Emails reveal state endorsed Lyles’ appointment in the end
By Chris Neidenberg
A review of 68 pages of emails, related to finding Charles Epps’ successor, shows state officials endorsed Superintendent Marcia Lyles over seven other candidates near the end of the selection process last May.
This, even though the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) repeatedly stated publicly, during the board’s exercising of its autonomous search authority, that it had no legal authority to involve itself in pushing for any candidate.
Further, the department publicly maintained the board’s effort to find Epps’ successor was independent of the state.
In an email, DOE spokesman Barbara K. Morgan insisted the state’s dialogue was not interference, writing, “Just because someone expresses interest, does not mean they intervened.”
It took about five months to secure release of these emails. They cover a rough period of May 2011, when a board faction dedicated to ousting Epps gained control, and September 2012, when Lyles’ contract was finalized,
The emails offer some insight into the direct dialogue that was ongoing among various parties with an interest in both the controversial termination of Epps and the equally controversial efforts to find his replacement.
Under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA). OPRA normally requires that state agencies either comply with – or reject – requests within a period of seven working days.
Efforts were originally made to obtain the emails last fall, several weeks after Lyles’ contract was approved. But there was an extended delay once the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) denied the initial OPRA request.
The state’s emails are unrelated to those subject to litigation in Hudson County Superior Court between the Board of Education and Adam Herbsman, political consultant to Mayor Jerramiah Healy. Board President Suzanne Mack said a judge ruled Friday against the board in supporting granting Healy and Herbsman access to those emails.
Some of the emails obtained earlier from the state clearly show that Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf, and his then-top deputy, Chief of Staff David Hespe, tried exerting direct influence in the background throughout the process. In the end, rhe emails showed that they preferred Lyles.
This, even while a local board committee conducting a national superintendent search, and its consultant, William Librera, repeatedly assured residents they would play the leading role in the process leading to selecting a final choice.
The committee conducted six public meetings citywide in 2011 and 2012. One of the emails reveals Hespe telling Librera that the state wanted Lyles.
Librera’s company, West Hudson Associates, received about $30,000 in taxpayer funding to recruit candidates and help conduct public meetings during the search.
Lyles is a former professional associate of Cerf’s. They worked together as deputy New York City schools chancellors under then-Chancellor Joel Klein. Additionally, both graduated from the controversial Broad Superintendents Academy. The institution is associated with emphasizing privatization initiatives, encouraging more charter schools and applying principles used in the private sector to public school settings. Broad generally advocates ideas supporters of traditional public schools and teachers’ unions don’t like. Yet they are strongly favored by school choice advocates..
Despite her professional ties to Cerf, and the state’s pushing for her selection in the end, board members approving her contract insist Lyles’ past professional relationship with the commissioner – who still wields clout by directly controlling some of the district’s operations – had nothing to do with the outcome.
Among other things, the emails reveal:
1. That the Christie administration wished it had power to exert direct control over the situation, including ousting Epps, even while publicly acknowledging the board’s autonomous/independent authority.
Cerf and DOE counsel Eric Taylor made clear the state wished it could forcibly remove Epps directly from his top position, well before he agreed to a buyout in December 2011. They desired to file tenure charges against the then-embattled administrator.
Epps is now a city council running mate of Healy’s. Cerf and Taylor engaged in extensive discussions on the topic with Shelley Skinner, the city’s leading school choice/charter school advocate and current deputy director of Better Education for Kids. Her statewide organization advocates more charter schools and implementing measures to improve regular public schools.
For part of that time, Skinner, two other residents and Ward E Councilman Steven Fulop, who is challenging Healy this year, were involved in legal proceedings trying to block a prior board majority’s questionable methods in seeking a three-year contract extension for Epps in 2010.
