When students at Fort Lee School No. 1 return to their classrooms on September 7, one thing is certain: they will have a principal. School officials have said it’s required by law that every school building must have a certified principal in the building at all times.
The question however is who that principal will be, and whether it’s Kristine Cecere, the school’s current principal whose contract was not renewed, an interim principal or someone else entirely remains very much up in the air.
One concerned parent of a kindergartener at the school and staunch supporter of Cecere is doing her part to try and save the current principal’s job, taking it upon herself to start a petition she plans to present to the Fort Lee Board of Education and school administrators at Tuesday’s special public meeting.
Stefanie Stuart started the petition on the website change.org she says because she and a number of fellow parents of children at the school “couldn’t figure out what the reason for the non-renewal would be” and because “basically no information was forthcoming.”
“They basically waited until the last minute to tell her that her contract was not being renewed,” Stuart said. “Clearly it cannot be a credentials reason, because if she didn’t have the right credentials, she shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. Had it been a performance issue, surely there would have been some sort of a record of her underperforming over the course of the year. It shouldn’t come up at the end.”
School officials, who cannot discuss personnel matters, have emphasized that it’s premature to discuss the matter and point to a legal process for staff members whose contracts are not renewed.
According to the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA), such a staff member has the right to a written statement of reasons for nonrenewal upon request and to an informal appearance before the board called a “Donaldson hearing,” so named for a school law decision from the North Wildwood Board of Education.
“It is the teacher who must act first in order to activate these rights,” according to the NJSBA, which identifies the timeline of events as follows:
- The educator has 15 days after notification of non-renewal to request in writing the statement of reasons.
- The board then has 30 days to provide the statement to the educator.
- Within 10 days of receiving the statement of reasons, the teacher or faculty member can request—again in writing—an informal appearance before the board of education.
- The board must then schedule the appearance within 30 calendar days of the employee receiving the board’s statement of reasons.
“The hearing is not an adversarial proceeding,” according to the NJSBA. “The purpose of such an appearance is to permit the staff member to convince the members of the board to offer reemployment. After the Donaldson hearing, the board can override the CSA’s recommendation not to renew, and can vote to offer the teacher a contract.”
Stuart said last week that her goal was to have about 300 signatures by Tuesday’s meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m. At the time of writing, the petition had garnered 119 signatures—not all of which were of Fort Lee residents.
But Stuart said that people should be concerned “even if you don’t have a child at [the school].”
“This is the way the board handles their talent management, and Ms. Cecere is a talented individual,” she said. “She is someone that we want to keep in the district. If this is how they deal with her, it’s kind of scary.”
Stuart said she planned to “pound the pavement” and get as many signatures as she could by meeting time, print out hard copies for each member of the school board and school administrators and pass out copies at the meeting. She also noted that every time someone signs the petition, the website generates an email that is sent to Fort Lee Superintendent of Schools Raymond Bandlow and board president Arthur Levine, although the website does not make their email addresses public.
Stuart said she had not spoken with Bandlow or Levine about the petition, but she has spoken with Cecere.
“I did have a conversation with her, and she said that she loves her job, she loves the school, and she wants to be there,” Stuart said. “So if that’s her position, then I’m prepared to go to bat for her. My understanding is she’s just as confused as the rest of us. Nobody is 100 percent loved, but the bottom line is a majority of parents hold her in high regard. Her faculty seems to enjoy her leadership and respond well to her. The children love her. So from my perspective and [that of other parents], we just can’t seem to understand why her contract was not being renewed.”