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Board Upholds Non-Renewal of Teachers’, Principal’s Contracts

Students turned up in full force again Monday to urge the school board to overturn the interim superintendent’s decision not renew two of their teachers’ contracts. But the board took no action, putting an end to more than a month of lobbying efforts.

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.”

Toni M. June 22, 2012 at 10:41 PM
PRICELESS! Teachers told the STUDENTS THE REASONS. So much for all the denials on here. How do u justify taking time out of teaching to upset the kids with the teacher's interpretation that they were fired.
Ryan June 22, 2012 at 10:45 PM
yeah so they would probably try to save as much money as they could so they don't waste it on a school system in which they do not have kids in. I am not saying that if you don't have kids you cannot be on the board, I am just saying that you cannot sit up there and say how great our schools are when you choose to send your kids elsewhere. That is not a lot of faith in the system.
Ryan June 22, 2012 at 10:50 PM
they did not talk to the kids during class time, the kids talk to the teachers after school, and once one kid knows, everyone knows. It is not the teachers interpretation, it was the reasons Engravalle gave. The kids deserve to know the truth. It is not unprofessional and improper. They want to know why teachers they like are getting let go. They asked and were told the truth. The kids are the best judges of the teachers and they deserve to know the truth, good or bad.
Lisa Salvato June 22, 2012 at 10:53 PM
That doesn't sound kosher. If they told the kids, why not have a hearing so everyone could hear it? The kids deserve to know the truth but not the people at the meeting or on here?
Ryan June 22, 2012 at 10:55 PM
They were going to be public, but the NJEA lawyer for some reason to make it private. Regrettably, they listened. But parents did go in during the hearings to speak on their behalf. What I heard, was that the only way they could be public is if all of the people that wanted Donaldson hearings chose to make them public, and I am guessing that they all did not and that's why the lawyer said to make it private. There were 4 Donaldson hearings that night.
Lisa Salvato June 22, 2012 at 11:12 PM
That's not true. If a teacher has a right to make a hearing in public, just because you have more than one hearing, no way they can take that away from you. if they listened tot he lawyer shame on them because they tied the BOE's hands and they can't talk about it, but posters come on here and give us half the story? You want my support? Release the hearings and black out the other teachers info
Luca D. June 23, 2012 at 12:25 AM
A public employee cannot be denied a public hearing.
William Mays June 23, 2012 at 01:17 AM
Yep, we'll get to see Engravalle appointed as Chief Overlord of Fort Lee Schools.
William Mays June 23, 2012 at 02:10 AM
Well I hope so. As long as they don't appoint someone worse, although its hard to find someone worse.
Luca D. June 23, 2012 at 02:18 AM
This year I paid over $7,000 in school taxes. Our schools are overcrowded and our facilities need to be updated. I strongly disagree with your opinion that my right to be on the Board of Education is less than someone who has children or whose children attend a charter school. An argument can be made that someone without children may be a better candidate because they are not personally influenced when deliberating financial questions. The Board of Education has responsibilities beyond staffing.
Shoesymama June 23, 2012 at 03:25 AM
According to Bylaw 0142: Each member of the Board of Education shall possess the qualifications required by law and shall be bound by the provisions of the School Ethics Act. A Board member must be a citizen of the United States. A Board member must be a resident of the district the member represents and must have been such for at least one year immediately preceding the member's election or appointment. A Board member may not be convicted of a felony. A Board member must be able to read and write. A Board member must be registered to vote in the district and not disqualified from voting pursuant to N.J.S.A 19:4-1. A Board member cannot concurrently hold office as mayor or a member of the governing body of Fort Lee.
Art Elmers June 23, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Dave, You have now received the "Kiss of Death". An endorsement from Billy. But don't worry, he will change his mind in a few months. He always does.
William Mays June 23, 2012 at 04:48 PM
Nope, I'd stick with Dave, as long as he doesn't do anything stupid.
