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

Trustee Dr. Michael Owen-Michaane (center) moved to table until July the resolution on Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ’s new contract.

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.”

Read Superintendent Champ’s new contract approved on Wednesday

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.

The video of the meeting can be viewed here.

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  • J

    John BriceJun 23, 2022 at 7:00 pm

    A final thought, please read the Journal News front page article on this event published June 21. It’s a balanced piece that gives well researched background on the difficulty of retaining quality district leadership throughout the county. Quite a contrast to the one sided article published here.

  • J

    John BriceJun 18, 2022 at 8:27 pm

    Once again the Examiner demonstrates its bias against the School Board and Administration. Instead of an evenhanded portrayal of the Board’s reasons for extending Dr Champs contract the Examiner focuses on the outrage over the Boards doing its job and not handing it off to the next Board; a Board with with three completely inexperienced new Board members. As was stated multiple times in the meeting Dr. Champs contract has been extended on two previous occasions, once for one year and once for three years. I don’t see those statements in your article or the fact that, at the time, there was barely a mention in your publication and no public objection. So what’s the difference now? Perhaps it’s because two Board members saw an opportunity to hijack this vote and put it to the next Board where they could expect a result more to their liking. Thus the narrative that the new Board had the “right” to make this decision.
    The Examiner has embraced this narrative and fanned its flames instead of asking the basic question, why is it so important for this decision be put off? Everyone on Wednesday was so careful to state that their outrage was about the process and not about Dr Champ but, really? ‘

    The most consistent theme I heard on Wednesday night was a desire to re-unify a divided Pelham community. Contrary to many opinions expressed on Wednesday, this is not a result of actions taken by the School Board. Instead it is driven by people in the community with a particular agenda and who see sowing discord as a useful strategy; the Examiner is merely one of their tools. For those in our community who value the District we have all built over the years be aware that those folks are on the ascendancy.

    • A

      Arthur LongJun 19, 2022 at 5:54 pm

      I hope that the incoming Board will ask for a legal opinion that the Public Meetings Law was not violated by the failure to make the contract available 24 hours before the meeting. If such an opinion cannot be given, it would seem there is good cause to avoid the extension. Mr. Brice’s protestations to the contrary, the Examiner has done a service to the community in reflecting the “process” that led to this result. As members of an educational board, moreover, the lame duck majority should ask itself what message it is sending to Pelham’s students about democracy and fair play. In my view, a very poor one.

    • R

      Richard GorskiJun 19, 2022 at 7:37 pm

      It was interesting to see that neither the discussions on Wednesday evening nor your comments here mentioned two important things: (1) Contrary to what was publicly stated at the last meeting, BOE meeting minutes show that both the current BOE President and Vice President were newly sworn in trustees who in fact did vote on appointing Dr. Champ as the current superintendent on July 11, 2017 and (2) Dr. Champ’s contract was extended until in September 2019, allowing the then relatively newly seated Board to vote on this extension. Let’s not continue to try to pretend that what happened on Wednesday evening at the BOE meeting was “normal” business. Yes, the BOE had the legal right to do what it did, but as NYSED has clearly stated in a similar case, it was not wise to do so. I did not hear any of the BOE members actually state why we should have renegotiated Dr. Champ’s contract now, only that it had the right to do so. The current BOE clearly knew that by taking this action that it would serve to further divide the community, but did so anyway.

      • C

        Chris CarusoJun 19, 2022 at 9:51 pm

        The article also notes that the Board voted to approve Superintendent Dr. Peter Giarrizzo’s extension at the last meeting of the year in June 2015 before a newly elected Board member was sworn in. So, hard to argue that this year’s action was precedent setting or unusual.

        • R

          Richard GorskiJun 19, 2022 at 11:30 pm

          No this wasn’t precedent setting, but it was under very different circumstances than 2015. This time we had at least 340 residents who expressed a desire to delay the vote to the BOE and at least two of the current trustee-elects requested a delay in the vote, while in 2015 neither of the trustee-elects requested a delay and I am not aware of any residents who had requested a delay (I watched the video of the 2015 meeting and there was no discussion on the extension vote). Also we need to keep in mind that the only reason that it was ONLY ~340 residents who expressed a desire for a delay this time was because the vote was not announced until 24 hours before the meeting (with the majority of people in town only hearing about it AFTER the fact). IMO the next BOE needs to do a better job releasing the meeting agendas, we realize that things can change up until a day before, but they really should be able to at least announce a tentative agenda more than 24 hours in advance in order to limit surprises.

  • D

    Donna Chaklos GammonJun 18, 2022 at 4:21 pm

    Important to note 338 signatures were gathered inside a 24 hr period leading up to the meeting.