State nixes Hoboken’s superintendent contract

The Hoboken Board of Education hired a superintendent in November, but today his contract was nullified by the state, according to board member Theresa Minutillo, under the new superintendent regulations of Gov. Chris Christie.

After allegations of foot-dragging and mixed messages, and a legal motion, the battle for Hoboken’s school chief has been an arduous one, and Hoboken may need to go back to negotiations immediately. The board will still likely face a gap at the helm in 2011 and consideration under Christie’s law directly as a result of the state’s long and confusing process, the board attorney said today.

The Christie administration has been putting the kibosh on superintendent contracts that they believe are being inked in an attempt to circumvent their salary cap that goes into effect on Feb. 7, 2011. But those school districts have superintendents that are under contract past the date of enactment, like Parsippany Superintendent LeRoy Seitz. Hoboken does not.

The board attempted to hire Mark Toback, the Sussex County Vocational District superintendent, who is their second candidate to negotiate a contract before having it fall through since their vacancy occurred in July 2009. An interim superintendent, Peter Carter, a retired administrator, has been running the district since then; his contract expires on Jan. 31, 2011 and cannot be extended.

On Nov. 15, Acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks sent a memo to executive county superintendents directing them to hold all contracts that are trying to get ahead of the cap.

Four days later, Hoboken passed a resolution hiring Toback and – seeking necessary approvals – forwarded the contract to Hudson County Executive Superintendent Timothy Brennan.

For a district the size of Hoboken, the most a superintendent could earn under the cap is $157,500 – $155,000 salary max based on population, $2,500 for overseeing a high school, plus performance bonuses set by the district.

Toback’s salary has not been publicly reported by the board, although sources in Hoboken confirmed that the deal was indeed above the $157,500 cap.

Even so, according to responses from state officials, Hoboken still seemed within their right to hire Toback above the not-yet-active cap.

“It is my understanding that Rochelle Hendricks, the Commissioner of Education for the state, has told Hoboken to proceed to try to come to an agreement with their candidate,” Christie told PolitickerNJ in his Dec. 16 press conference. “The distinction we’re making is when you’re in the midst of a contract that would run beyond the effective date of the cap – that are really trying to game the system to try to avoid the cap – we’re going to step in and stop them. Here Hoboken has an opening.”

But Brennan never approved the contract; in fact, the board was not notified as to why their contract was being held up. The hold was disrupting their timetable; Toback’s intention was to notify his employer of the new post sixty days before taking it up.

Hoboken sought answers from the DOE, but were given no clear explanation of the extended review period.

The board then filed an emergent motion with State Superior Court Judge Anthony Parrillo on Dec. 8 asking for clear process to be communicated and followed by the DOE in the matter.

In their brief, the Hoboken board attorney, Vito Gagliardi, alleged that two e-mails from Hendricks directed Brennan to take no action on the Hoboken contract. Hoboken’s board was denied access to the DOE emails through an OPRA request.

Hendricks appeased the court by telling the judge Brennan would make a decision, according to a court brief filed by Deputy Attorney General Shannon Ryan.

Ryan wrote: “The Acting Commissioner (Hendricks) has advised that she intends to issue a letter shortly to Dr. Brennan that will require his review of Dr. Toback’s proposed contract and that will require Dr. Brennan to respond to Hoboken within fourteen (14) working days.”

One day later, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat who is known locally for being supportive if not chummy with the Christie administration, wrote a letter to the governor asking for approval of the contract.

But the court-ordered letter from Hendricks to Brennan mandating review of the contract was cryptic. It was addressed to Brennan, called for a swift review of the contract “by the Executive County Superintendent,” and was copied to Lawrence Feinsod, the Essex County executive superintendent, although his title was not stated in the letter.

Brennan is an interim executive superintendent and – although the letter did not spell out the distinction – is therefore not qualified to conduct the review according to the state.

DOE spokesman Alan Guenther later explained that what Hendricks’ letter implied – by merely copying Feinsod – was that Brennan was off the case and that Feinsod would be conducting the review.

Asked to explain the apparent contradiction in Hendricks’ letter and the deputy Attorney General’s brief – why Feinsod, not Brennan, was in charge in Hudson County – Guenther gave no comment, only that an “executive superintendent” was charged with contract review.

The explanation seems inconsistent, according to Gagliardi, since Brennan reviewed and approved contracts in North Bergen and West New York earlier in 2010.

Christie said he had no knowledge that Feinsod would be conducting the review when asked at his press conference on Dec. 16, but Guenther said later that Christie was brought up to speed by the DOE.

“Gov. Christie and acting Commissioner Hendricks are on the same page,” he said on Dec. 17. “They want to restore fiscal sanity by limiting outrageous superintendent salaries, and they think boards of education should not be permitting superintendents to circumvent the governor’s pay caps. But in Hoboken, there is an opening that must be filled. The governor and acting commissioner agree that Essex County Executive Superintendent Lawrence Feinsod should conduct the review properly, and that the review should be completed before the interim superintendent’s contract expires.”

Today that review was completed, but the contract was not approved.

Feinsod’s letter to Hoboken, supplied today by Guenther, states that Toback’s salary “exceeds the maximum allowable amount as set forth in the new regulations.”

In addition, he said merit bonuses “lack some of the required language concerning the Executive County Superintendent’s role” and “the contract provides an unspecified number of holidays.”

Although Christie’s guidelines on superintendent salaries does not go into effect until after Hoboken’s interim school chief leaves in January, the state is holding Hoboken’s board accountable to the new directive because, according to the letter, Toback’s contract “would commence on or about March 11, 2011,” after the cap is in effect.

The letter said Toback was scheduled to receive a $175,000 salary, above the capped amount of $157,500.

Guenther made no comment on the action taken by Feinsod and the DOE, nor did Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman.

UPDATE: Gagliardi said today that Toback is willing to negotiate under the governor’s regulations, but the board has yet to convene to discuss the state’s cancellation.  State nixes Hoboken’s superintendent contract