ANALYSIS: How Two Asbury Park School Board Members–and the Superintendent– Ended Up Facing Ethics Charges

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on facebook
Share on twitter

Sometimes a small incident serves as an emblem of greater rot, the way a seemingly harmless mole turns out to be basal cell carcinoma. This sort of thing happens all the time in Asbury Park Public Schools District: a student-centered international expedition turns out to be a scam for an all-adults vacation; an isolated incident of  a kid bringing a loaded gun to school is actually a sign of lax disciplinary oversight; an apparent effort to raise graduation rates and student achievement  is, in fact, a PR stunt called the 64 Floor that hurts children and families.

I think we may have another mole on our hands.

NJ Education Report has access to court documents, emails, and other related material through Open Public Records requests and sources who wish to remain anonymous.

This past spring, the New Jersey School Ethics Commission examined evidence presented by Asbury Park resident Remond Palmer, who says the Asbury Park School Board decided not to hire him as head basketball coach despite the recommendations of Athletic Director Mark Gerbino and the interviewing committee, as well as approval by Asbury Park Education Association President John Napolitani. Palmer claims School Board Vice President Barbara Lesinski and member Connie Breech conspired with then-Acting Superintendent Rashawn Adams to nix his hiring; in exchange, Adams would be appointed permanent superintendent. 

According to the latest court documents, the Commission dismissed all charges against Adams.  (An earlier version of the ruling maintained one charge* but it was later dropped because Adams provided “facts and  circumstances supporting a contrary position.”) The one charge not dismissed against Lesinski and Breech is the alleged violation of state statute 18A:12-24.1(d), which disallows board members from giving “a direct order to school personnel” or being “directly involved in activities and functions that are responsibility of school personnel or the day-to-day administration of the school district.” Specifically, the Commission will examine whether Lesinski and Breech “offered an unsolicited (and inaccurate) opinion or belief about whether a candidate for employment was eligible for a position.”

Lesinski and Breech’s attorney, Angela Gurrera, responded to NJ Ed Report’s request for comment: “Ms. Breech and Ms. Lesinski continue to deny these allegations and look forward to having an opportunity to fully address them, something which they have not been able to do in the proceedings to date. We will not be trying this case in the press. Ms. Breech and Ms. Lesinski deserve to have their day in court, where all parties are afforded due process – even members of the Asbury Park Board of Education.”

In some ways this is laughable. Asbury Park is well-known for its culture of nepotism, abrupt dismissals of staff members deemed insufficiently loyal (this principal was forced to resign after calling district leadership a “crime syndicate”), and, from all appearances, total lack of oversight from State Monitor Carole Morris, whom taxpayers rewarded this year with $89,856. (Actually a bargain: her annual salary used to be $171K.) And here we have two board members getting heat for allegedly interfering with the hiring of a basketball coach? Talk about the tip of the iceberg. Yet the Ethics Board, which typically dismisses charges, elected to maintain that one charge against Lesinski and Breech, a victory for Palmer.

Let’s get into the meat of it: last October Athletic Director Gerbino was hiring a head basketball coach and two assistant coaches. Following long-established procedure, he posted the positions, sent the names to the Human Resources office to ensure they could pass criminal background checks, set up an interview team and conducted interviews, submitted the names and the committee’s opinion on who was best suited for the jobs to the Athletic Committee, and then sent the final choices to the Central Office for School Board approval at the public meeting on October 29, 2021. Local teachers union president Napolitani told Gerbino that Palmer was well-qualified and the union supported his appointment as head basketball coach. Ho hum.

But something went wrong and a series of events led to state ethics charges, smearing of reputations, and what several sources call blatant racism.

Palmer (who is African-American) has a long history in Asbury Park: he’s a graduate of the district, a firefighter in town, a district substitute teacher, and a former Asbury Park school board member. He also ran a basketball program out of Asbury Park schools for six years. But more than 30 years ago, in 1989, he was arrested  in South Carolina for a drug offense. On March 13, 2019 his record was expunged. (This is now a common practice when there is no violence or collateral damage in order to rectify what the Center for American Progress calls “decades of biased policing and charging” and the “overcriminalization” of people of color, particularly Black men.)

