Four votes are not enough for the Pleasantville school board to approve Clarence Alston as its new superintendent, an Atlantic County Superior Court judge ruled Friday.
Judge Julio Mendez said the current state law is clear and unambiguous that a majority of the full membership of the school board, or five of nine votes in Pleasantville, is required to approve a superintendent.
The voting issue has come up more frequently statewide over the last year since state School Ethics Commission advisories have forced more school board members to recuse themselves from voting because extended family members are employed by the district. The decision may spur local efforts to change the law.
State law requires a majority of the full membership for approval on crucial votes such as the budget and the hiring of a superintendent. Other issues require just a majority of members present or eligible to vote.
The Pleasantville school board voted 4-2 to hire Alston in May. Three of the nine school board members had conflicts of interest because relatives work in the district, and could not vote.
The board wanted to approve Alston, but the district’s state monitor Constance Bauer ruled that since five members had not approved him, he was not legally hired. Alston sued the board and Bauer.
Attorneys for both the school board and Alston argued in court that since recent school ethics decisions have allowed a majority of eligible board members to vote on other issues relating to the search for a superintendent, that should also be allowed for the hiring of the superintendent.
But while Mendez recognized those advisories, he noted that “no advisory opinion has ever held that less than a majority of the full membership of the board may appoint a superintendent.”
Bauer’s attorney Sidney Sayovitz said Mendez issued a decision that was in accordance with the law.
Attorney Daniel Gallagher, who represents the school board, said he has notified board members of the decision and believes they may appeal. The next regular school board meeting is scheduled for Aug. 16.
Gallagher said while he does not agree with Mendez’ decision, he understands his rationale. He said school board members will also be contacting local legislators to discuss modifying the state law.
“This is something the Legislature should deal with,” he said.
Mendez had brought up that issue during a hearing on the case, noting that while he understood the problem of increased conflicts, he was not sure he had the authority to override the law. In his decision he said choosing a superintendent is a significant role of the board, and he could find no indication that the Legislature intended for any scenario other than requiring a majority of full membership in that choice.
In some school districts a full majority of the board has had conflicts, leaving less than a quorum eligible to vote. In those cases the school board can invoke the “doctrine of necessity” which allows the board members with conflicts to vote.
Alston’s attorney, David Castellani could not be reached for comment.
Even if Alston had been approved, the school board’s state monitor Constance Bauer had said she would overturn the decision because she did not believe Alston was the best choice for the district. The school board had also challenged the state monitor’s authority to overturn their decision, but Mendez did not rule on that issue since he said Alston had not received a majority of votes and was not approved by the board.
Assistant superintendent Garnell Bailey also received just four votes in June to serve as interim superintendent, but was later appointed to the position by the state monitor so that the district would have an interim superintendent in place when Leonard Fitts left June 30.