SPARTA, NJ- It was a long night but in the end the superintendent got his contract. After much discussion and some shouting, the vote was 5-3 for the five year agreement set to go into effect immediately.
Superintendent Michael Rossi will see a 13% increase in his salary with a 2% increase in July and an additional 11.66% bonus in August. According to the board president Kelly McEvoy, there was no negotiation. Rossi got the terms he requested in a deal brokered by attorneys with no board members.
It was a surprise to board members and the public when Board President Kelly McEvoy asked for a motion to open a hearing in the place where Public Participate #1 was slotted on the agenda. Just 40 minutes into the hearing McEvoy closed it, even though people still wanted to speak.
McEvoy then opened public participation allowing comments on any topic for another 30 minutes.
The room was filled with some community members but many seats were taken by district staff; supervisors, principals and teachers. Rossi’s family was in attendance as well.
Staff members were eloquent in their praise of their boss. Much of the criticism came from the community who were skeptical of the process that did not make the contract public until after people were in the room for the meeting.
“Personally, I don’t think employees are objective to discuss the merits of the superintendent,” resident Daryl Savage said. “I am highly suspicious of such choreographed events. The process has been railroaded.”
Board members heard administrators talk about Rossi’s “visionary leadership with laser focus on academic and emotional stress” students face…”the champion our students seek.” And that Rossi “supports social and emotional learning.”
By contrast, resident Tim Lindsay summed it up for many opposed to the vote on Monday; “Why are we pushing it so fast, ahead of the election.”
Another question was about the process of creating the renewal contract. Karen Killen said the district where she teaches posted their superintendent’s contract on line 10 days before the vote.
McEvoy said, “Every district is different.”
Board members Jay Vantresca and Karen Scott said they did not think new board members should be making the decision about the superintendent, supporting moving the contract renewal up from March 2020, as is stated in Rossi’s contract.
McEvoy and board attorney John Comegno said many times throughout the evening they had follow the law.
“What’s required under the law has happened,” Comegno said after explaining the four required actions: Executive County Superintendent approval, advertised public hearing, public hearing, public action.
Matteson said, “Everything that’s transpired may have been done legally but then best practices has to win the day.”
Former board member and Sparta Education Association President Melva Cummings said the process of negotiating without board members’ knowledge or input was an ethics violation. She said Scott implicated Rossi in trying to keep the contract secret when she said Rossi did not have her put his contract on the Personnel Committee agenda.
“As a community member its incredibly disturbing the way this has happened,” former board member Jennifer Hamilon said. She raised questions about Comegno taking the lead in negotiating the contract for the board. She said a year ago Comegno was brought in for the turf field.
“You can read the minutes; they say ‘Mike Rossi is going to reach out to a land use attorney [Comegno],’” Hamilton said. “In June the board approved him as a second board attorney even though board policy only allows for one.”
Hamilton and others raised concerns about which attorney negotiated the contract. Hamilton said, “There was no compromise, it was a flat out ‘yes’ to Rossi.”
McEvoy had said she did not know who chose Comegno to represent the board in the negotiation. For years board attorney Rod Hara has handled the contract negotiations for the district.
Comegno was not able to answer who had sent him the negotiated contract with the new terms.
Parent Steve Murry was concerned about the lack of transparency in the negotiations. He said, “He wants this and he gets it.”
Resident Larry Palmer “urged board members to act to approve Dr. Rossi.”
Resident Tina Rowan, noting she only had a few minutes to glance at the contract, said she was concerned about the lack of negotiation, “just like the way wrote his own goals for which he got a bonus.” When she asked to confirm that “in less than one year Dr. Rossi will get about a 15% raise,” there was no response.
“Dr. Rossi has done some tremendous things but he’s running the show, we’re not being heard and we’re being condescended to,” Rowan said. “You should see the facial expressions being made.”
Tammy Mongen thanked Rossi for working in Sparta and asked board members if they did their “due diligence, put aside hurt feelings and divisiveness.” She said people may be angry but said “people on the job for two months” should not be making a decision about a superintendent.
Resident Mariann Ryan said not trusting the voters to choose their representatives well “is not just wrong, it’s rude. You’re afraid of who is coming down the pike.”