Some sources say, however, that Acting Superintendent Rashawn Adams didn’t want Palmer to get the job, perhaps on his own or perhaps because of pressure from Lesinski and Breech, both white women. But Adams badly wanted the job as permanent superintendent. (The Board ended up selecting him this past June through a shady arrangement where the only other candidate set to be interviewed dropped out.**)  After Gerbino forwarded Palmer’s name for inclusion in the board agenda, he got an email from Adams (dated October 20, 2021) criticizing the hiring process: “during the last selection of the Boys’ Basketball positions you did not ensure that the criteria for selection was followed,” Adams wrote. Then the acting superintendent itemized the ways in which he claimed Gerbino violated procedures. Gerbino followed up the next day rebutting Adams’ accusations one-by-one in a factual manner. (Full email at the bottom of the page.) 

Adams’ long list of the ways Gerbino “did not ensure that the criteria for selection was followed” begins with this: “You selected a candidate for head coach that [sic] would not be cleared by criminal background check.” But here’s the thing: at the time, Adams was also in charge of HR, which performs the background checks. And, since Palmer was already a substitute teacher, he had to have passed a background check, which Adams presumably knew.  (NJ Ed Report has a copy of Palmer’s certification of credentials, affirming he passed a criminal background check.)

So what was behind Adams’ furious attack on Gerbino’s hiring process? I’ve been told by sources that Breech told Gerbino in a school board committee meeting that Palmer’s hiring as head basketball coach was a no-go. (Lesinski recuses herself from personnel matters because she has relatives who work in the district.) When Gerbino asked why, Breech allegedly told him because Palmer couldn’t pass a background check, the first item on Adams’ angry email. 

I have more questions than answers. Yet there is a long history of the school board making questionable decisions (hiring Adams, many staff members tell me, was one of them), a long history of parent discontent (that’s why the district is down to 1,700 students; one mom told me, “this district is trying to silence parents”), a long history of a culture that teachers label a “shitshow,” a long history of incompetent management.

All we know is we have a district where state oversight is lax and student achievement is in the cellar, despite artificially inflated grades through the 64 Floor scheme plus an annual per pupil cost of $33,436.

This litigation is on the taxpayers’ dime. The real damage is inflicted on Asbury Park families stuck in district schools.

 

*In a separate court case between Adams and Palmer, Adams says he “may have initially received information which became inaccurate due to the passage of time and change in circumstances, the underlying factual accuracy that Mr. Palmer once had a criminal record remains unchanged.” He also says Palmer is indulging in “fantastical claims of a conspiracy to connect the appointment of a part-time basketball coach with the appointment of a Chief School Administrator entrusted with the well-being of thousands of students.” (Actually, Asbury’s enrollment is down to 1,700 students.)

** NJER readers know the school board declined to do a search for a permanent superintendent after Sancha Gray resigned to follow Lamont Repollet to Kean University. Also, after the Board hired Adams without giving adequate public notice, the local union filed a complaint *with the State Department of Education and demanded Adams’ contract be declared “null and void.”

**********************************************************************************

This is one in a series of emails between Athletic Director Mark Gerbino and Superintendent Rashawn Adams. In this particular one, Gerbino responds to Adams’ criticism point-by-point, showing that he did indeed follow proper procedure and Adams’ accusations are factually untrue. Gerbino’s remarks are in regular typeface; Adams’ remarks are in italics.

Subject: RE: Interview Process
Dr. Adams,

Just some responses to your bullet points below. I also included the APEA president on this email due to the question about the negotiated agreement. If I am wrong with my understanding of the agreement as I discussed with him in the past then I would like to be corrected so I can avoid this problem in the future.

