Wednesday, May 22, 2019

In October, the Teaneck public schools were notified that their grant application from the New Jersey Department of Education, for Preschool Education Expansion Aid (PEEA), had been approved, and that over $1.2 million would be awarded to Teaneck to provide additional pre-kindergarten programming to 78 full-day and 24 half-day preschool children beginning in January 2019. However, in the past few weeks, members of the public and, in fact, members of Teaneck’s own board of education expressed shock that Teaneck councilwoman Gervonn Romney Rice had been hired by the board as the pre-k parent liaison, a job that would pay her an $80,000 annual salary.

A set of qualifications listed in the job opening included that the candidate must have a minimum of a high school degree or GED, must be a resident of Teaneck, with bilingual skills preferred, and the candidate must have “a commitment to a multicultural education and a demonstrated ability to work with diverse populations.” The entire job summary states the following: “1) Ability to help facilitate activities, 2) ability to work well with others and 3) ability to communicate using appropriate English.” The budget application for the grant allocated $2,000 for the position.

Teaneck Public Schools currently has just 10 preschool classrooms—seven half-day special education and general education, and three preschool classes for children with special needs. Beginning in January of 2019, with the addition of the PEEA, the district preschool program will increase to 12 preschool classrooms, including seven full-day classrooms and two additional full-day classrooms with a contracted community provider. The pre-k program is enrolling students for January 2019, and the pre-k parent-liaison position was contracted along with the grant. The grant began on November 26, 2018.

Romney Rice, a member of the Teaneck township council and formerly a member of the board of education, was, at the time of her hiring (and still is, as of this writing), the council’s liaison to the board of education. She has publicly campaigned on behalf of or endorsed numerous individuals in Teaneck and Bergen County, including those re-elected to positions on the board of education.

At the board meeting on November 14, where her hiring was “walked on,” i.e., an add-on to the published agenda, Teaneck Schools Superintendent Dr. Christopher Irving explained that Romney Rice was independently hired for the parent-liaison position, having been interviewed and vetted by the staff of the Bryant School. “The salary offered and agreed upon was commensurate with her academic skills and credentials, and in accordance with best practices for the district’s hire with a full-time parent liaison,” Irving noted, despite the fact that compensation had previously been noted on the budget proposal application as $78,000 less than the salary she negotiated.

The hiring caused some division among the school board members at the Nov. 14 meeting. “I am looking at a salary that is much more than a teacher or a bus driver, and I’m looking at this [list of hires], and most of the people I don’t know, but this is a public figure in Teaneck. I think it’s a fair question to ask whether this position was advertised,” asked school board member Martin Ramirez.

Board member Sebastian Rodriguez expressed his surprise as well. “I note I am also blindsided, because I remember the job description, and I am leaving the name Gervonn Romney Rice out of the equation because I think we all have the utmost respect for her as a community member. But at the same time, she is who she is, and if we did everything right I don’t have a problem. But having said that, I am surprised by the $80,000 salary. I don’t recall seeing that on the job description. $80,000 for a small district like ours; I will tell you, it’s a little bit head-scratching.

“I was in New York City when they started funding parent-liaison positions. I am not saying ours should be as underfunded, but they started at $33,000, and one school can have up to 5,000 students. I also believe and recommended that I hoped the person we hired would be bilingual. I am not sure that all the qualifications were met, and again, $80,000 for a small district like ours took me by surprise,” said Rodriguez.

So, where did the $80,000 salary come from when it was originally budgeted to be a $2,000 position?

“Myself, other parents, stakeholders and many educators are asking the very same question,” Gerald Reiner, a recently elected board of education member told The Jewish Link. “We cannot find the money explicitly stated in the grant application; we know that the application only showed $2,000 for a stipend for the same role. We have also seen first-year teachers with master’s degrees being offered less than 80k on the very same meeting date.”

Irving explained that the position was presented to the board’s personnel committee and vetted, and during the previous week the personnel committee presented the filing of candidates and reviewed the process. “This candidate, I want to be very clear. While the individual is known in the community, they were vetted in a pool of 40 other applicants, of which they were interviewed in a group of five different people. They were interviewed by the Bryant School staff,” with no BOE personnel or other staff taking part, he reiterated.

The salary was based on what Romney Rice negotiated and was based on “her academic credentials, the BOE guidelines, and the budget that was set aside for the grant,” which set the salary as between $70,000 and $80,000, said Irving. “The candidate negotiated their salary with the HR manager. It was recommended to me, I approved it, and I am bringing it to the board,” he added.

“Interviews were held and the committee recommended one person as the clear frontrunner for that role. Part of the grant requires for us to have a parent liaison who serves in that role. Again, when the board adopted the PPEA grant, this requirement was inside that grant,” said Irving.

“We have been hiring and trying to interview people left and right. The challenge is we have to be consistent with every candidate we hire. Even though this candidate is known, that means nothing to me from a hiring standpoint. We have to treat this candidate like any other citizen. And not subject everyone else to the same level of scrutiny,” added Irving.

“I don’t see how this is ethical at all,” said Reiner. “First off, it smells just like patronage; she was applying for and interviewing for a position while so publicly campaigning for those who were going to vote to approve it. Furthermore in her official role on council she is/was the liaison to the board of education. This gave her far greater access to the board and its employees than another applicant. I can only ask was the reason she was so ‘qualified’ because of her official role?” Reiner asked.

“Is there a conflict with a municipal board member working for the board of education?” school board member Howard Rose asked. “No. We checked that seven ways from Sunday. The question is it has whatever ramifications that people want to put on it, so we wanted to make sure that everything was above board,” said Ardie Walser, the school board’s president.

Rose eventually voted against the hire, noting his belief that the salary was too high for such a small program with limited responsibilities. Joining him in voting no was Rodriguez, who reiterated his concerns regarding the high salary and the fact that the candidate was not bilingual. Board member Victoria Fisher abstained from the vote but did not explain her reasons, only noting after the vote had been taken that this was the first time she had seen such a long discussion about personnel salaries discussed by the board and thought the discussion should have taken place at the committee level. Everyone else voted in favor of the hire.

“If nothing was improper, why did one board member abstain and why was this rushed and added at the last minute? Properly recruited personnel should have no issue being vetted by the public by being placed properly on an agenda for transparency,” Reiner added.

A video of the November 14 board meeting was circulated on Facebook and elicited multiple comments and questions. “I find it disturbing that a sitting council person will be earning their income as an employee of Teaneck while also holding elected office,” wrote Teaneck resident Eric Orgen. “Yes, the position is funded by a grant but that grant is funded by tax dollars. It may be legal but is it ethical? Could the board of ed not find another candidate without a conflict?”

At this point, the hire has been approved by the school board and it seems set for the near term. “After the board action and with Monday the 26th being the start date, it seems like there isn’t much option in going back. The position was offered with a 90-day probationary provision and only runs through June 2019. To renew the position as a full-time hire would take another board action,” said Reiner.

By Elizabeth Kratz