Superintendent’s contract renewal stirs controversy on the night before elections

04 Nov 2019 | 10:32

School superintendent Dr. Michael Rossi’s contract was renewed with a salary increase at a Board of Education meeting on Monday, Oct 28, 2019, in a controversial move that some members of the school board felt was unexpected and unethical. Rossi’s previous contract was not due for renewal until June of 2020 and would have needed to be voted on by March. The new contract raises the superintendent’s base salary from $167,500 to $192,000. It also calls for a 2 percent raise to be allotted each July through 2024 and includes additional performance bonuses.

The divisiveness over the decision to renew Rossi’s contract now can be attributed to several factors. The new contract was requested by Rossi in August and negotiated by attorney John Comegno; Sparta salary negotiations have typically been handled by long-time Board of Education attorney Rod Hara. Comegno was brought in as a special counsel to the board during the bidding and negotiations for the new turf field, and was a colleague of Rossi’s at his previous positions in Madison and Lopatcong.

With Election Day looming, the timing of the contract renewal is also problematic. Many feel that McEvoy was trying to bully the contract through before her term concludes at the end of 2019; she is not running for re-election. Public opinion was split on the matter, with some feeling it wouldn’t be right to saddle a new school board with such a heavy negotiation, and some wondering what the rush was to get it done before the election.

Another factor causing controversy is the notification, or lack thereof, of Board of Education members prior to the contract negotiations or the vote. Rossi notified Board President Kelly McEvoy, Vice President Kylen Anderson, and Personnel Committee Chair Karen Scott of his desire for a new contract prior to November, and McEvoy states that board members had the opportunity to discuss the contract in an executive session in September.

Board of Education member Kim Bragg feels the contract was renewed in secret and said the full board was only notified in early September once the contract was complete. In an open letter, she makes clear that she takes issue with several elements of the new contract, including a vast increase in sick day payout, the length and annual pay increases in the contract, and the lack of requirement for Rossi to notify the board if he is out of town for less than three days. Bragg, who is running for another term on the board, voted vehemently against the contract and is calling for an investigation.

On the eve of Election Day, the conflict heightened when an ethics complaint was filed by Board of Education member Jen Grana, who also opposed the contract. The complaint cites the violation of ethics by McEvoy, Anderson, and Scott for purposely withholding information, and for going ahead with the contract without the knowledge of the full board.

Although the contract itself and the method through which it was achieved are the roots of the schism, Rossi has supporters throughout the district, and while some spoke in opposition, many parents and staff take little issue with his leadership of the district, despite a flub with the school’s latest QSAC evaluation. During the Oct 28 meeting that eventually led to the contract being approved, the public was given more than an hour to express their opinions. In the end, the contract was approved 5-3; McEvoy, Anderson, Scott voted yes along with Jason Ventresca and Joanne Hoover. Bragg, Grana, and Kate Matteson voted no, and Michael McGovern abstained.

It remains to be seen how the controversy plays out with new Board of Education members being elected on Tuesday, Nov 5, while incumbent members try to work through the anger and distrust created by the contract negotiations and approval.