SPARTA, NJ – Questions surround the proposed five year contract renewal for Sparta superintendent Michael Rossi. The contract is on the agenda of the October 28 board of education meeting.
According to documents TAPinto Sparta obtained through OPRA requests, Rossi wrote to board president Kelly McEvoy, vice president Kylen Anderson and Personnel Committee Chair Karen Scott on August 27, notifying them he wanted to renew his contract.
“Also, I am notifying the Board of my desire to renew the contract and enter into a new contract on or before November 1, 2019,” Rossi wrote.
It appears not all board members were notified of the renewal request. Email from other board members shows they were not aware Rossi’s contract was being negotiated.
In an interview with TAPinto Sparta Scott said she knew about Rossi’s request to renew his contract from the letter but new nothing else about it, nothing about the negotiation process, until the September meeting.
Scott said she did not put it on the Personnel Committee agenda because she was not asked to do so.
“Usually Mike tells me what to put on the agenda to be discussed,” Scott said.
The current contract is due to expire June 30, 2020. The board must notify him by March 11, 2020 whether or not they want to renew his contract.
In an interview with TAPinto Sparta McEvoy said she followed legal advice throughout the process. She said the contract was “a template and the numbers are different but nothing was negotiated.”
“The option was never given to me,” McEvoy said. She said it was fair to say the board did not have input establishing parameters for the contract. McEvoy suggested speaking with board attorney John Comegno to get a definition of negotiation.
“The salary was adjusted to reflect what he (Rossi) was requesting,” McEvoy said. She said in the executive session at the September meeting the board was given “13 comps from other districts.”
An advisory from NJASA Chief Association Counsel Maria Lapore dated July 30, 2019, said the Department of Education had not as of that date “fully implemented a methodology for determining comparability,” following the elimination of salary caps. That process has not yet been completed.
The OPRA request asked for email from all board members on the topic of Rossi’s contract renewal. Initially Hinman said there were 791 emails that were responsive to the keyword search in the request.
Only 11 emails were received by TAPinto Sparta. They were between McEvoy, board members Kate Matteson, Jen Grana and Mike McGovern. Vice President Kylen Anderson was copied on the emails.
In an interview with TAPinto Sparta, McEvoy said on September 3 she told board members the hearing for the superintendent’s contract would be on the September 23 agenda. On the September 5 she sent a correction that the contract would be discussed in executive session at the September 23 meeting.
McEvoy said on September 5 she was notified by the Executive County Superintendent Rosalie Lamonte that Rossi’s contract had been received by her office for review.
McEvoy said on September 9 she was notified by Lamonte’s office that the contract had been approved by Lamonte.
Matteson emailed McEvoy and Anderson on September 13 with 11 questions about the contract renewal process including:
“1. Who decided to open up the superintendent’s contract for renewal?
2. When was that decided?
3. Who negotiated the contract?
4. What attorney represented Dr. Rossi?
5. What attorney represented Sparta Board of Education?
6. When did negotiations begin?
7. When did negotiations conclude?
8. Who from the BOE was involved in negotiations?
9. Were any other BOE members aware this was being negotiated but not directly involved?
10. Who has seen the contract?
11. If the contract has been negotiated by both sides and the county superintendent has approved it, what will be the topic of discussion in the 9/23 executive session?”
Matteson also asked for a copy of the contract.
In an emailed response to Matteson’s 11 questions, dated September 13 McEvoy said, “At the executive session on September 23, 2019, I hope all of your questions will be answered.”
Matteson emailed McEvoy again on September 19 asking to see the contract.
On September 20, McEvoy emailed all board members and Hinman to notify them “Rossi’s proposed contract had been loaded onto the board portal for your viewing.”
On September 20 Matteson emails McEvoy, Anderson and includes Rossi and Hinman expressing frustration with the lack of information about the contract.
“It is finally available weeks after it was crafted and sent to the county superintendent with zero knowledge by anyone but yourself. There is no evidence available to suggest that there was any intention of sharing the contract before our meeting.”
Matteson also asked which attorney would be at the September 23 meeting and asked to see Rossi’s letter of August 27, indicating the board members had not been given a copy nearly one month after it was sent.
In an interview with TAPinto Sparta McEvoy said she was committed to try to do things right. "I have done nothing by myself," McEvoy said. She said she never acted independently and always had board counsel present to advise as to the next step. “If people feel isolated out of the process, I don’t know what to say."
Matteson was not the only board member concerned about the contract renewal process.
McGovern emailed McEvoy on the morning of the September 23 board meeting. His email is completely redacted but McEvoy’s response makes it clear what he wrote. McEvoy’s response said McGovern is “free to access [special counsel] Mr. John Comegno who will be present at this evening meeting to address your questions and concerns.”
McEvoy also wrote, “As for the contract renewal protocol/process the board is well within it’s rights to proceed as it has been and will continue to do.”
The Code of Ethics for School Board members is not only found in board policy but as part of the state’s legal code 18A:12-24.1 Some of the sections of the Code of Ethics
- E “I will recognize that authority rests with the board of education and will make no personal promises nor take any private action that may compromise the board.
- C “I will confine my board action to policy making, planning and appraisal and I will help to frame policies and plans only after the board has consulted those who will be affected by them.
- G ”…In all other matters I will provide accurate information and in concert with my fellow board members interpret to the staff the aspirations of the community for its schools.”
Sparta Board of Education Policy 0171 “Duties of Board President and Vice President” the board president is not given the authority to solely hold discussion of a contract, without knowledge of the full board.
Board Policy 0176 “Collective Bargaining and Contract Approval” only addresses issues around a board member who may be conflicted and may be limited in participating in the process.
