The held three Donaldson hearings Monday at a special private session and took public comment for about 90 minutes at its special public meeting in a packed library before recessing back into private session once a again for a fourth hearing.
But when the meeting was re-opened to the public at about 11 p.m., board attorney Matthew Giacobbe announced to the dozens of people who stuck around to hear the outcome that the BOE was “not taking any action this evening,” in effect upholding Interim Superintendent Steven Engravalle’s decision not to renew the contracts of four educators in the district.
During the public session, student after student and parent after parent spoke out in support of two middle school teachers—seventh grade Language Arts teacher Christina Martelo or seventh grade Science teacher Ian Zellman—as they have been doing , saying the two teachers were respected, loved and inspiring; sharing personal experiences, memories and specific lessons they learned from their beloved teachers; and urging the board to reconsider. Many of the students also carried handmade signs to show their support.
But it would have taken a majority of the entire board to overturn Engravalle’s decision not to renew the contracts of Zellman, Martelo, principal and one other unidentified educator, and with two board members—Helen Yoon and Yusang Park—not in attendance Monday, five of the seven board members who were present for the meeting would have had to vote in favor of overturning the decision in any given case.
But that didn’t happen Monday.
Earlier in the meeting, Giacobbe explained that under the law, the superintendent makes the decision to recommend either renewals or non-renewals of non-tenured teachers. A teacher whose contract has not been renewed has the right to go before the board and make his or her case as to why he or she thinks the superintendent’s decision is the wrong one and to ask the board to overturn that decision, the board attorney said.
“That’s what we’re doing tonight in the closed session in the Donaldson hearings that we’ve been discussing,” Giacobbe said. “So the board has heard from folks here, has heard from the effected employees in closed session, their attorney and their representatives and witnesses. And once that’s done, they’ll go back into closed session, review those materials, review the performance evaluations, review the materials that were provided by the effected employees, and then come to a decision as to whether or not they agree with the superintendent or disagree with the superintendent.”
Asked if he was confident that he had made the right decision in all four cases, Engravalle said he was, calling them “life-changing decisions,” and adding that he doesn’t take them lightly.
“I don’t make decisions just on a whim or off the cuff,” Engravalle said. “These are very tough decisions to make.”
But he also said, “The buck stops here.”
“It was handled appropriately, I believe, and we can agree to disagree; that’s okay,” Engravalle said. “But it’s now in the hands of the board, and the board will act accordingly.”
When another member of the public asked what the “formalized process” is for a superintendent to make such personnel decisions, Engravalle said, “There is no formalized process in Fort Lee, as per my arrival.”
Pressed further on whether he ever went into a classroom to evaluate the teachers in question, Engravalle said he had not.
“I did not evaluate the teacher, nor do I have to evaluate the teacher,” he said. “It’s not a requirement. Do I review evaluations? I certainly do. Do I review all types of other facets of information? I certainly do. So without getting into individuals, because each person and each job is a different set of circumstances, I use every facet of information gathering at my disposal to make what I feel is the best decision.”
Board president Arthur Levine, when asked whether the board was hearing what the kids and parents were saying specifically about the two middle school teachers, said, “The board heard everything.”
Board member Peter Suh thanked people for coming to the meeting and lauded the students in particular for speaking out.
“Your comments really do make a difference, and it makes us think about what’s going on,” he said.
But Suh also said that the board has to consider “not just what is best now, but what is best in the future.”
“Keep in mind, we don’t look at just what’s on paper; we look at everything—everything that the students have said, the parents have said, the administrators have said. There are a lot of things for us to digest and for us to talk about, and it takes a long time to make a decision,” Suh said. “And I’m sorry; it is life-altering, and we don’t want to rush into it.”