Perth Amboy School Board Paying the Price to be Rid of Its Superintendent

August 19, 2012

PERTH AMBOY — If time is money, the Perth Amboy school board has spent a lot of both in its battle to be rid of schools Superintendent Janine Caffrey.

The struggle between second-year superintendent Caffrey and the Board of Education has cost tens of thousands of dollars. Caffrey estimates the board has spent $70,000 on the case, although her opponents dispute the figure.

But financial expense doesn’t reflect all the board has invested in the matter.

The issue has taken up more than 48 hours during many "special" meetings, according to board minutes posted recently on the district’s website. Over the last 13 months, the board held more special meetings than it has regular meetings: 17 to 13, records show.

A few special meetings were about general business — resignations, appointments, training, and routine matters. But most focused on Caffrey.

The board has voted multiple times to oust Caffrey, but she has been reinstated after appealing to the state education commissioner.

In one vote to remove Caffrey, the board listed 22 charges, including giving interviews to the media, damaging staff morale, failing to give the board necessary information and accusing board members of pushing their friends for district jobs.

Caffrey has supported a similar brand of education changes advocated by Gov. Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. They have called for basing teacher tenure on student performance and abolishing "last-in, first-out," which protects senior teachers in layoffs.

Such proposals were unpopular among Perth Amboy’s teachers union and school board, both of which have accused Caffrey of forcing changes rather than working together.

Caffrey has two years left on her $172,500 contract.

"Constant turmoil," is how she has referred to the special meetings.

"I’ve never heard of a board of education having 17 special meetings in 13 months," she said.

Calling special meetings is the responsibility of the board president, Samuel Lebreault, officials say. In an e-mail through board attorney Isabel Machado, Lebreault said seven meetings were for business other than the superintendent’s job, But most have indeed centered on her, he said.

"The majority of the remaining special meetings were convened, and deemed by us necessary, to address the actions taken by the Superintendent causing a majority of this Board to question her ability to effectively lead this District, and as well as the litigation brought against the Board by the Superintendent herself," he said.

Three votes have now been taken to get rid of Caffrey, and she was placed on leave for several days in April. But each time Cerf overturned the decision.

The two sides cannot agree on much about the direction of the Perth Amboy public schools, and that includes the cost of the special meetings.

An Open Public Records Act request filed several weeks ago can’t establish an all-inclusive price for the meetings. Many bills from Machado’s firm don’t specifically mention totals about work related to Caffrey.

However, the firm billed just over its contracted $8,000 monthly rate for August 2011 services, just as Caffrey was starting her job and before the controversy started — and then the bills skyrocketed as the controversy escalated .

The peak reached $29,862.50 for services in February, but every bill since then has exceeded $22,000. The previous firm had a similar contractual agreement in 2009 and 2010, but never went over $13,000.

Though all Caffrey-related items were not separated out by Machado, and she refused to comment on her bill, the Caffrey-related costs in April alone totaled $9,810, one bill shows.

And, a separate attorney has been hired to deal with the Caffrey employment matter. The firm of David B. Rubin, of Metuchen, is still working as a special counsel on the matter, officials say. They have billed the district more than $16,000 since April, records show.

Caffrey has her own number.

"I estimate they’ve spent $70,000 in attempts to get rid of me. I see that as a real waste of taxpayer dollars," she said.Caffrey has her own number.

Board members said a good deal of the special meeting time was due to board training required by law. Three meetings were listed on the minutes as "retreats." Lebreault said in his e-mail that Caffrey’s estimate is "widely exaggerated."

"With respect to the Superintendent’s claim to The Star-Ledger that these special meetings have cost the District $70,000, she has yet to offer any substantiation for this figure, and it appears to be widely exaggerated," he said.

In the 2011-12 school year, records show the board spent $309,510 on legal expense, when it had budgeted $160,000. The legal budget for the coming year is $173,916, while the district’s entire operating budget is $192 million.

One board member, Kurt Rebovich, said the $70,000 figure was probably accurate, considering there were attorney’s fees, security guards, other employees, secretaries’ time, and even catered dinner for board members at each meeting. He said the special meetings haven’t been about training; they’ve been about personnel decisions involving Caffrey.

"All the special meetings have been geared toward firing the superintendent," Rebovich said. "I think there’s a lot better things we can do with $70,000."