Board of Education Deadlocks on Contract for Superintendent Pick Marcia Lyles

In a dramatic turn of events last night, the Board of Education slowed Marcia Lyles’ rise to the superintendency by failing to approve a contract that would pay her an annual salary of $231,000 through June 2016.
Members voted 4-4 during an emotionally draining four-hour meeting Wednesday at the central office off Claremont Avenue. Lyles’ supporters were trying to immediately arrange a new meeting to discuss the matter, in hopes that she would agree to renegotiate the failed agreement. 
Supporting the agreement were board president Suzanne Mack and members Sangeeta Ranade, Carol Harrison-Arnold and Carol Lester. Opposed were members Vidya Gangadin, Marilyn Roman, Angel Valentin and Sterling Waterman. The recent resignation of former vice president Marvin Adames might have made a critical difference; Adames, a strong Lyles supporter, recently resigned to accept a municipal court judgeship and the board still needs to select a replacement.
Gangadin, Roman and Waterman said they liked Lyles and would support her provided she agrees to some modifications. The vote followed a closed session in the beginning that lasted more than an hour, with Harrison-Arnold, Lester and Waterman taking part via telephone.
These three members contend certain benefits are simply too generous for a new superintendent entering the first year of a contract and that safeguards must be put in to protect the district and its taxpayers. Some residents said they felt state education commissioner Christopher Cerf wants Lyles in the position, and through Hudson County Executive Superintendent Monica Tone is trying to force through the most generous terms to satisfy her even if it puts the district at a disadvantage.
Unless Lyles decides to bolt, the rejection might be only a temporary setback, but she has to agree to renegotiate a deal the two parties had wrangled over for well over a month. And while the state has maintained it was neutral during the search for Charles Epps’ replacement, Harrison-Arnold and Waterman have told JCI Cerf’s now-former chief of staff David Hespe placed a call to the board stating the department’s preference for Lyles, who comes from the Christina district in Delaware and had previously served with Cerf as one of two deputy chancellors in the New York Department of Education. Both Lyles and Cerf are also graduates of the controversial California-based Broad Superintendents Academy funded by billionaire Eli Broad.
Under the proposed four-year contract attached to last night’s agenda, Lyles would be paid at an annual rate equaling $231,000 through June 2016. Other provisions include: granting Lyles her per diem ($889) for each of 13 sick days she does not use annually for the contract’s duration; merit pay based on certain performance incentives such as improved academic performance (which could cost taxpayers about $33,000 annually if all benchmarks are met); payment of up to $10,000 for moving expenses; use of a district-supplied vehicle for official purposes around and outside the district and “reasonable and incidental personal use”; and approval of an annual performance evaluation “using an evaluation instrument that has been selected by the board in collaboration with the superintendent.” All these clauses were criticized by critics of the proposed agreement during the public hearing, and none of Lyles’ supporters spoke on her behalf as they had at previous meetings.
A major bone of contention between the two sides centered on the contracts lacking “benchmarks” defining what goals Lyles needs to meet before entering her first school year. Had she been appointed, Lyles and the board were expected to do this during the board’s annual “retreat,” which is set for Sept. 15. While residents insisted such goals should be established before the start of a school year, Lester maintained Epps was never subject to the same scrutiny. Yet in a posting on Facebook, Lyles critic Gina Ho cited a copy of Epps’ contract containing “benchmarks and goals.” Further, Ho said the contract had no provision for merit pay, though Mack insisted during the meeting that Epps “had merit pay in some of his contracts.” 
In making impassioned pleas on her behalf, Lester and Harrison-Arnold, who have strongly denied Cerf pressured them to back Lyles, insisted Lyles’ track record leading the Christina School District – which includes Wilmington – speaks for itself given demonstrable gains in academic performance.
“In Marcia’s district… she reduced the dropout rate from 10,000 to 1,000 in her first year and from 1,000 to hundreds in the second,” Lester told the audience. “I want some of that here. I want the same results for our students now.”
Lester added, “Some board members are serving as a distraction for what should be our focal point now.”
“She met all the goals of her strategic plan a year early,” said Harrison-Arnold, who contended the district should have a sense of urgency for getting Lyles on board. “I don’t think we can continue a discussion on this and continue to disregard our children,” she said.
But Gangadin and Roman contended the district needs to take extra time to further deliberate with Lyles  or it risks facing a difficult situation if things don’t work out.
“The people who came forward in this arena to speak, it was like you were reading my mind,” said Roman, a retired district supervisor and former interim mayor, to loud applause. “So much of this is too expensive. So much of this is too vague.”
On the cost side, Roman said it was extraordinary for Lyles to receive per diem pay for unused sick days, which could amount to about $45,000 for the life of the contract if she used none of them. Further, Roman complained that Lyles should not be getting merit pay for improving student performance when it is part of her normal job description.
Gangadin, who endorsed Lyles based on observations she made during a visit to Lyles’ district in Delaware, said the board cannot assume everything will work out and that there will be no complications should Lyles not live up to expectations.
“Our children come first,” Gangadin said. “When we talk about our district, we talk about our children.”
“As board members, as stakeholders in our district, we need to be accountable for our actions,” she continued. “What are we doing here? We’re approving a contract that’s vague with no saving clause in it.”
By “saving clause,” Gangadin told JCI she means a clause that “saves” the district in case things do not work out with Lyles. She called it “a termination clause” that spells out why Lyles might have to be let go if she fails in her mission. While there is a “termination” section in the contract, it mentions the penalty for worst-case scenarios, such as potential loss of certification.

At the meeting, parent Frances Jackson blasted the board, alleging it was appeasing Cerf by granting Lyles an overly generous contract.

“You’re giving this woman a contract, then you’re telling her what you want after giving her the contract,” she complained.

“All you are are just little puppets,” another resident charged. “All they (the state) are doing is using you and you are hurting our kids.”

Chris Neidenberg

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