Board Policy 1220 “Employment of Chief School Administrator” does not discuss contract negotiation for renewal of a superintendent’s contract only that the “Superintendent must enter an employment contract with the board.”
The process of how the contract reached its final form is in question.
McEvoy, in her September 13, 2019 email to Matteson, copying Anderson, Rossi, Hinman and New Jersey School Boards Association field service representative Kathy Helewa said, “What I can tell you is that there have been NO negotiations and no decisions made outside of the board. I have simply implemented the proper procedures since receiving the contract renewal notice from Dr. Rossi on August 29, 2019.”[sic]
In an interview with TAPinto Sparta Scott said she assumed the attorneys were “bantering back and forth,” negotiating the terms of the contract. She said she did not know any of the terms until the executive session on September 23. Scott said after the August 27 letter from Rossi she was not involved in the contract renewal process.
Board member Jen Grana emailed McEvoy, Anderson and Hinman on September 26 with questions about the contract.
McEvoy responded on September 27; “The purpose of the last executive session was to provide the full board the opportunity to view the proposed contract for Dr. Rossi. The contract currently stands as presented to the full board on the 23.”
Scott said “I felt we had plenty of time to give input,” in the executive session. McEvoy said the contract is unchanged after the meeting in her email to Grana.
In an interview with TAPinto Sparta McEvoy said there were no changes made to the contract since it was approved by Lamonte because no one had requested any changes; not in the executive session and not since.
At the September 23, 2019 board meeting, former board member Jennifer Hamilton asked about a “new face sitting at the board table for the last two meetings.” Comegno introduced himself.
In response to her questions, Comegno said he was approved about a year ago as “special counsel, for the benefit of the board as needed.” He said he dealt with the [turf] field and other matters and was at the September 23 meeting “to provide support in executive session.”
It is known from McEvoy’s emails that the superintendent’s contract was discussed in executive session that night.
Comegno said to Hamilton, “both [law] firms have been aware of, involved in this contract negation and the board is aware of it,” though board members emails show they did not know about the contract negotiation process.
Hamilton asked if it was a conflict of interest for Comegno to negotiate for the board and the administrator. Comegno said Andrew Babiak was Rossi’s Association of School Administrators lawyer and that “our client is the board.”
McEvoy said she did not know why Comegno was the attorney representing the board in Rossi’s contract negotiation when Rod Hara has negotiated contracts for the district for years. “It just worked that way.”
Scott said she was not upset by that. She said, “I don’t know the proper process for negotiating a superintendent’s contract.” This is Scott’s fourth three-year term as a member of the Sparta Board of Education.
McEvoy said the contract had not been negotiated but it had been submitted to the interim Executive County Superintendent Rosalie Lamonte for approval on September 3, according to the email.
According to a public notice sent by Hinman, Lamonte approved the contract and returned it on September 9. An OPRA request for email between the Sparta Board of Education and Lamonte was denied.
A public notice released by Hinman said the hearing on the superintendent’s contract will be at the October 28 meeting but the contract has not been made available for the public to see.
Grana had written to McEvoy that releasing the contract to the public was her “understanding that is the next step in advance of a public hearing but correct me if I’m wrong.”
In an email McEvoy told Grana that the contract would be made available to the public “the night of the meeting not before; this is a standard best practice and there is currently no statute to say otherwise.”
New Jersey Department of Education is vague on the issue of what a hearing on a superintendent’s contract is supposed to look like.
Michael Yapels from the NJDOE said the relevant section of NJSA is found in 18A:11-11 Public notice required for alteration of contract terms of certain employees.
“5. A board of education shall not renegotiate, extend, amend, or otherwise alter the terms of a contract with a superintendent of schools, assistant superintendent of schools, or school business administrator, unless notice is provided to the public at least 30 days prior to the scheduled action by the board. The board shall also hold a public hearing and shall not take any action on the matter until the hearing has been held.”
Yaples said NJAC 6A:Chapter 23A also says “The public notice and public hearing required pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:11-11 shall be applicable to a district board of education that renegotiates, extends, amends, or otherwise alters the terms of an existing contract with a superintendent, deputy superintendent, assistant superintendent, or SBA”
According to the Executive County Superintendent Review of Administrator Contract Q & A updated August 2019, NJAC 6A:23A-3.1 states notice and hearing requirements must be adhered to “when a board of education rescinds a contract prior to the contract’s expiration and enters into a new contract with the same employee…”
In July 2019, Governor Murphy eliminated the salary caps that had been in place since July 2011. According to the Executive County Superintendent Review of Administrator Contract Q & A, district boards of education are responsible for supplying information used to determine salary comparability for a contract under review by the Executive County Superintendent.
McEvoy said the October 28 meeting will not be run any different than a typical meeting; anyone who wants to speak about Rossi’s contract can do so during public comment.
“People already did that last month,” McEvoy said. “People definitely came prepared to speak pro or con for Mike.”
She said, “I feel like it’s a no brainer. He’s an excellent choice for the district.” She went on to list his attributes and achievements including that he does not hide from his mistakes, he put together the strategic plan and the teachers’ contract was settled.
“I’m kind of at a loss as why people wouldn’t want him,” McEvoy said. “He hasn’t done anything that warrants removal.”
She said a district changing superintendents is “running the risk of financially hurting the district because a new person comes in and wants to change things and that costs a lot of money.”
Scott said the members of the board will be changing after the election and she did not think it was appropriate for new members to be deciding whether or not to renew Rossi.
Scott did not reveal details of Rossi’s new contract but she said “I’m fine with it.”
The Sparta Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Monday, October 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Mohawk Avenue School.