The four residents filed a legal challenge in the state’s Office of Administrative Law. While the case was never settled, a judge stayed the extension. That bought enough time to change the political composition of the board, leading to Epps’ eventual ouster via contract buyout. The emails show the Skinner/Fulop group was allied with Cerf and the state during its appeal of the extension.
The emails also show Skinner had direct access in communicating with Cerf throughout the process. In fact, in a July 2012 discussion with a Jersey City Yahoo discussion group, Fulop said it was Skinner who introduced him to Cerf, stating, “I don’t have a relationship with Cerf nor did any of the board members. Shelley had the ability to help get on his radar screen.”
Carf did exercise some authority by waiving New Jersey’s cap on superintendent’s pay, in helping the board execute Epps’ buyout in November 2011.
In a May 4, 2011 email exchange involving Cerf and Skinner, six months before the buyout was approved, Taylor wrote that the state’s hands were tied in trying to directly oust Epps.
He noted that the administration of then-Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine restored “governance” authority to the board under QSAC in 2008.
Up to then, the state fully controlled all district operations. But Corzine’s act left negotiating the buyout solely up to the board. Yet it shut out Cerf and the current Republican administration from having direct involvement at the table.
Taylor wrote, “The real key to control under the takeover law is the presence of a powerless advisory board and the imbuement of the BOE’s power with the state super and this was lost when governance was restored.”
Yet he later writes to Cerf and Skinner about a potential alternative strategy the state might try applying to directly oust Epps.
He said, “It is certainly possible that certain recent statements by Epps would constitute conduct unbecoming for purposes of tenure charges.”
This alternative strategy was never pursued.
2. That Skinner had enough clout with the department to summon on Cerf’s behalf elected Board Members Marvin Adames (who resigned last summer to become a Newark city judge), then-Board President Sterling Waterman and Trustee Carol Harrison-Arnold, according to a July 18, 2011 email from the commissioner’s assistant, Helene Leona.
She advised the three that Skinner wanted them to participate in a teleconference session with the commissioner, regarding the Epps matter, on July 21, 2011.
Leona’s message describes priority for the session as “high.”
3. That Cerf, shut out legally from being able to directly oversee the selection process himself, still desired to have a hand in helping find Epps’ successor.
This, despite the fact his department had maintained publicly that, legally, the choice was solely the board’s business.
In a Sept. 21, 2011 email to Cerf, Skinner praises him for the actions he had taken up to that point in trying to exert influence in forcing out Epps. telling him, “Anyway, thanks for sticking up and doing the right thing, despite the circus.”
To which the commissioner replies, “Thanks! I appreciate it! I hope to be involved in the (superintendent) search as possible. First things first, however, can they (BOE) close the deal?”
4. That Cerf pushed the board into accepting his appointment of Cathy Coyle as a highly-skilled professional (HSP), in January 2012, to help the district during the period between the tenure of then-Interim Superintendent Franklin Walker and the permanent superintendent. The HSP is defined under the state law governing monitoring of school districts, called the Quality Single Education Accountability Continuum (QSAC).
In a Jan. 5, 2012 email to Waterman, Hespe writes, “I would also like to discuss moving forward on our commitment to assist the district in navigating the transition in leadership through the services of a Highly Skilled Professional.”
Coyle’s selection triggered pickets outside the board’s central office around the time of her installation from community critics, who saw it as improper interference with Walker’s authority. The board ultimately agreed to pay half of Coyle’s salary. The emails show DOE officials used Coyle to gather information on the board’s efforts to find Epps’ successor.
In a Jan. 2012 published report, Cerf aide Justin Barra assured that Coyle would depart on June 30, 2012. Yet she remains a presence in the district to this day. She is now assisting Lyles, but has lost her veto power over decisions the state controls under QSAC.
5. That, even though Lyles had a past professional relationship with Cerf, Cerf still advocated strongly for Lyles in the end.
That’s when the choice boiled down to three people: Lyles, who formerly headed the Christina School District in Delaware, Walker and Richland County, S.C. Deputy Superintendent of Schools Debra Brathwaite.