Anna June 23, 2012 at 11:54 PM
Already attacking the "new one"? (If there really is a new one).
CD Cantelli June 24, 2012 at 09:21 PM
HOWARD PEARL You take the heat? Are you the Howard that they're talking about that complained to the super and got the teachers fired? Your insight is suspiciously missing there. Here you go Christopher Dominick Cantelli, that's my name. If you need my contact info I can provide that too. As soon as I figure out how to load a picture of me I'll do that too. When you go to the school officials to get an advantage for your kid, and then play holier than thou. My comment is not showing up on the post where "Howard" made these comments so here it goes
Stefanie Stuart June 25, 2012 at 02:36 AM
Facts: - teachers are evaluated by their Principals; the Principals recommend renewal (or not) and tenure (or not) to the Superintendent - Principals are evaluated by the Asst. Superintendent / Superintendent - the Superintendent makes the recommendation to the Board of Education on renewal (or not) and tenure for teachers AND Principals - the Board (without access to personnel files) votes on the Superintendent's recommendation As far as the 2 middle school teachers are concerned, it is common knowledge that they had consistently received positive, if not exceptional, reviews and that they had been recommended for renewal and tenure by their Principal. I don’t know why they were not renewed, but I find it hard to believe that any mediocre, self-serving teachers would have received the tremendous outpouring of support that they did. Anyone who was at the meeting on May 7 can attest that it was entirely unsolicited. The recommendation to not renew rests squarely with the Interim Superintendent.
Stefanie Stuart June 25, 2012 at 02:38 AM
The Board is the only body that can override the Superintendent's recommendation by voting no on it. It is at a Donaldson Hearing that they get to view the pertinent personnel files and vote again. Bear in mind, a public hearing is a double edged sword – the truth and untruths are given equal weight in the public domain. Given how damaging some information taken out of context could be, I don’t think the NJEA’s attorney’s advice to hold the Hearing in private is unwise, as much as I can relate to the public’s desire for official clarity.
Stefanie Stuart June 25, 2012 at 02:38 AM
The appointment of the Superintendent as Chief Administrator is in fact the BOE’s most important job. The Board of Ed is not elected to administer the District – it’s elected as representatives of the Community to govern, appoint and monitor those that do. It is simply not feasible for the Board to second guess everything the Superintendent recommends, hence the importance of appointing the best administrator that can meet the needs of the district and to whose professional judgment they can confidently defer. It is very unfortunate that in this instance, they upheld the Interim Superintendent’s recommendation with respect to Ms Martelo, Mr Zellman and Ms Cecere. These were the three individuals for whom numerous pleas were made to the Board by members of the community who see the immediate outcome of how well, or how poorly, they are performing on a daily basis, namely the students and the parents.
Stefanie Stuart June 25, 2012 at 02:46 AM
It is known I do not believe Mr Engravalle is the best candidate for Superintendent. I would love to be wrong. I was in fact excited to see how beneficial a tech savvy, energetic, progressive leader could be for the district. Mr Engravalle has served the district as Assistant Superintendent or Acting / Interim Superintendent for two years. In that time, I have witnessed the deterioration in the relationship between the gallery and the dais. While it certainly takes two to tango, there has been no lack of material to argue over as a result of Mr Engravalle’s management decisions. His style has been characterized as vindictive and dictatorial in numerous instances. Believe it or not, parents are busy enough trying to earn a living, run their homes and take care of their kids without engaging in rumor-mongering and smear campaigns. Nevertheless, most of us make time to talk to each other when things seem to be going awry, e.g the past 2 years. If Mr Engravalle was the paragon of efficiency and virtue he is purported to be, there would be no ground for any concerns to take hold. But his reputation is such that parents fearful of retribution resorted to anonymity when submitting a letter to Patch in defense of Ms Cecere. I was approached by several parents to reopen the petition for Mrs Cecere, however I declined as I felt I had done my part last year and it was time for others to step up. I urged them to express their support at Board meetings or to submit letters of support.
