Former school trustee: BOE majority factually inaccurate in claims outgoing boards approved superintendent contracts


As most of our community knows, the Pelham Board of Education voted June 15 to enter into a new four-year contract with the current superintendent. Unfortunately, this decision was made at the last scheduled meeting of the year, thereby preventing the three newly elected board members from voting on this decision. Prior to last week, the new school board members were also excluded from participating in any board executive sessions—a departure from prior tradition.

During last week’s meeting, some trustees claimed that there was nothing “uncommon” or “unusual” about excluding new board members from voting on a superintendent contract or participating in the discussion process. They also seemed to assert that normal “end of the year” processes somehow precluded them from waiting a couple of weeks for the new board members to be seated. I respectfully do not believe that those assertions bear any factual scrutiny.

Given that the board of education did not properly comply with the New York State Open Meetings Law during the last meeting and has scheduled a revote on this issue on the very last day of its term, I think an understanding of the board’s actual practices is critical. Below is my understanding of the board’s actual practices in recent years.

Going back to 2015, the board has entered into or extended a superintendent contract on four separate occasions. Each time, the vote on the superintendent contract did not take place until the new board members were seated and were given the opportunity to publicly vote on the contract.

I respectfully do not believe that those assertions bear any factual scrutiny.

Based on the district’s publicly posted minutes and agenda, here is the chronology as I understand it:

In September 2019, the one newly elected member, Leah Tahbaz (and the two reelected incumbents), publicly voted on a new contract for Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ that gave her, among other things, a five-year term. This occurred less than three months after the newly elected board member was seated.

In July 2018, once again, the two newly elected board members were present for and publicly voted on a one-year contract extension for Champ.

In July 2017, yet again, the two newly elected school board members, Jessica DeDomenico and Sue Bratone Childs—the current board president and vice president—both voted on the initial contract for  Champ.

During last week’s meeting, DeDomenico defended her decision to move forward without the new trustees by asserting that she and Childs did not get to vote on the superintendent’s contract when they were new board members. This assertion is not accurate and is contradicted by the board of education video of them doing so.

In May 2015, three trustees were elected, two incumbents and one new board member. That one new member was sworn in on June 1, 2015, because of an early departure of an existing board member. Two weeks later, the entire board, including the one newly elected trustee and the incumbents who were reelected, publicly voted on a one-year contract extension for a former superintendent.

As a consequence, the decision to move forward with a new four-year contract for Champ—without allowing the newly elected board members to vote—does not appear to be typical or “common” in Pelham. Quite the opposite.  It appears to be directly at odds with recent practices.

No legal requirement

I know of no legal or statutory requirement that in any way necessitated that this current contract be addressed before the new board members were seated. Notably, the board did not articulate any such legal rationale for the timing of its decision. There simply is no legal “end-of-the-school-year requirement” for doing this. If that were the case, this obviously would have been handled differently in the past.

Tellingly, as explained during the last school board meeting, the New York State Education Department has emphatically criticized the “wisdom” of outgoing boards who attempt to extend superintendent contracts for multiple years and has cautioned that doing so is “anti-democratic.” If there was some type of timing or legal requirement that required this decision to be made before new board members could be seated, the education department certainly would not have taken this position.

Notably, none of the four members on the school board who voted to the extend Champ’s contract ever explained (or even addressed) why they were willing to do so in the face of the education department’s stated concerns and cautions. This is troubling on multiple levels.

Doesn’t expect perfect recall

In fairness, as a former trustee on the board of education, I am cognizant that many of the past events blur together, and I do not expect any board member to have perfect recall. I ascribe no ill intention to the unfortunately inaccurate statements that were made by certain trustees during the last meeting. I certainly do not have a perfect memory, and to be honest, I had to go back and verify the records for a couple of the above events, even though I was present for some of them.

However, in my opinion, the school board should not have emphatically and repeatedly informed the community that it was perfectly common and usual to move forward with a new superintendent contract without allowing the newly elected board members to give input and vote—without checking to make sure this was accurate.

More importantly, given that the board’s stated premise for moving ahead with the contract does not appear to be borne out by the district’s recent history, and given that the state education department has described last-minute votes about superintendent contracts as “anti-democratic” and “unwise,” there appears to be no rationale for rushing this vote through (a second time) at tonight’s meeting.

I hope that at least one of the four members who voted in favor of this dubious resolution last week will refrain from doing so this evening.

Peter Liaskos served as a trustee on the Pelham Board of Education  from July 2016 to June 2019.