Madison teacher Gina Sloginski supported Rossi explaining how someone told her “wow, you’re in a really progressive district,” when they learned she lived in Sparta. She talked about Rossi’s leadership about cyberbullying, the strategic plan, turf field and mindfulness pilot program.
A couple of residents questioned the superintendent a raise when the district failed QSAC. “Why did someone get a bonus for not completing something so basic as QSAC,” Savage said. “We lost our high performing district status.” Lindsay and resident Katherine Hamimoto also asked about QSAC.
Former board member Linda Curcio said “a lot of energy had been spent on QSAC.” She said QSAC had been a problem in 2010 but it was “brushed aside.” In 2010 the district lost points for a board member’s ethics violation but the placement was appealed and points were restored.
Resident Ron Hunsicker said, “You’re here to do great things with education. When you failed educationally it was deemed by an independent team.”
Hunsicker explained the process that begins one year in advance of QSAC review when you “get a binder that tells you exactly what’s going to happen,” and there are classes to have questions answered.
“He did not make sure things were done,” Hunsicker said to board members. “You just don’t reward that behavior…you were elected to be here. You would be derelict in your duties because it’s not the best for the district educationally.”
McEvoy read a letter of support for Rossi from Sparta Education Association President Susan Sawey in to the record.
Parent Sambul Aslam expressed disappointment learning that the contract was not negotiated before it was sent to Executive County Superintendent Rosalie Lamonte, especially in light of the teachers’ contract taking months to negotiate. She too questioned whether or not there was an ethics violation.
“The process has all been done according to law,” John Comegno said. “Nothing was promised so no ethics violation.”
Matteson had question about the choice of using board attorney Comegno not board attorney Rod Hara. She said it did not “sit well with me,” when the bill for Comegno’s legal services in August was $16,000.
Comegno said if Matteson had questions she could email him. Matteson had to correct him to let him know board members had to get permission from the board president to be able to contact the attorney, according to policy.
Board member Kim Bragg said she would not vote for the contract because her “I never had any input into the contract before it was completed. I was never asked for my opinion of the parameters. I was told it was happening by Kelly McEvoy after the contract was done.”
Bragg said it took two weeks to get McEvoy to let the board members see the contract Lamonte approved. She said McEvoy made an “egregiously misleading statement, saying no changes were requested in executive session.”
It got heated as Bragg got into some of the contract terms she would have liked to have had the chance to negotiate as well as the asking questions about the process.
Rossi said the length of the contract was really three years and eight months even though it goes through July 2024. He said the notification date is July 2023 so he did not count that last year as part of the contract. He was offended by Bragg's objection to the contractual item that did not require him to notify the board members if he was out of district for three days at a conference.
Bragg said “It’s not accurate when Kelly says your questions not getting answers is your problem. It’s misleading to say to the public it was Kate’s fault her questions weren’t answered.”
Bragg asked if they could discuss conduct and tone of executive session discussion. Comegno advised against it.
Board member Jen Grana said, “There is time to do the process correctly.” She made a motion to postpone the vote to March 2020, the notification date in Rossi’s contract. Bragg seconded the motion but only Matteson added a vote of support.
“Getting hung up on process is losing sight of what’s important. I understand there is money involved and that my duty is to the children.” Board vice president Kylen Anderson said Rossi was going to be paid “significantly less than other similar districts.”
Grana said the “process is important,” and that her motion to move the vote was “based on input from the community.”
Ventresca said, “To put the vote off to March when you have people who would know him for two months is just not good.”
Board member Joanne Hoover said what mattered to her was if the students were happy, if they were healthy and if they could go on to college after graduation. Hoover said. “I’ve known him for many years…The man knows what he’s doing. We cannot lose him.”
“Under the threat of ethics charges, I vote yes,” board member Karen Scott said. “Bring it on.”
Matteson, Grana and Bragg all said they were concerned about the rushed contract, not having the opportunity to have input on terms and representation, not that they necessarily were against Rossi.
McEvoy said, “Not one person was left out of the process.” She said she was “privileged to watch how the district has changed and evolved…You cannot say you support the man and not vote for the contract.”
The vote was 5-3; McEvoy, Anderson, Scott, Ventresca and Hoover voted yes, Bragg, Matteson and Grana voted no and McGovern abstained.