By PETE WALTON
Over the opposition of parents, taxpayers, teachers and the union which represents them, the Neptune City Board of Education voted to tear up an existing contract with its chief school administrator and give her a new five-year deal.
The action came despite the pending addition of two new board members next month, and the departure of the current board president, a supporter of Chief School Administrator Debra Mercora.
Two board members — Antonio Lopez and Bruce Wescott — tried to table the new deal for Mercora. After their effort was defeated, the two men abstained from the 6-0 vote which awarded Mercora the new contract.
When the public was given the chance to comment before the vote, no one spoke in favor of the new contract for Mercora.
Anticipation of Mercora’s new deal prompted an unusual alignment of purpose between unionized teachers and members of the borough’s Republican political base, many of whom were present at the meeting last week in the Woodrow Wilson School gymnasium.
“Why rush into this when her contract’s not up?” asked resident Lauren Brutsman. “You should give the new members a voice. The people we elect don’t work for the [administrator] or the [board] president.”
Andrew Wardell, a parent of two children in the school who is also a teacher in another district and a member of the Neptune City Borough Council, said that deciding to extend Mercora’s contract was “not appropriate” before the new board members and new president took office.
“The board’s plan is not at a good time,” said Barbara Reynolds, a borough resident, former Woodrow Wilson student and current president of the Neptune City Education Association. “Our school is in a decline. We’ve lost programs and teachers. We do not endorse this action. The community stands in opposition to this contract extension.”
Ron Villano of the New Jersey Education Association distributed information from the state Department of Education which indicated that enrollment in the school has decreased 37 percent over five years while Neptune City now spends more on school administrators than 72 of the 75 districts in its comparison group.
A teacher who did not want her name made public for fear of reprisal said some board members seemed to believe that Mercora was their boss rather than the other way around.
“You are the power here,” Villano said to the board. “That’s why they elected you. Don’t let them down.”
Villano and the NCEA have filed several unfair practice charges against the board, including an assertion that Mercora tried to reduce the employment status of association vice president Kathy Williams to less than full-time.
The group says Mercora has engaged in “retaliatory conduct and demonstrated anti-union animus.”
Prior to the meeting, Mercora and board president Christine Oppegaard issued a statement responding to rumors that the school would be closed.
“Please rest assured that there is absolutely no validity to that information,” the statement read. “Neptune City is experiencing the same trends as the majority of school districts in New Jersey [with] decreasing enrollment, cuts in state aid and school funding, and increased state mandates.
“Yet, we continue to grow and are proud of all our programs and support we offer our students and families in Neptune City,” the statement continued.
“Our school does not have a future as an independent small school,” resident John Gunderson told the board. “You have the opportunity to talk to Bradley Beach about a shared services agreement.” Gunderson suggested that the five-year commitment to Mercora could get in the way of such an agreement.
The nine-person board is missing one member since the recent election of Democrat Michelle Lewis to the borough council.
While Wescott and Lopez abstained, voting in favor of the new contract for Mercora were Oppegaard, board vice president Anthony Susino, Christina Mordaunt, Marissa Smith, Madeline Tallman and David Whalen.
After the vote was taken, a majority of the large crowd at the gym walked out of the meeting as Mercora turned toward them and smiled.