Overtime scandal in Newark schools–union demands ouster of personnel chief

Rodriguez--both the school board and the teachers' union want her out.
Rodriguez–both the school board and the teachers’ union want her out.

The Newark Teachers Union and its president, John Abeigon, have filed a legal action asking the state’s education commissioner to fire the so-called “chief talent officer” of the state-operated Newark district, Vanessa Rodriguez, contending she lacks the proper qualifications and licensing for the position.

The petition was filed just hours before the Newark school board–which had once tried to fire Rodriguez–forced the personnel chief to read a document that publicly revealed problems involving the overpayment of overtime to city school administrators. Rodriguez’s boss, state-appointed superintendent Christopher Cerf, had tried to play down the document that admitted some school employees had received tens of thousands of dollars in unearned overtime. The employees receiving the illegal bonuses were not identified.

The revelations come just as Cerf has cut back on funds used by schools to provide books, materials, supplies, and support services. The school year began with the state-operated schools more than $60 million in the hole, but Cerf contends he has reduced the shortfall to less than $13 million.

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Abeigon, in revealing the administrative petition filed with state Education Commissioner David Hespe, called Rodriguez a “quack” who had visited “misery and damage” on Newark children, parents, and school employees.

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The union and its president also asked Hespe to set aside “all personnel decisions she had made, tenure charges she certified, and layoffs of employees that she approved.”

Rodriguez had been one of the highest-paid administrators in the district, making $185,000 annually.

She was a close confidante of Cami Anderson, once a political  operative for former Mayor–now US Sen.–Cory Booker;  Anderson was named  state-operated superintendent  four years ago by Gov. Chris Christie. Christie fired her in June and replaced her with Christopher Cerf, a former state education commissioner and Anderson supporter.

Cerf has consistently supported Rodriguez and vetoed the school board vote earlier this year to fire her.

Cerf, however, could not prevent the embarrassing public spectacle of the board’s decision to require Rodriguez to read a document–a “corrective action plan”–required by the state that revealed a potential scandal in her department involving illegal overtime payments.

The document revealed that the district overpaid eight employees $10,922.34 for “duplicate hours” and failed to provide supporting documentation for the payment of an additional $56,619. Rodriguez said that, “due to the volume of paperwork involved, i9t it likely that many of these forms were misplaced or missing.”

Rodriguez also conceded that the direct did not comply with rules requiring written approval of overtime payment. She also said timesheets documenting the justification for overtime were “not always approved” by relevant supervisors. She insisted, however, that she discovered the problems and reported them to authorities.

NTU President John Abeigon
NTU President John Abeigon

Cerf had wanted the document posted quietly on the district’s website by board members objected and demanded it be read publicly. The board must approve the plan before it is sent to the state. The discrepancies in overtime payments were initially discovered in a state audit. Rodriguez said the matter has been referred to the Essex County prosecutor’s office for possible criminal investigation.

This was the second major scandal involving Rodriguez’s office. The state administration had to admit earlier this year that another close aide to Anderson, Tiffany Hardrick, had been paid sick time from Newark while working as a superintendent in an Arkansas school district.

The current scandal involving the so-called “talent office” does not figure in the legal action brought the teachers’ union and its president. That complaint cites the licenses required of school administrators who perform the duties of a personnel chief in a public school system. Rodriguez, the lawsuit contends, holds none of the certifications.

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“As a result of Respondent Rodriguez lacking the proper certificate and endorsements to perform the duties she has been and is performing with the Respondent District, she lacked and lacks authority and power to perform any and all the duties she has been performing since she commenced her employment with Respondent District,” the complaint charges.

“This includes, but is not limited to, all personnel decisions she made, tenure charges she certified, and layoffs of employees that she approved.”

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The union wants Hespe to declare all personnel actions Rodriguez initiated or approved “legally null and void.”

Hespe, although a lawyer, has proven to be loyal to Christie’s decisions involving Newark. He is unlikely to grant the NTU’s petition and will probably allow Cerf to keep Rodriguez on as long as the new state-appointed superintendent wishes.

 

 

18.       Because Respondent Rodriguez lacked the proper certificate and endorsements to perform she duties she has been and is performing with the Respondent District, all acts Respondent Rodriguez engaged in and approved for Respondent District were ultra vires and consequently, legally null and void.

