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Loud, Sometimes Stormy Hearing for Jersey City School Superintendent

Standing-room-only meeting wasn’t just about Superintendent Charles Epps. It was a test case for the Christie administration.

Jersey City officially started regaining control of its schools a couple of years ago, nearly two decades after New Jersey embarked on the first state takeover of a public school district in the nation.

But that new local control may have had its unofficial christening last night in a sixth-floor conference room of the school district’s headquarters, as scores of residents, employees and others were standing-room only to air their views on who should next lead New Jersey’s second-largest district.

Such newfound freedom isn’t always pretty, to be sure, especially in a city as racially and economically diverse as this one. The room had its occasional boos of derision and catcalls of “carpet-bagger” and “interloper.”

A Test Case for the Administration

But beyond the rhetoric, the district and its ongoing debate over whether to rehire Superintendent Charles Epps Jr. is also proving an intriguing test case for the Christie administration in how it balances local control with state accountability -- both in their rawest forms.

At the center is the question of whether Epps stays or goes.

A longtime educator in Jersey City and appointed by the state to lead the district in 2002, Epps appears to have the backing of a majority of the local board to stay for at least another three years.

But a loose coalition of parent advocates and others have contended that the district should at least do a nationwide search first, saying that the Jersey City still struggles mightily with dismal scores in some schools and thirty-five of forty schools falling short of federal achievement standards.

Playing Both Sides

The Christie administration has tried to straddle the line, publicly ceding the decision to the local board but holding tight to its right to review and even potentially veto.

State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler has an additional stake in the debate as Jersey City’s former mayor and one who has not hid his hopes for shaking up the public education establishment throughout the state. He founded one of the district’s first charter schools and vowed to expand them statewide.

Now it gets complicated.

Largely on a technicality in his last contract, Epps appears safe on the job for now, according to a state official attending last night’s meeting.

Under the existing three-year deal, Epps was to have been notified by July 1 if he was not to be rehired when the current deal is up in a year, according to Hudson County Superintendent Tim Brennan,

That did not happen, Brennan said, leaving Epps entitled to stay for four more years. “Right now, if he wants, he can stay through this contract and another three years of a new one after that,” Brennan said after the meeting.

Mounting a Legal Challenge

Some of the Epps’ critics have contested that claim and filed a legal challenge. But in a more likely outcome, the board has offered Epps a new three-year contract with a salary of $268,200 each year, with no salary increase.

The board was expected to take up the deal last night, but it put off a final vote until Brennan can review the agreement. But even that is now on hold, as county superintendents statewide await legal guidance to what their authority is on all superintendent contracts.

The Christie administration has sought new and strict salary caps on superintendents, but they do not yet take effect. More pressing is a recent state appellate court decision on other compensation limits that has also muddied the picture.

“We have to sit down with the attorney general and get guidance about what changes, if any, we have to make,” Brennan told the board last night.

Speaking Out

That leaves the community to share and vent a little on a hot August evening, where those both for and against Epps’ rehiring took their five-minute turns last night to speak to the board.

Through the first hour, most of those speaking appeared in favor of the superintendent, a homegrown educator who helped bring Jersey City schools back to local control, they said, speaking of the state’s takeover as if it was more a curse than a salvation.

“How long has the state been here, and where are we for it?” said Ellen Wright, who rose from the back row.

And there were those who asked why the district can’t at least look for someone better first. “What are we so afraid of? said Matt Shapiro, a young father in the audience.

All the while, Epps sat with the board and barely spoke. Beforehand, he worked the room, shaking hands with friends and supporters and beaming his trademark smile.

When asked if he could guess his fate, he brushed off any worries. “I’ll be OK, either way. I’ll be all right,” he said.

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