When the Newark school board decided on a new superintendent Tuesday, its members offered a public display of unity. One by one, all nine voted in favor of Roger Leon, a longtime veteran of the school system, drawing cheers from the audience.
But earlier, behind the scenes, the board had been divided.
On Saturday, after conducting lengthy interviews with all four superintendent finalists, the board held an informal poll to see where the members stood, according to a person with direct knowledge of the meeting. At that point, A. Robert Gregory, the district’s interim superintendent, had more support than Leon, the person said. The other two finalists were from out of state and did not appear to gain traction with the board.
On Tuesday, the board took another unofficial poll during a closed-door session, according to the same person, who spoke to Chalkbeat on the condition that they not be identified. By then, multiple members had switched their endorsements from Gregory to Leon, who now had the most support. At that point, the full board agreed to back Leon in the official vote.
Board chair Josephine Garcia did not respond to an email about the board members’ shifting support or the decision to display a united front to the public on Tuesday. But shortly after the 9-0 vote for Leon, a reporter said to Garcia that she must have “badly wanted” a unanimous vote on its first major decision since February, when the board regained control of the district after a decades-long state takeover.
“Yes, absolutely — and we got it,” she said. “We’re showing unification.”
It’s unclear what prompted some board members to change their minds. But some superintendent search firms advise boards to agree to unanimously vote for the candidate favored by the majority of members so that the new superintendent is seen as having the full board’s support. And while school boards in some districts conduct public interviews with superintendent candidates, it’s not uncommon for boards to keep the details of their searches and deliberations private.
What’s certain is that the major decisions in Newark’s search happened before Tuesday’s public vote and behind closed doors.
Well before the vote, a superintendent search committee was tasked with choosing three finalists to present to the board. However, after the three were chosen, at least one committee member was unhappy that a particular candidate had been left off the shortlist, Chalkbeat has reported.
At that point, the former board chair, and later Garcia, asked the state education commissioner to amend the rules so that the committee could name a fourth finalist. Two of the committee members objected to the request, and insisted that the group should stick with the chosen finalists. But the commissioner agreed to amend the guidelines, and a fourth person was added.
The committee has not publicly disclosed which finalist did not make the first cut.
All four finalists introduced themselves to the public at a forum last week, where the audience could listen but not ask questions. And they each met with the full board on Saturday during lengthy closed-door interviews that stretched from the morning well into the evening.
Some people have complained about the search process, saying it lacked transparency and meaningful public input.
During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s board meeting, before the vote, the president of the Newark NAACP referenced a pledge by board chair Garcia earlier in the meeting to promote transparency.
“The goal of transparency by the board, as stated by chairperson Garcia, has to be upheld,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory. “If it’s not upheld, then you get this frustration building.”