (Adames and Harrison-Arnold) were trying to convince Cerf that there is a sentiment of change in JC and there is a new board majority and record voter turnouts and that the potential for education progress in JC was huge. Not an easy lift.”
 
“I don’t meet with [the DOE] regularly and I would hardly say a meeting a year and a half ago constitutes a regular occurrence,” Fulop said Monday in an email to JCI. “I meet with state, federal, local and county people weekly to advocate for JC interests. Many are not public meetings and of course kept in confidence. This was no different.”
 
He added, “I have met with Cerf once in early 2011. [Probably] spoke to him once on the phone around that meeting but haven’t spoken to anyone in the DOE for better part of a year. Of course I think he knows who I am and have met him personally before but I certainly don’t agree with all his policies. In this case the meeting was very clear on what we needed from the governor.”
 
Fulop has communicated with the Department of Education on at least one occasion beyond the Arlington Avenue meeting. In an August 2011 email obtained by JCI, he tells the department’s Eric Taylor he would be amenable to arranging a 10 a.m. teleconference with then-board president Sterling Waterman the following day to discuss issues related to replacing Epps after he could not reach Taylor’s superior, Cerf.

Fulop, however, maintains this August conversation centered around a lawsuit he had filed regarding Epps’s contract and it involved Taylor, not Cerf.

He argued in the suit that the district did not follow the proper procedure in awarding Epps the contract and as a result the contract should be voided. Because the lawsuit put Epps position “in limbo,” the state, according to Fulop, told him to drop the suit, thereby resolving the question of whether Epps was superintendent or not, and so the district could proceed with the separation agreement with Epps.

JCI asked department spokeswoman Barbara K. Morgan about the state’s dealings with Fulop as part of the process of trying to find a new superintendent as evidenced by the two emails. She did not answer directly, but responded by email with a general comment.
 
“The acting commissioner has conversations on a regular basis with a wide variety of constituents – many of whom are elected officials that contact him to facilitate meetings to discuss issues that are of import to the people they represent – and this was one such occasion,” Morgan writes.
 
Still, Cerf has never met in an open public forum with the community at large in Jersey City to discuss the superintendent search. This, despite concerns over secrecy and perceptions that the state long ago determined it wanted Lyles. Cerf did appear before the board last December in a closed personnel session to discuss the issue, after declining to accept the board’s invitation to address the public.
 
Harrison-Arnold says if Cerf were to refuse a board invitation to meet with the public in discussing concerns over how the search has been handled, it would not stop her from continuing to meet with him.
 
“We have no control over making Mr. Cerf speak to the public in Jersey City,” she says. “I’d be happy to invite him here, but if he refused our invitation, I’m not sure what we can do.” 
 
JCI has since learned Cerf has told the board he will only discuss the future of state control in Jersey City and the future status of state monitor Cathy Coyle after Lyles contract is finalized. Coyle’s own contract was recently extended until Aug. 31. In fact, a senate panel is holding a meeting today to determine if Cerf’s acting education commissioner position should be made permanent.
 
Sen. Rice tells JCI Jersey City residents wishing to see the Joint Committee on the Public Schools launch an investigation into Cerf and the state’s continued control of Jersey City’s school district should contact State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, a former JCPS member.  
 
As for Rice’s call for an investigation of the circumstances leading to the hiring of Lyles, Harrison-Arnold insists any probe would vindicate the board.
 
“I’d welcome any type of investigation here if they’re planning one,” she says. “That’s because absolutely nothing improper was done. In backing Dr. Lyles, I supported who I thought was the most qualified person for the job, without interference from the state.”
 
Waterman disagrees. He maintains Cerf put the squeeze on the board to hire Lyles, a fellow graduate of the controversial Broad Superintendent’s Academy who also worked with him during their time together in New York City.
 
“A few days before the final vote (June 28),” says Waterman, “I know we were deadlocked at 4-4, with one undecided – before the state placed a call into the board. After the state placed that call, we were deadlocked no more. Why?
 
“If someone wants to come to Jersey City and launch an inquiry, l’d be more than happy to tell anyone willing to listen what I think really happened,” Waterman says. “We promised the public there would be transparency in the process and we didn’t get it. I wanted to reopen that process, and a majority of my colleagues on the board refused.”
 
Rice alleges Newark, a district that remains under state control, has had serious problems dealing with Cerf. The district is now headed by superintendent Cami Anderson, another Cerf acquaintance from New York City who, like Lyles, attended the Broad Academy.
 
“The state has controlled the Newark and Jersey City school districts for over 20 years,” Rice complains. “I believe “Mr. Cerf’s objective is to keep both firmly under the state’s grip, for as long as it takes, until they are fully privatized.”

Jersey City, by comparison, controls only two out of the five areas of the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC), which was enacted in 2005. Jersey City specifically handles QSAC’s governance and fiscal management components, while the state retains control of operations, instruction/program, and personnel. The district does have some input in the state-controlled areas.

Photo of Christopher Cerf courtesy of njspotlight.com.

Additional reporting by Matt Hunger

Chris Neidenberg

a freelance reporter with extensive experience covering municipalities throughout North Jersey.