Schools Chief vs. BOE Lawsuit Hearings Continue
Board of Ed members testify Thursday as Dr. LeRoy Seitz's breach of contract suit against the BOE and Department of Education quietly began last month.
The long-promised legal face-off between Parsippany Superintendent of Schools LeRoy Seitz, the school board and the state Department of Education over the schools chief's disputed contract is underway.
Testimony in the case being heard at the Office of Administrative Law in Newark began quietly in September, with no announcement by the school district.
Seitz, who gave his testimony last month, is alleging breach of contract against the school board and the state. In December 2010, Parsippany's board signed a contract with the superintendent—a year before the old pact's expiration date. The state then demanded that the pact be rescinded because it did not comply with a salary cap announced in summer 2010 and enacted in February 2011 by Gov. Chris Christie.
The case has been heard on intermittent days since its start. Thursday was one of those days. Testimony featured BOE member and former president Anthony Mancuso, who last year spearheaded an unsuccessful suit against the state in defense of the contract, and board member Michael Strumolo, a vocal opponent of the agreement.
The governor publicly labeled Seitz "the poster boy of greed" over the matter. And the Department of Education threatened to cut state aid to the school district if it didn't end the deal.
The contract was finally rescinded in October 2011, but not before Seitz allegedly received overpayments totalling about $38,000.
On Thursday, Mancuso took the witness stand first.
Under questioning from attorney Robert Gold, who represents the school board, Mancuso testified that the BOE renegotiated Seitz's contract early under the advice of former board attorney Mark Tabakin, who said the school board had to notify the superintendent of its intent regarding his contract a year before the old contract expired.
He said that negotiations were handled by Tabakin and BOE member Frank Neglia and that his involvement was limited to getting updates on the talks from Tabakin.
"[Negotiations] went very easily," said Mancuso. "[Seitz] wanted to stay with us, and we wanted to keep him."
Gold asked whether the early renegotiation of the contract had anything to do with the governor's then-forthcoming plan to cap superintendent salaries.
Mancuso said no.
"I had heard some rumors in August or September, but at that time they were rumors," he said. "Our attorney hadn't mentioned anything along those lines that would have been an issue for us."
The question came again: Was circumventing the cap the reason for the early consideration?
"Absolutely not," said Mancuso. "We had a contractual obligation to [address the pact] at that time. It had nothing to do with anything else going on."
He added that Tabakin told him that Executive County Superintendent Kathleen Serafino had given her OK to the contract and that he believed the attorney showed the board an e-mail dated Nov. 9, 2010, supporting that contention.
Mancuso's testimony went on to say that Michael Strumolo moved to table contract discussions to Nov. 23, 2010, but that the motion was defeated. The agreement was officially signed, he said, in December of that year.
He added that Ralph Goodwin, business administrator of Serafino's office, said on Oct. 29, 2010, that the contract was sound.
"When did you learn there might be a problem?" Gold asked.
"About three or four days later," Mancuso replied, saying that a letter from Serafino appeared directing the Parsippany board to rescind the pact. "We—myself, Dr. Seitz, perhaps [former Business Administrator Marlene] Wendolowski—reviewed it with the board attorney. His advice to me at that time was to have him send a letter back for clarification."
By November, prior to the signing of the contract, Gov. Christie held the Town Hall meeting in Toms River in which he targeted Superintendent Seitz. The governor's speech made its way to YouTube.
Mancuso said someone called him and told him about the video.
"He went after Dr. Seitz in a way that I don't understand," he said. "We followed the advice of our attorney throughout the process. It didn't make any sense to me. I didn't understand why he appeared to be going after Dr. Seitz in a malicious and prominent way. It took me by surprise, it just seems to be so overboard."
"Did you have any thoughts that the board acted improperly when it approved the contract with Dr. Seitz?" Gold asked.
Mancuso said no.
"We did everything by the book," Mancuso said. "We followed every rule in place; [Tabakin] was very confident."
Asked how Christie found out about the contract, Mancuso mentioned that two board members opposed to the pact, Strumolo and Robert Crawford, "had contacts to the governor's office, so after the fact I know these contacts were involved somehow."
He testified that state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio telephoned him more than once to see if he could serve as a liaison between the Parsippany school board and the state to "make [the controversy] go away."
