Rutzky resigns, BOE approves separation

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education approved a separation agreement with Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky at a special meeting Oct. 19, in which Rutzky agreed to voluntarily resign effective at midnight that evening. Complying with state law, Rutzky will be paid three months’ salary for each year remaining on his contract, which the BOE had voted to renew until 2021 at its Feb. 26 meeting. Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Eveny de Mendez assumed the leadership responsibilities of the superintendent effective at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 20.

The resolution passed unanimously with a 4-0 vote; BOE President Ron Charles abstained due to his wife’s employment in the district. At the Feb. 26 meeting, members of the BOE had voted to renew Rutzky’s contract 3-1, with Irv Schwarzbaum casting the only opposing vote and Charles again abstaining.

According to a statement released by the BOE on Oct. 19, New Jersey Commissioner of Education Lamont O. Repollet reviewed and approved the separation agreement.

“The Board of Education is exploring further succession and transition options, and will report on a direction at the Nov. 5 Board of Education Meeting,” the statement read. “The board appreciates the comments and recommendations of the public, and will pursue avenues to include parent, teacher, administrative and community input and involvement in any superintendent search process and considerations.”

“The four, non-conflicted board members voted unanimously to accept Mr. Rutzky’s resignation and approve the mutual separation agreement because we felt that it was in the best interest of the district and the most cost and time efficient avenue to resolution,” BOE Vice President Mark Robertson said in an email to the West Orange Chronicle on Oct 23. “The pathway chosen emerged from discussions between the board and Mr. Rutzky. The actual proposal had to be initiated by the board, but was subject to discussion and negotiations. Ultimately both parties felt that this was the best pathway.”

When asked why Rutzky is leaving the district so soon after his contract was renewed, Robertson said, “Both the board and Mr. Rutzky had access to information and reports that fueled discussions, information that neither party had available during the contract renewal process.”

Rutzky will receive approximately $130,079, according to district spokesperson Cynthia Cumming in an email to the West Orange Chronicle on Oct. 22. According to Robertson, Rutzky also received $25,000 in the 2017-2018 academic year based on merit bonuses, which were approved by the executive county superintendent and the BOE.

In a statement released Oct. 19, de Mendez said the district will provide the staff and community with an update on the state of the district and the BOE’s progress in appointing an interim superintendent within 60 days.

“It is with great regard and respect for our students and staff that careful consideration be given to a seamless and thoughtful transition,” she said. “Over the next few months, the Board of Education, present and incoming, will seek to appoint an interim, establish selection committee representatives of the West Orange school community, and obtain public input via open forums as part of a formal and comprehensive superintendent search. In the meantime, our plan is to stay the course, providing a continuity of leadership as we collectively endeavor to safeguard our school climate, effective teaching and learning, and the confidence and support of our staff as our paramount priorities.”

Robertson said that final search decisions about an interim and permanent superintendent would not be made until the installation of the 2019 BOE.

“Additionally, we will listen intently to teachers, parents and the community, and conduct outreach and engagement efforts to begin to heal the relationships, increasing their involvement in a collaborative efforts to seek solutions and improvements in our district, moving ahead,” he said. “All that we do is driven by our reason for being, to focus on student achievement, and we will actively pursue collaborative efforts to maximize student achievement.”

At the Oct. 19 meeting, BOE attorney Matthew Giacobbe said that the agreement provides closure for the both the superintendent and the district.

“There is a complete release,” Giacobbe said. “There can be no litigation, there can’t be any lawsuits, it gives finality and closure, and that’s why the board with the approval of the New Jersey commissioner of education decided to enter into this agreement.”

Residents were at the meeting to share comments on the separation agreement.

“Could we just imagine for a moment if you had listened to the many, many, many voices who were sharing their opposition to the superintendent leading up to your decision to renew his contract last spring?” Robin Isserles said, asking for a committee to be formed to search for a new superintendent. “I would ask that you create a fair and clear set of guidelines, communicated well, as to how a committee inclusive of all district stakeholders will be formed to be part of this search process.”

Other parents and community members also spoke to express their displeasure with Rutzky at the meeting.

In responding to comments from the public, BOE member Ken Alper said the board has been following legal guidelines and ethics that the members have to abide by.

“I know that the pace of everything and the legal restrictions caused a lot of frustration and have led some to say that we haven’t been doing our jobs, but that’s just not true,” he said. “I apologize for our inability to be more open about things, but those are the requirements of the job and it’s frustrating to us as well. If we were able to legally share more things, the public would have a lot more appreciation for why we make some of the decisions we do. I know some of you feel ignored — you have not been ignored. We are following the procedures we are mandated to follow and keeping our mouths shut about it because that’s what we’re sworn to do.”

Both Alper and BOE member Sandra Mordecai thanked Rutzky for his service to the district.