West Morris Regional High School District Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast, less than two years into his current contract, received a vote of confidence Monday night as the board of education approved an extension for an additional five years.
But the vote didn’t come before residents from the Mendhams and Chesters, along with board members themselves, spoke for and against the extension for a total of two hours at the Mendham High School library.
The extension, which was submitted to the county superintendent for review and approval in May, was not a piece of new business for the board, but the process – and timing – of the agenda item was brought into question.
Sitting before a room full of outspoken residents, including public officials and candidates running in upcoming elections, the board of education was implored, over and over, to table the vote as well as to pass the measure immediately.
“It’s inappropriate for board members to vote on a new extension right now,” Mendham resident Brian Cavanaugh said. “This ties the hands of future boards. It’s wrong to jam it through.”
Cavanaugh cited the timing as odd with school board elections on the horizon and at least one current representative – James Johnston of Chester Township, also the board president – not seeking re-election. Three Chester Township residents are running to fill the three-year seat. Cavanaugh himself is a candidate in the election, challenging incumbent Mendham Borough representative Jacke Schram for a three-year seat.
"Why can't we wait until the new board is in place?" Cavanaugh asked.
Mendham Township Committeeman Rob Strobel went the other way on the matter, telling the board now was the perfect time to “lock up” a school administrator who is being paid under market value.
“I urge this board to approve the extension for Mackey Pendergrast,” Strobel said. “With (state-mandated) salary caps, there is really only one way to reward superintendents, and that’s with a vote of confidence like this extension. This is the right thing to do and this is the right time to do it.
“We need to protect Mackey Pendergrast from the special interest groups and political winds in our towns,” Strobel said.
Contention came from residents, however, who took umbrage with the contract itself for a variety of reasons. By state law, contracts for superintendents come in three- and five-year increments. In the new contract, a clause for a five-year automatic renewal at the end of the potential extension would be enacted unless voted down by the sitting board in 2018.
While some residents focused on the stability and continuity a five-year accord would bring, others, as well as at least one board member, were weary of being short-changed by a potential change of heart by the superintendent.
The extension runs for five years, but a clause in the contract gives Pendergrast the ability to give just a 90-day notice if he chooses to leave his post. It took the board nearly the same amount of time to hire Pendergrast, who was already working in the district, when former superintendent Anthony di Battista retired in February 2012.
For the majority of opposed residents who came before the board Monday night, the most important issue was the matter of procedure and rushing to make a decision.
“If we were given more notice it could have created more public input,” said Bruce Sullivan of Chester Township, one of the three men looking to fill Johnston’s seat.
“Why the rush to judgment?” Cavanaugh asked. “Approving this extension is premature at this point.”
“Following a proper process prevents abuse of power,” said former Chester representative to the board Sue Guillmette. “I would like to feel you’re not just shoving something through.”
Strobel came back to the board and explained it’s more than just an extension, it’s protection. “There are two board members hell bent on dissolving this district,” he said. “I urge this board to (approve) this tonight.”
“I believe major decisions like this need more contemplation and consideration,” board member Marcia Asdal said, who explained she wouldn’t be approving the measure prior to the vote.
Speaking on behalf of the board’s negotiations committee, Washington Township representative Joe Galayda explained why the extension was brought to a vote in the first place.
“In the year and-a-half that Mackey has been the superintendent, he’s exceeded our expectations,” the board vice president said. “This gives Mackey security and he won’t have to worry about special interest groups that have nothing to do with education.”
Mendham Township representative James Button put forth a motion to table a vote on the extension, which was knocked down by a 6-2 vote. Asdal sided with him as the two nays.
“This extension locks the board and others in,” Button said. “This is a bad deal. A one-sided deal.”
Washington Township representative John Meyer explained his reason to act on the motion, saying, “Someone of Mackey’s talent will get other offers from different districts, maybe some out of state where there is no cap. He’ll get an offer somewhere else and we need to retain him here.”
No residents from Washington Township spoke at the meeting.
The board voted 6-2 in favor of the extension (Button and Asdal nay; Don Storms, Lisa Woodring, Schram, Johnston, Galayda, Meyer aye). Washington Township representative Tom Richar was absent for the vote. The contract is now added to Pendergrast’s current three-year agreement, and runs through June 30, 2018.