Last meeting of year: Board of education votes 4-3 to give Champ new four-year contract
One trustee says board may have violated Open Meetings Law
June 21, 2022
The Pelham Board of Education voted 4-3 to grant Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ a new four-year contract at its last meeting of the year on Wednesday, extending her term as schools chief by an additional two years through 2026.
Board President Jessica DeDomenico, Vice President Sue Bratone Childs and Trustees John Brice and Leah Tahbaz voted for the contract to approve it with the narrowest possible margin on the seven-member board, while Trustees Vincent Mazzaro, Ian Rowe and Dr. Michael Owen-Michaane voted against it. The employment agreement gives Champ a new term running from July 1 to June 30, 2026. Champ’s current pact took effect in August 2019 and was set to end in August 2024. Under that deal, the board was not required to begin negotiations for a new contract until January 2024.
Brice, Tahbaz and Mazzaro’s terms on the board end June 30, with newly elected trustees Will Treves, Natalie Marrero and Jackie De Angelis taking office in July.
On July 1, only two members of the new board will have voted in favor of Champ’s contract.
The vote came after a number of citizens asked the school board to delay the decision to July when the three new board members will take office, and Owen-Michaane said the board may have violated the New York State Open Meetings Law by not posting Champ’s contract 24 hours in advance of the meeting.
In supporting the new pact, Bratone Childs said, “This was not the hiring of a new superintendent. This is the extension of a contract. This was not done purposely behind closed doors.”
Before the vote, Owen-Michaane moved to table the resolution approving the contract until July after citing the New York State Education Department case Dillion v. Eastport of 1993. He said the case covered a school board in Long Island, where a contract was approved before two new board members were seated. The contract was contested, and the verdict from the commissioner of education stated “the majority acted in a fundamentally anti-democratic manner.”
After the board spent time figuring out whether a motion to table could be accepted, the trustees voted 4-3 against tabling the resolution on Champ’s new employment agreement. Those voting against tabling the resolution were the same four trustees who would vote in favor of approving the deal.
“The meeting notice did not mention the contract,” Owen-Michaane said before the board voted on the contract. “Community members emailed requesting that the agenda and supporting documents be posted 24 hours in advance. The contract was not posted until this morning, and that may be contrary to Open Meetings Law.”
School district spokesman Alex Wolff said in an email when asked about the availability of the contact before the Wednesday night meeting, “Once we were notified by legal counsel that the full contract should be posted, it was added to the public portion of the agenda first thing Wednesday morning.”
Open Meetings Law
Jake Forken, a fellow at the New York State Committee on Open Government, said any document scheduled to be discussed at a board meeting should have been made available 24 hours in advance under section 103 of the Open Meetings Law. The remedy for such a violation would be for a citizen to bring an Article 78 proceeding against the Pelham Union Free School District in New York Supreme Court, which could vacate the board’s decision on the contract if it finds the Open Meetings Law was violated, said Forken.
Several public speakers at the meeting took issue with Champ’s contract extending beyond the three-year terms of Treves, Marrero and Angelis as board members. Some made the point that it would be wrong to make the decision without input from the newly elected trustees.
Former school board member Pete Liaskos also mentioned Dillion v. Eastport during the public comment period. “At least be swayed about what it has to say about the lack of wisdom,” said Liaskos. “Doing this is a bad example for our kids.”
Two of the trustees-elect made statements objecting to their exclusion from the board’s executive sessions and the negotiations on the contract.
“From the start, our efforts to be looped into the year-end discussions have been met with resistance,” said Jessyka Calzolaio, reading a statement on behalf of Marrero, who was unable to attend the meeting. “Despite it being contrary to custom, the trustee-elects have been repeatedly denied participation in executive sessions… effectively tying my hands related to (Champ’s) performance, expectations and terms of her review process.”
Treves said, “Had the incoming board members been invited to observe, even participate in these discussions, maybe we would have come to the very same conclusions as you. Or maybe we wouldn’t. But the point is, that by only finding out about these decisions through yesterday’s agenda, we missed that opportunity.”
Multiple sources, including Liaskos in a public post, have confirmed the school board this year abandoned its historic practice of inviting trustees-elect to attend the executive sessions that follow their election so they are up to speed on issues and decisions they’ll be dealing with when they take office.
Community member Carla Caccavale said, “This is about a lack of transparency. Decisions such as this have done more to divide this community than any other in this town’s history.”
However, resident Jeff Ginsburg said it was important to lock in Champ now: “I think in education, it’s a talent war. It’s really hard to find talented people, and it’s only getting harder and harder. Why would I want to go to a place if I don’t know who the leader is going to be? Just from a practical standpoint of a talent war, I want to keep excellence. I want students to have excellence.”
‘They can vote next time’
One community member interrupted DeDomenico to state that she is “the problem on this board.” At the time, DeDomenico was attempting to explain the contract process to Rowe, who had asked questions about not including the trustee-elects.
This is not the first time the school board has voted on a superintendent’s contract, or some part of it, before new board members were to be sworn in. At the last meeting of the year in 2015, the board of education voted to unanimously approve an amendment to the employment agreement with then Superintendent Dr. Peter Giarrizzo.
“I think it’s disingenuous to have this whole discussion because the new board members didn’t get to vote,” Brice said. “They can vote next time when they’re actually board members.”
A petition calling on the trustees to let the new board take up the contract in July collected 338 signatures. “With this being the last meeting of the year and the board composition changing very shortly, the newly elected members with the reconstituted board should be the ones making decisions about the employment contract of the superintendent who will ultimately report to that board,” the petition said.
In other business, the board voted unanimously to nominate former Trustee Eileen Miller to the board of education of the Southern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES).
This was the last board meeting of the school year and the district’s fiscal year. The next session on July 12 will be the organizational meeting.