The board had initially whittled the list down to 14 candidates, reducing that to eight, before eliminating Walker and settling on Lyles and Brathwaite in late May 2012.
The emails show that, around this time, Cerf used Coyle in to try finding out how the board’s deliberations were proceeding in the final weeks of the search.
In a May 7, 2012 email to Coyle, Hespe writes, “Hi Cathy. We are at a critical stage of the search process. I would like to find out who these eight individuals are so I can brief the commissioner. Do you have the names or should I contact Bill (Librera)?”
The next day, Coyle writes that, in addition to Brathwaite and Lyles, among the top five contenders from outside Jersey City were: Fransisco Duran, an assistant superintendent from Philadelphia, Piscataway Superintendent of Schools Robert Copeland and Pamela Brown, a senior research and planning associate for the Center for Education Leadership and Technology in Charlotte, N.C.
Ten days later, in a May 18, 2012 email to Librera, a former state education commissioner who headed the board’s search firm, West Hudson Associates, Hespe makes clear that the state prefers Lyles.
And he makes a self-described frantic effort to keep Lyles in the mix of candidates under serious consideration.
Hespe, another former state education commissioner who actually approved Epps’ hiring, asks Librera, “Hi Bill. Any luck with Andres? I am afraid that (board) consensus for Marcia (Lyles) might decrease over time so I am feeling pressure to move ahead quickly.”
Hespe eventually left the DOE to accept a position as president of Burlington Community College.
In a May 25, 2012 email from Board President Suzanne Mack to Hespe, Mack writes that she informed Adames and Harrison-Arnold “that if you have confidence with our choice (for superintendent), you may recommend return of local control.”
Eleven months later, and six months into Lyles’ tenure, the state has yet to relinquish partial control.
In June 2012, Lyles and Brathwaite answered questions posed by Librera during a public meeting, in an effort to help the board decide who was the better choice.
In a June 15, 2012 email to Cerf after the meeting, Skinner writes, “Really impressed with Marcia Lyles. Very sharp.”
In responding to Skinner, Cerf makes clear he also wants Lyles appointed. He replies, “Terrific! Assume she will prevail?”
Another email shows that, two days before the board voted to appoint Cerf’s former associate, the commissioner organized a June. 26, 2012 teleconference, session with Hespe, Librera and Mack.
Around the time Lyles’ contract was finalized, on August 23, 2012, Skinner emailed Cerf a letter Board Member Sangeeta Ranade circulated through the community, titled, “Welcome Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles!”
To which Cerf replies, “Outstanding!”
6. That Skinner conceded to Taylor that, at least for a time, she and Fulop had a rift over the strategies which should be employed to oust Epps in 2011, and kept a distance from him for a while because of it.
However, Skinner made clear in a later published interview during the rift that she would still support Fulop for mayor.
In a Sept. 21, 2011 email to Taylor, Skinner stated, “Steve Fulop and I actually parted company because we didn’t see eye to eye on this, but I digress.”
Skinner has been more recently seen with Fulop at events, including Cerf’s Sept. 2012 appearance before residents at New Jersey City University. In a recent interview, she described the differences that had separated them, in retrospect, as “small.”
The OPRA request also included seeking emails between Fulop and the state. Though the state provided nothing regarding Fulop as part of the 68 pages requested in the OPRA filing, prior emails during the period were leaked showing Fulop and Taylor communicating about Epps’ status, with Waterman, in 2011. At the time, Fulop and Skinner were still parties to the legal action seeking to block Epps’ proposed contract extension.
Additionally, a prior published report, citing a leaked private email, revealed Cerf participated in a May 2011 secret meeting at a private residence in Jersey City concerning Epps’ removal. Parties attending included Skinner, Fulop, Board Members Waterman and Carol Lester, and then-Board Members-elect Adames and Carol Harrison-Arnold