Legality of Atlantic City superintendent search still in question on application deadline
Want to be Atlantic City schools’ next superintendent?
Today is the last day to apply.
But questions still remain on the legality of the new search, which has seen the Board of Education president take a lead role, despite him being barred from any participation.
Shay Steele’s wife and father both work for the district, which means he cannot be involved in the search, according to the ethics rules clarified by a 2017 advisory opinion.
Regardless, Steele alone made the decision to cancel the first search, not have a vendor help with the latest one, and handpicked the six members who make up the new search 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 only public mention since was when Steele listed the names of the six committee members during the Aug. 17.
He said it included three board members and three members of the public.
Some of the names were not clear through his mask, and no details were given about the members or why they were chosen.
After multiple requests made to Steele, the board solicitor and the superintendent for an official public list, board secretary Angela Brown emailed the names to BreakingAC.
The three Atlantic City board members are Kazi Islam, Subrata Chowdhury and Ventnor representative Michael Cupeles.
It also includes Atlantic City residents Bruce Ward — an attorney and retired judge — and Joyce Mollineaux, now a commissioner on the Casino Control Commission.
The last member is Paul Gardner, according to the list provided, although Steele seems to refer to Gardner as “Mrs. Paula Gardner” in the recorded meeting. In his announcement, Steele says Gardner is a Margate resident but owns an unnamed business in Atlantic City.
Carole Morris, the state-appointed fiscal monitor, defended the way the committee was announced, refusing to answer questions about the involvement of a conflicted member.
“As far as the announcement, they may have had trouble hearing him or something like that, but to say that it wasn’t made public is totally incorrect because it was,” she told BreakingAC. “It was a Zoomed meeting and it was an open public meeting.”
She did not address complaints made by some who said they were not admitted into the Zoom meeting. BreakingAC has acquired a video of that meeting, which can be viewed at the end of this story.
The video does not show how many were in attendance virtually. Brown said she reached out to technology for an answer but BreakingAC is still waiting for a response. Donald Harris, Caldwell’s cousin, is in charge of the recordings.
The board’s solicitor, Tracy Riley, has publicly backed Steele’s actions, agreeing that Steele came to her before canceling the first search.
That delay led to the board keeping retiring Superintendent Barry Caldwell on at a more than 12 percent salary increase. It added about $28,000 to the salary that NJ.com cited as making Caldwell the county’s highest paid superintendent.
Caldwell, it should be noted, is the brother-in-law of Joe Jacobs, the former “of counsel” for Riley’s law firm.
Jacobs’ sister, Gabrielle Caldwell, is the district’s director of elementary education.
Riley silently walked away when asked after a meeting if that was a conflict.
She later texted BreakingAC: “Want to make it perfectly clear – there is no affiliation with our firm and any family member of the Superintendent.”
Riley did not respond to a return text asking about Jacobs’ former position.
She is now the one accepting applications for the superintendent position, according to the ad on the district’s website.
“All inquiries should be directed to the Solicitor only,” the ad reads. “An email confirming receipt will be sent to applicant.”
It’s also not clear if the ad was listed anywhere else. An ad from three weeks ago shows up on a LinkedIn search, but says it was “sourced from a job board.”
A public records request for how the position was advertised has not yet been answered.
Story continues after video
“In my tenure of over 18 years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” board member John Devlin told BreakingAC.
Devlin, who has served as president, chaired the previous superintendent search that Steele canceled.
“I question the process,” Devlin said. “I question the direction and guidance we’re receiving.”
When Devlin questioned Steele’s conflict at the July meeting, Riley replied: “He is not voting on anything. He is appointing a committee.”
Morris, the state monitor, alleged that asking for clarification about how Steele’s involvement doesn’t violate the ethics rules is a political question.
“There’s nothing illegal that’s been happening,” Morris said in a brief phone interview.
While being asked how it would be legal for a conflicted board member barred from participating in the search to take the lead role in choosing the search committee, the call disconnected.
“Sorry, we must have gotten cut off,” Morris said when called back.
But the second call didn’t last much longer.
Morris was again asked how Steele’s lead role creating the committee was allowed.
“I’m not here — assigned rather — as a delegate of the state to become involved in political issues,” she said. “And so far, that’s all I’ve seen your question suggest.
“So, I’m sorry, but I’m not commenting beyond that,” she added.
Morris then hung up and refused to answer any more calls.
Islam is the only member of the search committee who responded to BreakingAC attempts to speak with the members. He said the group has not yet met.
The next board meeting is set for Sept. 21.