Intense Debate Affects Voting on Renewal of West Orange Superintendent Contract

Resident Chris Diaz was among the many people who relayed the comments from teachers who wanted to speak out against renewing Rutzky’s contract anonymously because they feared retribution. Credits: Alan Grossman
Lexi Pavone, a special education teacher at the Kelly Elementary School, thanked Rutzky for bringing in the Orton-Gillingham program, which has helped struggling readers. Credits: Alan Grossman
Superintendent Rutzky, right, presents to WOBOE President Ron Charles the Literacy for All Award that the International Dyslexia Association awarded to the West Orange Public School. Credits: Alan Grossman

WEST ORANGE, NJ – Although the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) delayed the vote on whether to renew Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky’s contract on Monday, the topic dominated the meeting with comments from  community residents, teachers and school administrators who came out to either support or attack the superintendent for the job he has done over the past three-and-a-half years.

The majority of people who spoke on this issue urged the board members not to renew Rutzky’s contract, but he also had many supporters present. One such supporter was Lexi Pavone, a special education teacher at the Kelly Elementary School.

“I want to thank Superintendent Rutzky for bringing in the Orton-Gillingham program, which has been life-saving for us in helping our struggling readers,” said Pavone. “We have seen a four-to five-level jump in reading since this program has brought in…I wanted to give Mr. Rutzky credit.”

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Another supporter was recently retired West Orange High School track coach Joe Picataggio, who praised the superintendent for “always standing up for what is right, even if it’s not always the most popular stance.”

“Superintendent Rutzky sets high standards for everyone, including coaches and student athletes,” said Picataggio, who added that grades for the students who participate in the track and field program have improved.

Resident Martha Singer said she was speaking on behalf of anonymous teachers who she said were too worried about retribution to speak out for themselves at the meeting. Singer said some of these teachers have complained that the superintendent ignores the feelings of the staff, has a dictatorial style of management, and has created an environment where staff morale is at an all-time low.

Resident Ed Stevens followed up on these comments by stating that the superintendent is not open to hearing the diverse voices that make West Orange a unique community in New Jersey. In urging the board members to not renew Rutzky’s contract, Stevens said they should listen to teachers who describe an environment of fear of repurcussions for speaking out against the administration.

Chris Diaz, who ran for the WOBOE this past year, read comments from eight teachers whom wanted to remain anonymous. Through Diaz, these teachers also described a climate of fear, the constant piling up of new initiatives that many teachers feel do not help students, his secretive nature and a lack of training when new programs are brought in.

Long-time WOHS Athletic Director Ron Bligh wass among those who disagreed with these assessments.

“I have never known a superintendent who puts in the hours that he does,” he said. “Mr. Rutzky holds you accountable for the job that you do. He is well-liked by the coaches in the district.”

Megan Brill and Laura Lab, two former members of the WOBOE, also came out to support Rutzky.

Brill said that the board members should give Rutzky another term now that the contract negotiations have been successfully completed and Eveny de Mendez has been hired as the assistant superintendent. She said this would now give Rutzky the time time and support to complete the high-priority items he began during his first term.

Lab urged the board members to “make up your mind, own your decision and move forward.” She spoke about the many kind things that Rutzky did for students and families in need over the years, which she said most of the public does not know about.

Lab also spoke positively about Rutzky’s leadership, including his insistence that teachers get their retro-pay within a four-week period after the contract was completed so that they would have the funds during the summer, and his hiring of five out of the eight varsity coaches who have helped to bring championships to the WOHS athletic teams.

“Do the job you were elected to do, and stop playing games,” said Lab, who added that a delay in the vote will further “rip apart our community.”

Board members who responded to these comments spoke about the difficulty of this vote, and that they also had information they could not share with the public.

WOBOE member Sandra Mordecai spoke out against the online attacks that the members have been receiving.

“I don’t like the online bullying,” she said. “It is unfair to attack board members who you haven’t met.”

Many of the online comments that Mordecai was referring to came from community members who perceived the teacher contract negotiations as being handled poorly.

“The board is in charge of the contract,” said Mordecai. “Be mad at the board, not Rutzky.”

Board member Mark Robertson said he has received an overwhelming number of calls and emails regarding this issue. He thanked everyone for coming out and “speaking from the heart.”

“There are hard conversations that need to happen for the advancement of the children and of the district,” WOBOE President Ron Charles said in conclusion.  

The WOBOE intends to vote on this issue at the next meeting on Feb. 26.

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