South Brunswick: BOE Spring Closed Sessions Dominated By Superintendent Crisis

Former Superintendent Dr. Jerry Jellig speaks at what would be his last meeting in South Brunswick in April. Credits: Charles W. Kim photos
Board of Education Member Pete St. Vincent was the only one on the panel to vote in closed session to end the investigation of former Superintendent Dr. Jerry Jellig, meeting minutes show. Credits: School District photo
Teachers and others protest Dr. Jerry Jellig at Crossroads North Middle School on May 9. Credits: Charles W. Kim photos

SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ – Recently approved Board of Education executive session minutes from the spring provide a little insight into how that panel dealt with the recent district crisis that saw former Superintendent Dr. Jerry Jellig resign in May.

This week, TAP Into South Brunswick and Cranbury obtained, through the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), copies of executive session minutes approved at a recent meeting.

While not detailed, the closed sessions from March 1 to the end of June were documented by former Business Administrator and Board Secretary Anthony Tonzini.

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Dr. Jellig, in the third year of a five-year contract, came under intense fire and scrutiny during the winter and spring by the South Brunswick Education Association teachers union, parents and eventually board members for a variety of allegations.

The various groups charged Dr. Jellig with improper conduct and spending habits including creating a hostile work environment among union members, inappropriate conduct with female employees in the district and spending too much on professional development trips as well as paying out some $280,000 for renovations to the district office building on Blackhorse Lane.

Problems at the administration level of the district came to the surface in late February when longtime Assistant Superintendent Joanne Kerekes abruptly resigned her position in the district after more than 25 years.

Her resignation, approved by the board in February, sent shockwaves that only intensified at the very next meeting in March when Business Administrator Anthony Tonzini tendered his own resignation.

During the public meeting on March 14, when Tonzini announced he was leaving the district, SBEA President John Lolli had some harsh words for the board and the district administration, threatening a number of employee resignations as a result of a “climate of fear” through the rank and file.

“The (union) has serious concerns about (Assistant Superintendent Joanne Kerekes) sudden departure and what this means,” said Lolli on March 14. “The reason for her sudden departure is what concerns us.”

The minutes obtained this week show the board going into a closed session following that meeting and Lolli’s allegations.

According to the minutes, the board “was concerned about various allegations regarding Dr. Jellig,” who then “spoke to the allegations.”

The minutes said that the board was also concerned about the confidentiality of the executive sessions.

It decided, the minutes said, to continue reviewing “matters regarding the superintendent.”

Prior to things heating up during the very next meeting on March 29, with several people chastising the board during a marathon public comment session that lasted almost two hours, board members discussed how they should respond to public comments about personnel matters during a brief 17-minute session before the public meeting started.

The minutes also said that Board President Dr. Stephen Parker would call the board’s attorney for “an update regarding Dr. Jellig’s employment.”

On April 11, the board met in closed session for about 20 minutes to discuss two non-HIB cases and to address SBEA grievances that Lolli brought up at the prior meeting, according to the minutes.

The board then held two closed sessions before and after the April 25 meeting to get a report from Board Attorney Sandro Polledri about the allegations made against Dr. Jellig, according to the minutes.

The first session lasted 45 minutes before the public meeting and Polledri said he spoke with 10 current and former staff members as well as reviewed various emails and statements.

The second session following the public meeting lasted from 9:40 p.m. to 10:25 p.m. where a discussion of the emails and interviews continued.

According to the minutes, board member Harry Delgado asked to know “the substance” of phone calls between Dr. Jellig and the staff members.

Member Azra Baig questioned the confidential nature of the executive session discussions and Parker said the “pattern of behavior” needed to be addressed.

Member Barry Nathanson moved to add five additional phone calls and interviews to continue the investigation, according to the minutes.

Board members were then asked to vote on continuing the investigation into Dr. Jellig with Member Pete St. Vincent being the only dissenting vote, according to the minutes.

Delgado asked the other board members to not speak to Dr. Jellig directly, but to communicate to him through Dr. Parker.

During the public portion of the April 25 meeting, Parker told a resident that he could not confirm or deny that an investigation into Dr. Jellig’s activities was taking place.

Several hundred union members and others attended the public meeting and the board was, once again, hit with a number of critical comments from the public.

“The breaches of trust, the climate of decay and the conflicts that have occurred in just the last 20 months make it difficult for SBEA to work with Dr. Jellig in any meaningful way,” Lolli said at that meeting. “I don’t understand why the Board of Education continues to offer explanations and excuses on his behalf.”

The board then hunkered down for a session lasting more than two hours before the start of its May 9 meeting to discuss Dr. Jellig’s fate as several hundred union members protested the embattled superintendent outside of Crossroads North Middle School on George’s Road.

Although the session was to resolve the issue and give Dr. Jellig a chance to review the investigation and defend his actions, he did not attend the meeting, according to the minutes.

In the meeting, board members discussed options regarding Dr. Jellig’s employment with the district, and appoint Richard Chromey as acting superintendent, the minutes said.

When the public portion of the meeting started around 8 p.m., the board voted unanimously to place Dr. Jellig on paid administrative leave to the cheers and applause of the audience.

On May 23, the board met in closed session prior to the start of its scheduled meeting for about 45 minutes so that Board Attorney Derlys Gutierrez could explain to the board how Dr. Jellig’s resignation and separation agreement with the district would work, as well as, settling the contract with Interim Superintendent Dr. Gary McCartney, according to the minutes.

At the public session, the board voted unanimously to accept Dr. Jellig’s resignation, effective May 31 and to appoint Dr. McCartney for one year as interim superintendent.

That move was once again, greeted with cheers and applause from the audience.

The board also rescinded the resignation of Joanne Kerekes, which brought more cheers and applause.

In June, the board held two brief closed sessions to discuss HIB cases and to discuss the search for a new superintendent, the minutes said.

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