SPARTA, NJ – The agenda took a back seat at the board of education meeting on Monday night. The theater of the meeting came during the public comment portions of the meeting. While the superintendent’s contract was not on the agenda, it was a large focus of the public’s comments. Lawyers were also discussed.
The board members did not convene back into open session until 8:20 p.m. nearly an hour after the publicized meeting time. With approximately 50 people in the audience, the board had two presentations before getting to the first public comment.
Jen Hamilton, former board member, asked about John Comegno sitting at the board table for the second meeting in a row. Superintendent Rossi said Comegno was “brought in a year ago and we’ve been using him ever since.” Rossi said he was approved as “special counsel for the benefit of the board as needed.” Comegno was brought to the district to work on legal issues with regard to the turf field construction project and other matters and was at the meeting on Monday to “provide support in executive session,” as was the case last month.
The executive session was noticed as dealing with Personnel issues. At reorganization the board named district counsel is Fogerty and Hara. Comegno was brought on as special counsel.
In response to Hamilton’s question, Rossi said, “Both [law] firms have been involved in this contract negotiation and the board is aware of it.” Comegno said Andrew Babiak, an ASA lawyer was negotiating on behalf of Rossi. “Our client is the board,” Comegno said.
Vivian Pearlmutter asked questions about QSAC. She wanted to know about correcting the deficiencies identified in QSAC and “who was watching the store that let it go.”
Assistant Superintendent Patrick McQueeney said they have a District Improvement Plan “to get the 28 points back.” He said, “We were of one understanding and the state was under a different understanding.”
Pearlmutter questioned the need to pay for two law firms. Board president Kelly McEvoy said it was “standard practice to have more than one firm.” Rossi said, “In Madison we had three firms.”
Ellen Hannon asked for clarification about Rossi’s contract. The contract is due to expire next summer but this current board is negotiating now she said. McEvoy said yes. Hannon questioned this arrangement, quoting from an email Rossi sent her.
Hannon had written to Rossi after his proposed calendar put spring break the week prior to AP testing. His response to Hannon included “If the calendar does not work next year we can change it. No one will die, not one will get cancer, and no one will get a lower AP score because of it. It’s not being in the waiting room of Sloan Kettering or CHOP while your child is in surgery – it’s a school calendar.”
At the meeting Hannon said she was troubled by his comment “I am willing to continue a dialog but not while including my entire leadership team and BOE. They are all going to defer to me anyway and it just extends the amount of time it takes me to reply.” Hannon said the contract should be deferred until the community has the chance to vote in the election in November. She said the contract “seems to have been done quietly and there is now confusion about why it’s happening now.”
Wendy Selander also asked why “the superintendent’s contract was being voted on so early.” Rossi’s contract expires June 30, 2020. The board has until March 11, 2020 to notify Rossi as to whether or not it will be renewed.
Rossi said the process is not being moved up. He explained notification rules were changed when the salary caps were instituted requiring “one month for every year of the contract.” It could take six to 12 months to get a new superintendent Rossi said.
Selander said, “I think we should vote on a new contract after we get QSAC approval.”
Madison Public School teacher Gina Sloginski said she was “honored to speak on behalf of Dr. Rossi,” whom she got to know when he was superintendent in Madison. She spoke about his work on the strategic plan, listing his many achievements. She said Rossi has “high integrity, always puts the students first. I highly recommend Mike Rossi as superintendent.”
Andy Garger, parent of 23 and 28-year-old Sparta alumni. “My children are successful because of the school system.” He said he wanted to voice his support for Mike Rossi and Patrick McQueeney for their “positive vibe.”
Former interim business administrator Tony Mistretta said under Rossi’s leadership “I know the district will be going in the right direction.” Mistretta was the interim in Sparta from December 2016 until Pam Hinman started July 2017.
Former board member Frank Favichia was given 10 minutes to speak after the president said public comment was closed. Favichia began his remarks saying “QSAC was not as big an issue as people want to make it…It’s an internal audit, it’s not compliance.” He spent the next several minutes reading a list of Rossi’s accomplishments from turf field to phone systems. He said Rossi “does not tolerate unlawful behavior.” He concluded by reminding the board members choosing a superintendent is the most important decision they will make.
When another woman tried to speak she was told she would have to wait until the second comment period. She left without speaking.
Resident and parent Darlene Blandina said, while she did not want to take away from Rossi’s accomplishments, the board “cannot ignore stuff he has said in his emails and his communication with parents,” hoping that it can done in a respectful way.
McEvoy said the superintendent gets evaluated every year by board members. “Every board member has the opportunity to have input.”
Gary Lane, listed as the Business Administrator on the Madison School District website since 2010, also provided a list of Rossi’s accomplishments.
When it was over Sparta resident and parent Steve Murray said, “I didn’t know this was going to be campaign night.”
The next board of education meeting is scheduled for Monday, October 28 at Mohawk Avenue School.