“The NTU has filed a PETITION FOR DECLARATORY RULING AND INJUNCTIVE RELIEF against Vanessa Rodriguez, NPS Chief Talent Officer. Rodriguez lacks the certificates and endorsements required to perform the duties she has been and is performing with NPS, she lacked and lacks authority and power to perform any and all the duties she has been performing since she commenced her employment with NPS. This includes, but is not limited to, all personnel decisions she made, tenure charges she certified, and layoffs of employees that she approved. Because Respondent Rodriguez lacked the proper certificate and endorsements to perform the duties she has been and is performing with the NPS, all acts Rodriguez engaged in and approved for NPS were consequently, legally null and void.”

 

The misery and damage this reform quack has been allowed to perpetuate, first by the discredited Cami Anderson, and now by Sup’t Chris Cerf, against Newark children, parents and school staff is heartbreaking. Fortunately, it is not immeasurable and with the right ruling on the part of Commissioner Hespe and his experienced legal team, much of the damage can be reversed and stopped altogether moving forward.

4 comments

  1. Abigail Shure

    As a repeat victim of Chief Talent Officer Vanessa Rodriguez’s personnel decisions, I stand in complete support of the NTU legal action. I served as EWP for two non consecutive school years. On the second occasion, I was forced to teach outside of my certification despite the existence of openings in that school in my certification and consequently received a Partially Effective annual rating. I am currently teaching under a nine page CAP and in the event I am deemed Partially Effective again, my tenure and my teaching certification will be in jeopardy.

    Furthermore, last summer, I was first informed by Ms. Rodriguez that I would continue in my EWPS status providing additional support in the same school. Subsequent documentation stated that I would serve as a Bilingual Spanish teacher despite lacking proper certification and not speaking Spanish. The third notification required me to transfer to a different school to work in my field. I have been subjected to unwarranted stress and harassment due to the capricious employment fiats issued by Ms. Rodriguez.

  2. booklady

    If NPS pays an incompetent $185K, what does it cost to hire a certified school district personnel director to work accurately and honestly?

  3. booklady

    Dear Mr Braun,
    Have you seen NJTV News 11-10-15 “Superintendent Cerf Stands Up for NJ Schools” interview w Mary Alice Williams? I read the transcript from a link on NJ Spotlight today.
    You, Jersey Jazzman, Dr Bruce Baker, et al. need to respond.
    •Cerf re NPS budget deficit: “Well, the first thing we did is we said we’re going to do everything in our power not to touch the schools.”
    •Cerf “…there’s a recent study that shows that Newark is doing better than literally every other urban center in the nation.” Which study, what criteria???
    •Why does Mary Alice Williams posit that charter schools get better teachers??

    Bob Braun: Because, after seeing her work on Newark schools in the past, I have to conclude, sadly, that Mary Alice Williams is to journalism what Cami Anderson is to effective educational administration. And please do not forget she works for the Adubato Television Network.

  4. NPS HR

    Ms. Rodriguez deserves everything coming to her. She is a terror to work for. Is that the opposite of a Chief Talent Officer?

    D.C. (During Cami) – Ms. Rodriguez would stomp around 2 Cedar like she owned the place, then hurry home to New York City. She showed no actual interest in Newark or to any of us. At 2 Cedar she treated everyone horribly. She really thought she was brilliant.

    A.C. (After Cami) – Now, Rodriguez walks around 2 Cedar with her head down. She is much quieter. She seems to have no interest in getting that involved. She must know no one supports her or even likes her, but to her credit you do see her fake smile more. Her arrogance is gone and I assume she is still here just to get her big, fat paycheck. As Chief Talent Officer, isnt her job to make sure 2 Cedar has the best people? She has become one of the people she would make fun of and then fire. She is just – to use her own words – “dead weight.” She spent months in Newark firing people, claiming, “its for the kids.” The best thing she can do for kids now is to leave. She has failed.

    Bob, that is the personal, but there are plenty of ethical issues she is going to have to address soon. This woman did many questionable things when she worked for Cami. The more you OPRA her, the more you will know.

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