Atlantic City’s already troubled superintendent search appears to violate state school ethics rules, an investigation by BreakingAC has found.
But whether the state takes action to stop the search is still unknown.
Board of Education President Shay Steele announced at last month’s board meeting that he alone will be choosing the committee that will pick the school district’s new leader.
The move is an interesting one, as Steele is one of five board members conflicted from participating in the search because they have relatives who work in the school system.
Steele’s wife and father are both district employees
Statute NJSA 18A:12-24 lists conflicts of interest in such cases. An advisory opinion released Sept. 26, 2017, clarifies this further.
“In addition to participating in contract negotiations … a Board member who has a relative or immediate family member employed in the District would also be prohibited from participating in any and all issues related to the superintendent, including the search, contract approval, and evaluation of performance,” wrote School Ethics Commission Chair Robert Bender, who still heads the commission.
No one from the school district would comment on the decision to violate that statute.
Choosing the committee
“I made a decision and I’m going to appoint a committee to conduct the superintendent search,” Steele said at the July 20 board meeting.
The topic was not addressed until the end of the meeting, when board member John Devlin asked how the superintendent search was going.
“I will inform board members in the near future of those members,” Steele told him.
Until then, the board had been told it would be choosing a vendor to aid in the search, the second since Superintendent Barry Caldwell announced his retirement.
Steele also was integral in ending the first search, which cost the district $25,000 and ended with a vote that was carried by four conflicted board members.
Devlin had been in charge of the search committee, with former state monitor Gary McCartney as the vendor. The committee already had whittled the candidates down to three, including two in-district employees, Devlin previously said. Those contenders have never been publicly named.
That search was abruptly ended with no real explanation until a meeting held June 26, during which Steele admitted he called off the first search.
He gave three points, including that one of the committee members is Farook Hossain, who is currently the target of a petition to remove him from the board, with claims that he no longer lives in the district.
That left just two board members on the search committee, Steele said as his second concern.
Steele then questioned McCartney’s involvement, saying that he was state monitor when a substitute teacher employed in the district met and began grooming the then Pennsylvania Avenue School student he’s now convicted of sexually abusing.
The boy’s mother has sued the district.
“Dr. McCartney will certainly be under scrutiny for being monitor at the time of the alleged incidents,” Steele said.
But McCartney is not named in that lawsuit, which does name the board itself, Caldwell, Mayor Marty Small and Small’s wife, Dr. La’Quetta Small, who was principal of Pennsylvania Avenue at the time and is the convicted man’s cousin.
When asked if that would also disqualify Dr. Small — who many have said is a major contender for the superintendent position — Steele told BreakingAC, “No comment.”
In listing his reasons for calling off the search, Steele said that he discussed these concerns with the board’s solicitor, Tracy Riley, before making the decision.
Riley would not comment on why she allowed Steele to be so involved where he is clearly conflicted.
At the July 20 meeting, she even backed Steele on his insistence that he alone could choose the search committee.
“Ms Riley, can you please chime in to Mr. Devlin’s concerns?” Steele asked her when Devlin questioned his involvement. “Do I have (the) authority to move forward the way I plan on moving forward?”
“Yes, as the board president, he has the authority to select and appoint a committee,” she replied.
“He’s a conflicted board member, Ms. Riley,” Devlin said.
“He is not voting on anything,” Riley responded. “He is appointing a committee.”
BreakingAC reached out to Riley asking if she could explain how Steele could not be one of 10 votes yet could choose the entire committee that is making the decision by himself.
She has not responded to phone calls, emails or texts.
The advisory opinion clarifying the statute does not allow a conflicted member to have any involvement with the superintendent’s employment.
It even includes a graphic that shows board members with family employed by the district cannot be involved in any issues related to the superintendent, including “search, hire, contract and evaluation.”
The graphic does mention “current member of the local union,” which BreakingAC has learned neither Steele’s wife nor father pays into, but the opinion itself says only that the family member be a district employee.
In fact, it was Riley who first put on the record that Steele and the four others were conflicted.
When the board first voted to end the superintendent search in February, Riley had them do it under the Doctrine of Necessity, which allows members to vote on an issue where they’re conflicted in order to have a quorum.
At that time, Steele, Vice President Patricia Bailey and board members Ruth Byard, Walter Johnson and Al Herbert were listed along with their relationship to current employees.
In April, all but Herbert voted to end the search, with non-conflicted member Subrata Chowdhury giving them the majority.
Road to a raise
By canceling the superintendent search, the district was not left enough time to find a new superintendent before Caldwell’s planned retirement. This opened the door for Caldwell to have his contract extended by a year, with a previous cap on his salary increase lifted.
As a result, Caldwell was given a nearly 12½ percent raise for the additional year, which will also result in a new calculation for his pension upon his retirement.
The ethics statute also mentions financial gains.
“No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment,” NJSA 18A:12-24(c) reads.
Neither Caldwell nor current state monitor Carole Morris returned numerous requests for comment.
The state Department of Education does not comment on specific cases. No one from the School Ethics Commission returned requests for comment.
Other school solicitors in the state said they did not want to go on record with an opinion about another district.