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Newark parents, advocates demand answers on superintendent’s contract renewal

Superintendent Roger León speaking at a back-to-school event at Shabazz in 2018. Principal Naseed Gifted stands behind him, second from left.

File photo from 2018 of Newark schools Superintendent Roger León. Parents and advocates question why the school board reportedly renewed his contract for five years without informing the public.

Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat

Newark education advocates plan on showing up to Saturday’s school board retreat to question why Superintendent Roger León’s contract was reportedly renewed in secret last May. 

The Newark school board renewed León’s contract for five years at an annual salary of about $290,000, according to The Star-Ledger Editorial Board, which first reported the news in an opinion piece published Thursday on NJ.com.

District spokeswoman Nancy Deering was quoted in the article saying that “the contract automatically renewed in May.” She also added that the district doesn’t normally comment on staff performance but that Leon received “a positive evaluation of his performance.” 

An email, phone call, and text to Deering inquiring about contract details were not immediately returned.

A Chalkbeat review of school board documents from four meetings that took place in May did not find any approvals by the board that reflected the superintendent’s contract renewal, which signals that the contract was renewed without any public notification or hearing.

Whether public notice or a hearing was required remains a question. But extending León’s contract for five years without any discussion with the school community has raised questions about the Newark Board of Education’s promise to be transparent.

Residents, education advocates, union members, and parents were upset when reached Thursday to hear they weren’t informed by the nine-member elected school board about the quiet contract extension.

“I am upset at what took place,” said Denise Cole, a longtime education advocate. “I don’t like when my rights are violated.”

Even if state law and contract stipulations permitted the school board to renew León’s contract without any public announcement, the board still should have informed the community, Cole said. Not doing so, she added, took away her right to voice her concerns prior to the renewal.

“You’re not paying attention. You’re not listening. You’re not doing the job that you were elected to do for the community,” Cole said in a phone interview Thursday, directing her message to board members.

State code stipulates that when an initial contract term ends, “the superintendent shall be deemed reappointed for another contracted term” of the same length, unless the board reappoints a superintendent for a different term length or not at all.

While León initially had a three-year term, the board extended it for two more years in 2019. The renewed contract is for a five-year term.

Janet Bamford, the chief public affairs officer for the New Jersey School Boards Association, noted in an email that the state code does not mention a board vote or discussion on a contract renewal for superintendents.

“It is our understanding that the public notice and public hearing requirements … would be triggered when the board discusses and votes on changes/updates to the superintendent’s contract,” Bamford wrote.

Leon was hired in 2018 by the board when the district regained local control after 22 years under state control. As a former principal and lifelong resident of Newark, he had supporters throughout the city, including politically powerful elected officials such as Mayor Ras Baraka and Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, the state Senate majority leader.

Calls and emails to the offices of Baraka and Ruiz were not returned.

Leon’s salary has gone up by about $30,000 over the last four years. In 2019-20 and 2020-21, he was paid $260,000, according to state school salary data. After a cap on superintendent salaries was lifted in 2019, the salary for the district leader shot up, as it did in most districts throughout the state. In 2021-22, León’s salary was $282,425, and in 2022-23, that went up to $290,050.

Parents and others in education said the renewed contract for the superintendent is consequential and worthy of public notice.

“It is their duty to preserve and protect the interests of the constituents who put them in office,” said Jasmine Morrison, a lifelong Newark resident and parent advocate. “Maybe you didn’t legally have to inform the families, but understanding where we have come from and just getting back local control, it would have been the right thing to do.” 

Morrison said she plans on attending the school board retreat meeting, which is open to the public, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturday on the sixth floor of the district’s central office at 765 Broad St. in Newark.

“I think it just shows a lack of respect for the residents in the city to renew a contract that is so significant and will have a lasting impact on the future of our city,” Morrison said.

Maggie Freeman, another parent and longtime resident of Newark who previously ran for school board, said she thinks it’s time for families to demand more transparency from the board.

“We may have to come together as far as advocates in the community and figure out the best way to approach this because it’s not right,” Freeman said.

“It’s despicable,” said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union.

“They came in promising transparency and that it would no longer be business as usual. They made that commitment to taxpayers and stakeholders,” Abeigon said of the school board. “This is insulting.”

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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