Extension for Jersey City Superintendent Raises Flags at DOE

With the district slowly regaining some local control, school board's decision on Charles Epps could invite the state back in

The grandfather of state school takeovers nationally, Jersey City began to see a move back to local control in 2007 when the state granted the district some select powers.

But three years later, the question is exactly how much local control that should entail.

Jersey City’s school board last week voted to extend the contract of superintendent Charles Epps, a critical decision that for the previous two decades had rested solely with the state.

But the board’s split vote has also set off a small tempest in the city, and now the state appears to be taking a second look itself.

A spokesman for state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler said yesterday that the state Department of Education “is reviewing the contract extension to see that proper procedures were followed.”

Spokesman Alan Guenther also said that the extension would go to the state’s Hudson County executive superintendent, Timothy Brennan, who is empowered to review and revise any and all school administrator contracts in the county.

“And when he finishes his work, the commissioner will look at it,” Guenther added.

Contested Extension

Guenther would not detail what, if any, concerns the state may have. But the commissioner’s office is already in the midst of deciding whether to renew the contract for Newark’s superintendent, Clifford Janey, and the Jersey City board’s controversial vote last week hits even closer to home for Schundler, the city’s former mayor.

The Jersey City board extended Epps’s four-year contract an additional two years by a vote of 6-2, with one abstention. Epps’s contract was not up for another year, but a provision allowed him a full year’s notice if he was not going to be renewed, and the board moved to give him a vote of confidence with the extension.

But one of the two dissenting members of the board, Sterling Waterman, has contested the vote with a state ethics complaint, saying the public was not given required notice. And some parent and community leaders have questioned whether such a big decision should have been made without at least considering other candidates.

“I’m not pro or con Charles Epps, but should we at least look to whether we bring others to the table?” said Felicia Palmer, the PTA president at School 3 and co-founder of a district coalition of parent groups.

She cited the fact that a vast majority of the district’s schools remain on the federal warning list under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Something’s not working,” she said. “Whether it’s the contract … I don’t know all the politics. But I know there is something burning in the house, and we need to put out the fire.”

Shelley Skinner, a charter school leader in Jersey City and member of Gov. Chris Christie’s transition committee, was more adamant: “They seriously disenfranchised the community. They really flouted the law.”

Efforts to contact Epps and the board’s president, William DeRosa, were unsuccessful late yesterday.

State Had Been Seeking an Exit

Where the state comes in is through its long history in Jersey City schools after taking control of the district in 1989, the nation’s first such state takeover. New Jersey went on to take over Newark and Paterson schools as well, both of which remain under full state control.

Starting in the late 1990s, state officials and legislators began looking for an exit strategy from these districts, maintaining that the state control may actually be impeding improvement as much as helping it.

Jersey City was the first test case under new statutes for evaluating all school districts, as it was the furthest along of the three takeover districts in making improvements.

So, after a long and complex evaluation process, the state Board of Education agreed to accede controls in the district’s governance by the local board and in its the overall financial management. But in the same September 2007 resolution, the board retained “partial state intervention” over personnel, instruction and operations, keeping its powers to review and approve decisions in those areas.