Just one year into Superintendent Roger León’s three-year term, the Newark school board is considering extending his contract for an additional two years.
The board hired León last year to steer the schools back to local control. Now, it could soon ink a deal to keep him in charge of the school system until 2023 — rather than 2021, as his contract currently stipulates.
The revelation came at a sparsely attended public hearing, held half an hour before the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday. The hearing was not listed in advance on the district calendar on the board’s website, although a district official said the board had complied in other ways with laws requiring that the public be alerted.
Yolanda Johnson, a parent activist, said she arrived early for the regular meeting — where León’s contract was not discussed — and was surprised to see another meeting taking place. She said she supports León’s leadership but thinks the board would be premature to extend his contract.
“I personally love him, and I see his vision,” Johnson said. However, “the community wasn’t there, and the parents weren’t there. It should have been advertised so we could be in the know.”
A person with knowledge of the situation said the board could vote on the contract extension as soon as next week, when it is scheduled to meet at the district central office on Broad Street on Tuesday. (The board is also holding a retreat, which is open to the public, Saturday morning at its central office.)
The source said the contract extension reflects León’s original request when he agreed to shepherd the Newark district through a period of significant change, after decades of tumultuous state control.
A contract extension would amount to a major vote of confidence in León’s leadership, as the superintendent is just getting started on his plan for elevating achievement in the district. He released a one-year plan this summer and promised that a 10-year plan would follow.
Newark Teachers Union president John Abeigon said he supports the board’s move to guarantee León more time in charge of the district’s schools.
“It takes a while. It took the state eight years to completely destroy and bankrupt the district,” Abeigon said. “I would imagine giving the new superintendent, who is actually an educator in contrast to the two predecessors, time to rebuild the system they destroyed.”
So far, León has started to restructure the district bureaucracy, but many of his school changes haven’t gone into effect yet. And little information about how the district fared under his first year has been made publicly available. State test scores and official graduation rates have not been released, and the district has also not yet released information about attendance and enrollment, two of León’s top early priorities.
Plus, parents in the district haven’t gotten a sufficient chance to influence León’s planning, Johnson said.
“Last year, León had the opportunity to undo some things with a big overhaul of principals,” she said. “But parents want to weigh in more.”
León has indicated at multiple board meetings that promising data is on the way, and the board conducted an official evaluation of him earlier this summer. While it did not make the results available, board members have praised León’s leadership at public meetings.
That continued at this week’s meeting about his contract, Johnson said.
While contract extensions more typically happen closer to the end of their term, school boards sometimes do renegotiate superintendents’ employment contracts earlier. This summer, for example, Randolph Township’s school board extended the local superintendent’s employment until 2023, just one year into her contract. (She had been leading the district since 2016.)
León’s extension also comes amid major changes to New Jersey law governing superintendent contracts. This year, the state removed a cap on superintendent salaries.
Also this year, a state appellate court ruled that boards must give the public 30 days’ notice and hold a public hearing before extending superintendents’ contracts. (One board had tried to evade those requirements by arguing that extensions are similar to contracts with new hires, which are not subject to the same rules.)
Newark parent Shanaya Thomas said she thinks it’s too soon to consider extending León’s contract. If anything, she said doesn’t think it should be extended at all — but as a frequent board meeting attendee, she said she’s mostly disappointed she didn’t know about this week’s hearing.
“I feel like they were trying to keep secrets,” she said. “They don’t want our opinion. Give us a chance to say if we want you back in there. That’s our right as parents.”