Judge Solomon noted that testimony regarding Pennacchio was hearsay and asked Gold if he planned to call him as a witness.
"I intend to call the senator," he said.
Mancuso also testified regarding allegations that Andrew Berns, a member of the state ethics committee, inappropriately took Robert Crawford's teen son to a football game and visited Gov. Christie's personal box seats.
Gold—over the objections of Department of Education attorney Daniel F. Dryzga Jr.—stated that Berns would be called in as a witness as well.
After a recess, Strumolo was called to the witness stand.
Asked how he voted on Seitz's contract in November 2010, Strumolo answered, "I'm pretty confident I voted no."
Gold asked whether Strumolo was aware that the governor was planning a Town Hall meeting in Toms River that month.
"I'm pretty sure I watched it on television," he said. "Is this the one where he referred to Dr. Seitz as the poster boy for greed?"
Strumolo further testified that he did not know how Christie was made aware of the school board's newly negotiated contract with Seitz. Under questioning, he admitted that he had known Sen. Pennacchio "for 20 years."
Asked whether he and the state senator had discussed the Seitz contract prior to Nov. 9, 2010, Strumolo said, "To the best of my recollection, no."
Gold continued with his line of questioning.
"Did you have communications with the governor's staff?"
"Absolutely not," said Strumolo.
"Do you know Andy Berns?"
"Did you provide a copy of the contract to anyone from the governor's staff?"
"You were aware in July of 2011 that the board voted to rescind Dr. Seitz's contract..."
"I voted no against that too," said Strumolo, adding that he was aware of threats from the DOE against the school district. "The governor said no superintendent contracts were to be approved."
The witness testified that he spoke with Morris County Republican Party Chair John Sette and asked him to "reach out to the governor to hold a town meeting in Parsippany to clear up any confusion over the cap [and the] contract."
Seitz's attorney Andrew Babiak stepped up to question Strumolo, asking how he characterized his relationship with the superintendent, who sat silently in the courtroom.
"Not good," Strumolo said, looking directly at his apparent nemesis.
"Why is it not good?" Babiak asked.
"Arrogance on Dr. Seitz's part," the witness answered. "I believe he is arrogant ... and has controlled votes."
Babiak then brought up the recent unsuccessful lawsuit against Strumolo and the BOE brought by Kathleen Warrick, the former Parsippany schools transportation director.
Warrick's contract was not renewed by the district shortly after she terminated Strumolo's 30-year contract to handle school bus maintenance. She sued, blaming Strumolo for allegedly influencing the board to end her employment with the district.
"Did it upset you to not have [the bus contract] anymore?" Babiak asked. "Explain that to me. You couldn't get along with the transportation director that Dr. Seitz put in place."
School board attorney Kathleen Gilfillan objected and Babiak took another route to establish Strumolo's antipathy for Seitz, who ran for a postion on the BOE shortly after losing the bus contract.
"Why did you want to become a member of the board?"
Strumolo said it was because he had "adopted a special-needs child."
Babiak then asked when his relationship with the superintendent went sour.
"About six months ago," Strumolo replied.
"Do you think your relationship was bad in November 2010?"
Strumolo said that the contract was the issue.
"I thought the contract was too lucrative," he said. "He made a more than fair amount of money. There was no need to rescind the old contract."
"Is that what prompted you to call John Sette, your belief that [Seitz] was trying to make an end run around the salary cap?" Babiak asked.
"I can't recall, but I am sure that was prevalent in my mind," Strumolo said.
Babiak then brought up a letter Strumolo sent to Gov. Christie last month accusing Seitz of harassing and intimidating him with threats of filing ethics charges against him.
Strumolo spoke of a recent school board closed session and accused the superintendent of shouting at him and declaring him in violation of ethics laws governing BOE members.
"I told him, 'Charge me. If you're not going to charge me, then shut up,'" he said.
[After that episode took place, the board—without Strumolo—approved a resolution to hire former state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein to investigate a matter that was not revealed to the public. Ultimately, Stein told the board that Strumolo's alleged acts weren't actionable.]
When Babiak had exhausted his questions, attorney Gold stood and asked Strumolo why he sent the letter to Christie.
"The letter I sent to the governor was about [Seitz's alleged] retaliation [for speaking against the superintendent's contract]," Strumolo said.
Judge Solomon ended the day of testimony, saying that the hearing would resume sometime next week.