Stefanie Stuart June 25, 2012 at 02:54 AM
No matter what the outcome of the Superintendent search is, we need to come together as a community to do right by the children and give them the best education we can. That will only happen if we find a way to resolve our differences through productive discussions that are founded on respect. Our children will do as we do, not as we say. It is up to us to set the example we wish them to follow.
William Mays June 25, 2012 at 11:25 AM
Lisa, didn't you read what was said before? The NJEA recommended a private hearing.
Lisa Salvato June 25, 2012 at 08:02 PM
It wasn't unsolicited. They admitted here that the teachers told the kids and then said they didn't want a public meeting. The mystery could have been solved by the teachers.
Lisa Salvato June 25, 2012 at 10:03 PM
So you assume that the public domain is too stupid to figure out the truths and untruths. So you and the others here get to tell us what you saw and what you heard and what you conclude and the rest of us are supposed to take it as gospel. I'm convinced.
Lisa Salvato June 25, 2012 at 10:04 PM
Please provide your credentials and basis for your conclusion that he is not the best candidate. Have you seen the credentials of the other candidates?
Ryan June 25, 2012 at 10:59 PM
I was wrong and I asked and found out the truth. They did not make the hearings public because the hearing would have made 2 parents names public (the parents that made the complaints) and they did not want the kids of those parents to get harassed or bullied.
Ryan June 25, 2012 at 11:09 PM
I don't understand why it is a bad thing that they told the kids the reasons they were getting fired. They came up with all kinds of protests on their own and deserved to know the truth. There was no instructional time lost. They are taught that if they see something that they don't think is right to speak out and try to do something about it, and that is what they did. Knowing that they made an impact on those kids lives is why teachers become teachers at all. They can move on knowing that they did a great job for those kids, even if the higher ups don't agree.
Toni M. June 25, 2012 at 11:09 PM
Thanks for outlining the procedure. I have a few questions. How is it common knowledge that their recommendations were positive? It could only come from the teachers, the principal or the super. Who blabbed? Are recommendations the only criteria? A recommendation is just that AND during the private hearing, the Board is presented with testimony from the teachers and the personnel files and any other evidence that the teachers want, so the recommendation is the Supers but the final decision after hearing all the evidence is the Boards. So stop playing word games.
William Mays June 26, 2012 at 12:24 AM
Toni, why are you defending the superintendent so much? He hasn't done anything for this town except that referendum. He's done more bad than he has good.
Quin July 03, 2012 at 04:54 AM
Now I'm waiting for Engravelle to come here and digitally MURDER every one of us. (Delete profile, sue for slander, etc.)
Keith Jensen May 10, 2013 at 04:12 AM
Its not the Board of Ed. Its your re-elected officials that you should be frustrated with. The Board of Ed is acting within the restrictions and guidance they have been mandated to follow. So, while Senator Loretta Weinberg continues to throw money at the Abbott Districts and Mayor Sokolich and our Council are not speaking out against her for doing so, you will watch your taxes increase to pay for the waste and corruption of keeping career politicians in office. Now, while the children of Fort Lee are left with a diminishing education, these laid off educators can find jobs in other communities like Hoboken and Newark who are hiring. Newark already has over 400 administrators that make $100K+ (notwithstanding the pensions and benefits), so sadly we will lose these educators, but I don't worry they won't be able to find a job in an Abbott District which we pay for. 65% of Fort Lee's property taxes are for education, but only about 20% remains in town. The rest is sent to Abbott. http://fortlee.patch.com/articles/fort-lee-republican-state-assembly-candidate-pushes-for-fair-school-funding Continue to elect the same people, you will get the same results. So don't be mad. Voice your concerns openly and publicly to make a difference, not within this medium. Next Ft Lee GOP meeting is expected to have 300 people in attendance. Come by 7:30pm, Monday May 20th at the Fort Lee Recreation Center www.fortleegop.org By the way, anyone know where the Democrats meet?

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