WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education delayed the vote on whether to renew Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky’s contract at its Feb. 12 meeting, so board members could take into consideration comments they heard at the meeting. The vote is now scheduled for Feb. 26.
Many members of the community spoke at the meeting — some to support Rutzky and others to speak out against him, though the majority of speakers asked BOE members not to renew his contract. Resident Martha Singer spoke on behalf of teachers who chose to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, who feel Rutzky has not been good for staff morale and has not been sensitive to the feelings of staff members.
Resident Chris Diaz, a former BOE candidate, also spoke on behalf of teachers who did not want to use their names, describing what they called Rutzky’s “secretive nature,” lack of training for new programs and an alleged atmosphere of fear that district staff members say exists.
According to West Orange Education Association President Mark Maniscalco in an email to the West Orange Chronicle on Feb. 19, the teachers union conducted a survey concerning the superintendent and his possible contract renewal. When asked if they thought Rutzky was moving the district in the right direction, 76.1 percent of the 401 people surveyed said they did not.
Four hundred people were asked if they felt the superintendent demonstrates respect for the district staff, and 82 percent answered no. The same sample size was asked if they felt staff had been provided with enough training to serve students, and 76.4 percent said they did not.
In addition, 86.5 percent of those who took the survey said Rutzky has not earned the trust of the district’s staff, and 74.3 percent said that the superintendent is not capable of moving the district in the right direction.
“However the BOE decides, they should understand fully how the community views this decision and how the vast majority of our members view this decision,” the WOEA said in a statement released Feb. 8 along with the survey results. “If they choose to oppose the majority of parents and majority of staff, they should understand that that choice will not be hidden from the stakeholders and will not be forgotten.”
Others spoke out in support of Rutzky, saying that his high standards have improved much in the district.
“I want to thank Superintendent Rutzky for bringing in the Orton-Gillingham program, which has been life-saving for us in helping our struggling readers,” Lexi Pavone, a special education teacher at Kelly Elementary School, said at the meeting. “We have seen a four- to five-level jump in reading since this program was brought in and I wanted to give Mr. Rutzky credit.”
Former BOE member Laura Lab also praised Rutzky at the meeting, thanking him for his leadership and the part he played in the district’s teacher contract negotiations. She urged the BOE not to delay the vote, saying it would not be beneficial to the community.
BOE Vice President Mark Robertson said the vote was delayed because board members want to take time to think about their decision.
“The board just wanted to think about this critical decision that shaped three years,” he said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Feb. 19. “We have to consider everything. There were many inquiries and public input, so we want to review and consider those.”
Robertson said the BOE knows Rutzky is in an awkward position at meetings during which his contract is being discussed.
“We realize it’s uncomfortable for our superintendent,” he said. “It’s not an indictment on his work ethic — we know he works hard. We’re looking at what will be best for the students going forward.”
Robertson stressed that the priority of the BOE is considering what is best for the district’s students moving into the future. He said the board appreciates everyone who spoke at the meeting, regardless of their position, and the BOE will make the decision it believes is best for the students.
President Ron Charles told the Chronicle that he could not comment on matters of personnel in an email on Feb. 14. Rutzky did not return a request for comment.