NJ school board suspends superintendent who was critical of Gov. Murphy’s policies
There is turmoil at a suburban public school district in Morris County as the Mount Olive Board of Education last week suspended Superintendent Robert Zywicki with no public explanation from any party involved.
Zywicki, in turn, has filed his intent to sue two school board members — William Robinson and Antoine Gayles — for more than $5 million each.
His attorney confirmed the filings, declining any further comment, including possible motivation.
Who is Robert Zywicki?
Zywicki was among vocal critics of school policies by Gov. Phil Murphy as the COVID pandemic wore on into last school year.
He had advocated strongly for masks to be optional at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, and was "thrilled" with the governor's decision last February to make them optional, as it was “what is best for kids.”
How Zywicki was suspended
On Monday night, the school board for the district, which serves roughly 4,600 students across six schools, started its meeting in closed session for “personnel matters.”
The regular meeting then began by naming Assistant Superintendent Sumit Bangia as acting superintendent, retroactive to Oct. 11 through on or about Dec. 31.
Bangia, a graduate of Mount Olive High School with the class of 1997, was hired by the district in April.
The board also approved a monthly stipend amount of $2,500 for her.
Board President Anthony Strillacci, abstained from voting on both appointing Bangia as acting superintendent and for the paid suspension for Zywicki due to relatives working in the district, as reported by New Jersey Herald.
The votes were unanimous among remaining board members Gayles, Robinson, Elizabeth Ouimet, Jennifer Aquino, Lisa Fenton, Anthony Giordano, Lisa Narcise and Vice President Christopher Zeier.
Contract history with Zywicki
Zywicki was hired as superintendent in 2018 at an annual base salary of just over $196,000.
The following year he negotiated for an added year on his contract with the same base salary.
In September 2020, the school board approved a third contract for Zywicki, which included a base salary increase of 2% a year through its new duration in 2025, as reported by Mount Olive Online.
Robinson and Ouimet voted against that contract for Zywicki, while Gayles and Strillacci both abstained.
“Three contracts in two years is absolutely shameful. We hired him in good faith. I just think it’s wrong,” Robinson said at that meeting, according to the Mount Olive Online report.
School board member has had his own problems
Gayles, one of the school board members Zywicki has threatened to sue, has served on the Mount Olive School Board since 2014. He previously served as a schools superintendent for the Hillside Township Public School District from 2016 through mid-2020.
Gayles went through his own stint of being suspended with pay, stemming from an attempt by a “lame duck” school board to approve a raise and a new, longer contract for him in Hillside. The extended contract was opposed by a new board majority aligned with Democratic Party leaders in the township.
The state Education Commissioner ultimately rolled back Gayles to his original, expired contract.
'What did he do?'
A parent who spoke during the public comment portion urged the board to be more transparent about what had motivated their actions regarding Zywicki.
“In my opinion, and I apologize, I think lots of you have been on this Board of Education for way too long,” the mother said, to a smattering of applause.
The resident said that about four weeks earlier, Robinson had told her that they were working to get Zywicki out of Mount Olive — prompting audible surprise among the crowd.
“So, what did he do? What did he do, that’s that bad? I know you’re not going to answer.”
"I know there's a lot of frustration out there. There are many rumors flying around, but I want to tell you they are just rumors," Board President Strillacci said to attendees at Monday's meeting, according to a New Jersey Herald report.
"I can also assure you that this board would never do anything to the detriment of our school district."