A state Superior Court judge ruled on June 16 in the case of Alston v. Pleasantville Board of Education, finding the state monitor assigned to the Pleasantville school district exceeded her authority when she rejected and overruled the school board on its choice for a new superintendent.

The court’s decision permits this board to hire a superintendent candidate over the objection of the monitor.

The Dispute The dispute began in 2016 when the Pleasantville board chose its superintendent after conducting a search. However, the vote was 4-2 with three abstentions due to conflicts. Because the board did not have a majority vote of the full membership as required by law, the monitor informed the board that the vote had failed. Further, the monitor informed the board that, in her opinion, the board’s choice for superintendent was not “well suited to fit the needs of the Pleasantville school district” and that she would not approve the board’s choice. In addition, the monitor informed the board that she would appoint an interim superintendent if the board’s selection was not suitable to her.

The selected candidate filed suit against the board and the monitor, arguing that the vote was sufficient for his appointment and that the monitor exceeded her authority in rejecting the board’s choice. In that first suit, the trial court concluded that the board needed to have a recorded roll call majority vote of the full board as required by N.J.S.A. 18A:17-15. Since the court invalidated the vote, it saw no need to decide the issue of the monitor’s authority in overturning the selection of the superintendent.

A New Vote Following the court’s decision, the board reapproved its choice of superintendent by a vote of 6-0. Despite the proper vote, the monitor again refused to hire the board’s choice for superintendent and, instead, presented the executive county superintendent with a contract for approval of an interim superintendent. However, the board did not meet with or review the credentials of this candidate.

In this current action, the board’s choice for superintendent sought to invalidate the monitor’s decision on the basis that she exceeded her authority. The monitor responded by challenging the court’s jurisdiction to hear the case, saying that the dispute should be heard by the Commissioner of Education first as it was a dispute arising purely under school law. The court responded by finding that it did have jurisdiction, as this was a matter of great importance to the community, and there were no facts in dispute that require the Commissioner’s expertise.

The court reviewed the statute N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-55, which describes the powers of the state monitor. These powers include overseeing the fiscal management and expenditures of school district funds, overseeing the operation and fiscal management of school district facilities, developing and implementing a plan to correct the financial shortcomings that required the appointment of a monitor in the first place, overseeing all district staffing, attending all meetings of the board, and overriding any decisions by the superintendent or board on any of the matters listed above.

The monitor argued that she did have the authority to reject the board’s appointment of the superintendent because this superintendent candidate had worked in the district previously and was unsuccessful during that time. The monitor further argued that if she permitted the board to hire its choice for superintendent, that would subject the board to a salary requirement of nearly $500,000 for the three-year contract. Should the board be unhappy with the choice, the board may be subject to a costly legal proceeding. The court rejected this argument, saying that the board’s discontent was speculative at best and could happen with any candidate for superintendent. The court found the monitor’s actions to be “woefully lacking” of any fiscal rationale as required by the monitor statute. The court concluded that the monitor exceeded her statutory authority and invalidated her decision to reject the board’s superintendent candidate.