Fine Print: Cerf Enters Perth Amboy Superintendent Fight

John Mooney | May 9, 2012 | Education
Acting commissioner's ruling puts embattled school administrator back to work

What it is: New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, yesterday ruled on a legal challenge that Perth Amboy superintendent Janine Caffrey must be reinstated to her job, at least for now, after the district’s school board voted in April to dismiss her over a number of political differences.

What it means: While the commissioner hears countless personnel appeals, it was unusual for him to get involved in such a high-profile leadership fight. But it was also unusual for the board to try to dismiss Caffrey without the usual notice, especially on more political grounds that were not so much about misconduct as misbehavior, at least in the board’s eyes.

Caffrey’s side: The superintendent has maintained that the dismissal was about her refusal to follow the board’s bidding on school hiring, as well as cooperate in separate investigations involving the board’s president, Samuel Lebreault.

State politics: Caffrey has also been outspoken in her support for tenure reforms being proposed by Cerf and Gov. Chris Christie that would allow her to dismiss substandard teachers, hardly making her a favorite of the teachers union. Its members cheered the board’s initial vote to dismiss Caffrey.

The other issue: Cerf actually ruled on a technical point that should be a lesson to all school boards, that a majority of the full board must approve all personnel decisions. In Perth Amboy’s case, the 4-0 vote to dismiss Caffrey was one short of a majority, since the remaining five members abstained due to conflicts of interest with family members directly employed in the district.

Not over yet: The board on Monday night used a little-known clause to allow two more board members to vote on the matter, leading to a 6-0 vote to put Caffrey on administrative leave. However, the vote came after Cerf’s ruling, and Cerf said it would have to be part of a separate petition if the board wanted to pursue the challenge. Efforts to reach Lebreault, the board’s president, yesterday were unsuccessful.

Caffrey back to work: “I’m very excited to get back to doing my job and serving the children and families of Perth Amboy,” she said last night.

Mediation next: In making the order, Cerf also said he “recognized the present discord between the parties” and offered a mediator to work with Caffrey and the board to help settle their differences. He suggested Michael Osnato, a Seton Hall program director and former Montclair superintendent.

But the politics are not going away: Besides the continue dispute with the current board, three seats on the board are up for election in November, raising the volume on the fight but also potentially shifting some allegiances.