SPARTA, NJ – Community members questioned the board of education on a variety of personnel matters at the meeting on May 28. At the end of the meeting for "the good of the order," Board President Kim Bragg read a statement regarding a headline in another news outlet.
“I wish to address the headline regarding Superintendent Dr. Rossi,” Bragg said on behalf of the board members. “The headline read, ‘Sparta Schools’ Superintendent Placed on Administrative Leave.’ Unfortunately, this headline gives the impression that the board unilaterally placed Dr. Rossi on an administrative leave of absence, which is simply not the case.”
Bragg explained Rossi had requested and the board members approved, a leave of absence for “personal reasons.” She said the community needed to know what happened but because it is a personnel matter, she “cannot comment any further.”
During public comment, Sparta parent Sumbul Aslam asked if there was “some kind of possible conflict of interest at this point” regarding “two board members that currently belong to Mount Olive school district,” referring to Jen Grana and Robert Zywicki.
Bragg said they have addressed this question in the past and even sought legal counsel for clarification. She asked board attorney Marc Zitomer of Schenk, Price, Smith and King, LLP to weigh in.
“There is actually no conflict, even though they are [both] employed by the Mount Olive school district, to also be members of the Sparta Board of Education,” Zitomer said.
According to Zitomer there are no ethics rulings, no advisory opinions or anything in statute that says there is a conflict in “any way, shape or form.”
Sparta parent Tammy Mongon asked what the policy is regarding a board member applying for a job in the school district. According to Zitomer, a board member cannot be an employee in the district and must be off the board for at least six months before being considered for a position in the district.
This is addressed under “Prohibited Acts” and “Ineligibility for District Employment” in Sparta Board of Education Policy 0142 “Board Member Qualifications, Prohibited Acts and Code of Ethics.”
Rossi’s current status, his pay and bonus were also discussed during public comment.
Aslam suggested not only should Rossi not get his merit bonus and “fringe benefits” but he should not get the 2% pay raise due to trigger on July 1, 2020 according to his contract. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she said. Aslam also suggested the district not fill the assistant superintendent position and go with one administrator; “we can do more with less.”
Sparta Parent Danielle Morganroth disagreed. She asked if the position of assistant superintendent for curriculum and staff development was going to be filled while Patrick McQueeney has been moved to acting superintendent.
“Being that he oversees curriculum, that’s a really, really big and important job, with what we have lying ahead of us.” Morganroth said. “We don’t know what the school day will look like…That’s a very large hat to wear for one person.”
Zitomer said since it was so early in Rossi’s leave, “to the best of his knowledge the board had not had those discussions.” Depending on the length of time there would be further discussion on that issue he said. Morganroth asked that the board members set a timeline for those discussions.
Sparta parent Lenore DiStefano and resident Tina Rowan asked how long Rossi can be out on leave. “Rossi requested an indefinite period of time…so it’s until further notice,” Zitomer said. Zitomer also said there is nothing in his contract or in code that speaks to how long a leave of absence can be.
DiStefano questioned the board’s condemnation of the superintendent for having directed teachers to enter the schools to clean out their classrooms. She asked specifically what “other opinions were out there” that said those actions were a violation of the executive order.
Zitomer said he was relying on “Executive Order 107 that said only essential workers doing essential work” should be in the school buildings. “This was confirmed in a letter from the New Jersey State Police as well,” Zitomer said.
One item that was not addressed in the public meeting was the Corrective Action Plan required by the state after the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance ruled Sparta broke nepotism statutes. The violation came after Matthew Scott was approved for a full time custodian position while his mother Karen Scott was a board of education member, a violation also referenced in policy 0142 and 0142.1.
The Personnel committee minutes said they “discussed sending corrective action plan to the board counsel for review.”
They also “requested the district’s updated nepotism policy” be included in the plan. The policy updates have not been approved by the board members nor have they been made available to the public yet. The policy changes were discussed in the April Personnel committee meeting.
The next Sparta Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Monday, June 22.