The process that you indicated that you followed has been the same for years. However, during the last selection of the Boys’ Basketball positions you did not ensure that the criteria for selection was followed. The below bullets is just a few of the concerns regarding the process that were not followed: You selected a candidate for head coach that would not be cleared by criminal background check.

I selected a candidate based on knowledge and expertise. I have no knowledge of any criminal history as was suggested by the Board members. Criminal history checks are done through HR. So if I was given a candidate to interview from HR, then I should be confident knowing that the candidates passed the first round of checks. If there is a problem with someone’s background those candidates should not be forwarded to my office for an interviews.

You selected a candidate despite having a district staff member, who interviewed for the position despite the collective bargaining agreement with APEA on coaches and administrative code for coaches.

I selected the candidate based on expertise and knowledge. Before selecting the candidate, I spoke to the APEA president as I stated in my previous email to ensure that I was not in conflict with the negotiated agreement.

Your selected committee consisted of: Yourself, secretary and a coach: Creating a process that was flawed and not following district interviewing expectations.

The committee was comprised of myself, my secretary who has direct contact with all coaches, and has to work with each one directly. Mr. Quick who is a teacher and has never coached. I never stated he was a coach and I never utilized coaches on my interview committees.

Your arbitrary assignment of the candidates as “Head Coach” and “Assistant Coach” resulting from the positions they applied for and you randomly assigned them. This is what you verbally told me when I asked about this prior.

The assignments were not arbitrary. The committee was clear as to whom the Head Coach should be. I stated that we had only 3 candidates and they all got a job. Therefore, there was no issue with going against the negotiated agreement. Also, there is one candidate that has a history as a head coach and had some issues in the past. Therefore, I am sorry if you misheard what I said or if what I said did not come out clear. There was a clear cut candidate.

You didn’t discuss this with the Athletic Committee of the candidates nor informed me prior to sending to me for being placed on my board’s agenda items.

The candidates were not sent to you for Board Approval. They were purposely held back until the Athletic Committee had a chance to review the candidates.

You had the recent posting closing date and despite being given the interviewing committee was delayed in coordination of schedules to ensure that it would be completed in a timely manner to be presented to the Athletic Committee Meeting.

You emailed me Thursday, October 21st. The meeting was Monday, October 25th. There was not enough time to schedule interviews and have them completed in 1 day. I also was not informed that the meeting was scheduled to discuss selected candidates. That was a Board Member who made that suggestion during the meeting and is now being used as a bullet point.

It is your responsibility as the AD to arrange the interviews and your office contact the candidates. You were given sufficient notice of the committee members in writing to get that completed before yesterday’s virtual committee meeting.

Is there now a timeline that I am unaware of that interviews need to be scheduled? Was the Athletic Committee meeting scheduled to discuss the candidates we interviewed? I was never informed of that nor did I have enough time. I am doing two jobs.

You have a secretary that would and should coordinate that for your office. This is not something that you are directly completing but providing direction to be completed.

My secretary does her job very well, especially in the absence of me during the day. [Note: Adams had moved Gerbino to an empty principal slot, which some regarded as retaliation for Gerbino being the first choice among staff for the superintendency.] Scheduling has to fit everyone’s schedules. Again, your email was Thursday, October 21st. That would have given her only one day to secure the candidates and the interview committee members.

I completely understand what you described below. However, the internal controls of the Athletic Department is problematic not just regarding this matter but other issues that we discussed at your goal setting meeting. We will meet to discuss this matter and other. I will have Ms. Lopez reach out to arrange that meeting.

The internal controls of the Athletic Department are not problematic. The problem is the micro-managing of the department by others. Maybe we should sit down and discuss how you would like the department to run. I am following what I have done in the past with the prior superintendents. If there is an expected change, I would like to be on the same page since you are the Acting Chief School Administrator.

Respectfully,
Mark J Gerbino
Director of Athletics
Asbury Park School District
1003 Sunset Avenue
Asbury Park, NJ

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on pinterest
Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.