SPARTA, NJ – The early renewal of the superintendent’s contract raised some questions, concerns and even emotions at the October board of education meeting. While the contract was approved, it does not appear to be over.  A board member has filed ethics charges against three other members.

Board member Jen Grana who voted no on the contract resolution, filed a complaint with the ethics commission saying board president Kelly McEvoy, vice president Kylen Anderson and personnel committee chair Karen Scott acted unethically when they initiated the contract renewal without telling the other six board members.

It turns out that Grana, Kim Bragg and Kate Matteson were purposefully left out of the loop when Sparta Superintendent Michael Rossi told McEvoy, Anderson and Scott he wanted to renew.

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In response to an OPRA request TAPinto Sparta received a copy of a communication to four board members at 3:09 p.m. on Friday, August 30:

“Good afternoon, Dr. Rossi has formally requested a contract renewal. I have spoken. with NJSBA and the board attorney to advise me on the next steps. At present I only need the majority of opinion (5) to support me in requesting that Pam advertise a contract renewal hearing. I am asking for your support to proceed. If I have that, I will by matter of phone calls inform the remainder of the board of the contract hearing. I am trying to expedite this process for several reasons all of which I will explain as we move forward.

The contact information for the sender and three of the recipients is redacted.  Anderson’s Sparta Board of Education email address is the only visible information.  When Business Administrator Pam Hinman was asked to confirm the sender was McEvoy and the recipients were Scott, Joanne Hoover and Jason Ventresca she replied “Yes.”

By 3:54 p.m. on August 30, McEvoy emailed Hinman: “Please be advised that as the Sparta Board of Education President, and with support of the majority of the board, I would like you to advertise for a contract renewal hearing for Dr. Rossi., as soon as possible. I was planning for the hearing to take place at the September board meeting. 

Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any questions or concerns you may have, additionally please reach out to Mr. John Comegno as well, should anything arise.”

Anderson was copied on the email.

While McEvoy seeks a majority of the board to get approval to post a notice of the executive session regarding the renewal, as required, she uses the same language when communicating with Executive County Superintendent Rosalie Lamonte.

On Thursday, September 5 at 5:25 p.m. McEvoy emailed Lamonte copying Hinman, Anderson, and board attorney John Comegno:

“I am aware that you are in receipt of the proposed contract, for Dr. Michael Rossi, Superintendent of Sparta Public Schools. As the President of the Sparta Board of Education, I would like to inform you that Dr. Rossi has the full support of the majority of the board to renew his contract, and therefore we would like to expedite this process if at all possible. The board has planned an executive session for September 23, 2019 to discuss the proposed contract, and as such, plans to place the agreed upon contract before the public and full board on October 28, 2019, for board approval. I have been working very closely with our legal council (Mr. John Comegno), and our NJSBA field service representative (Mrs. Kathleene Helewa), to ensure that our process is ethical and accurate.” [emphasis added]

According to McEvoy in an interview, the terms of the contract including salary and notification dates were not negotiated by she or any other board members.  McEvoy said “The salary was adjusted to reflect what he (Rossi) was requesting.”  Rossi's salary moves from $167,500 to $192,000 an increase of nearly 13%.  In July he will receive a 2% increase and a possible bonus in August for as much as $22,387.

McEvoy could not explain why Comegno and not attorney Rod Hara, represented the board in the renewal process.  She said in an interview, “It just worked that way.”

Hara has been the board attorney negotiating contracts with the district for nearly 20 years. 

Lamonte responded a couple of hours later September 5 at 7:45 p.m. that “the contract language had been reviewed and revised as per our instructions,” and she was waiting for a cost spreadsheet from Hinman “which the BA said would shortly be forthcoming.”

September 6 at 9:59 a.m.  McEvoy forwarded Lamonte’s email to Rossi and Anderson.

Statute requires the Executive County Superintendent review all contracts to confirm the terms are compliant with current regulations.

Earlier on September 5 at 5:03 p.m. McEvoy emails all board members: “Please be advised that at the September 23rd board meeting, we will have an executive session to discuss the contract renewal for Dr. Rossi. Dr. Rossi will be made aware of this, as he will be 'riced' for the executive session. As such, Dr. Rossi's contract renewal hearing is therefore planned for the October 28th meeting.” 

This corrected information sent on September 3 to Anderson notifying of “Dr. Rossi’s contract renewal hearing will be held at the next board meeting September 23, 2019,” according to email obtained by TAPinto Sparta from an OPRA request. Statute requires 30 day notification for such a hearing, requiring it to be changed to October.

On September 9 at 11:48 a.m. Lamonte’s Administrative Clerk Janet Price emailed to Hinman and Rossi, “a scanned copy of the approval letter and correct backup documents for Dr. Rossi's Superintendent contract.”

It was clear from an email sent by Matteson to McEvoy on September 13 that not all board members even knew the contract was being negotiated.  In her email she asks 11 questions, including a request to see the contract.

Matteson repeats her request two more times before the contract is finally made available to the board members on September 20, according to email obtained from an OPRA request. 

“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 said in her email to McEvoy.

The public was not given access to the contract until the meeting when copies were put on the table in the auditorium.

The contract renewal process was kicked off on the morning of August 27 when Rossi emailed a letter to McEvoy.  The letter was addressed to McEvoy, Anderson and Scott.  The notification that he wanted to renew his contract by November 1 came the morning after the August 26 board of education meeting.

At the August 26 meeting Rossi’s merit bonus of $20,937.50 was approved. Prior to the meeting the board met in executive session with Comegno.  

Rossi's previous contract was set to expire on June 30, 2020.  The board of education was required to tell him by March 11, 2020 if they planed not to renew his contract. The new contract expires on June 2024 with a one year notification of non-renewal requirement.  The board must notify Rossi by June 2023 if their intention is to non-renew.

Regarding the recently filed ethics complaint McEvoy said in an email, “I was made aware yesterday, by the media, that an ethics complaint was filed against me and two of my board colleagues. Although I asked to see a copy of that complaint today, the person who filed it refused to share it with me, although she apparently already discussed the complaint with the media. This is unfortunate and seems politically motivated, considering that tomorrow is election day. 

"Since I haven’t seen the complaint, I can’t respond to the specific allegations.

"My work as Board President, and as a school Board member, have always focused on the best interests of our students, in compliance with our ethical responsibilities.”

The next board of education meeting is scheduled for Monday, November 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Mohawk Avenue School auditorium.