Board remains mum on Toth dismissal

Board legally prevented from explaining circumstances


EDISON – Citing ethical and legal constraints, the Edison Board of Education refused to discuss the circumstances behind its decision to place then-Superintendent Carol Toth on paid administrative leave until 2010.

The heated exchange between the board and various members of the public took place during the board’s Dec. 13 meeting, held in Edison High School to accommodate the much larger than average number of people attending. While members of the public asked several times in several ways why the former superintendent had been dismissed, board President David Dickinson told them, each time, that he is legally and ethically obligated to not discuss the matter in public.

The clash between the board and the public stemmed from a narrow 4-3 decision last month by the board to place Toth on paid administrative leave until the expiration of her contract in 2010. When her contract had been renewed in April of last year, her salary had been set at $173,000 annually, which she will continue to collect for the next two and a half years. This decision aroused a strong outcry from the public, who felt the action was fiscally irresponsible. They also decried what they felt was a lack of forewarning about the decision, a charge that was exacerbated when it was revealed that the three board members who voted against the measure, Joseph Shannon, Sue Scerbo and Deborah Anes, had been similarly unaware that the vote was taking place. Toth’s dismissal led to then-Director of Personnel John DiMuzzio to rise as acting superintendent.

These events have led to a petition being circulated by resident Allison McCarthy, who is president of the Martin Luther King Elementary School PTA. It has also led to a formal petition with the state Department of Education to be filed by resident Maxine Lee, an attorney.

DiMuzzio’s first board meeting as acting superintendent could have been seen as a baptism by fire, as members of the public questioned the rationale behind his appointment, as well as his qualifications.

DiMuzzio finally gave a brief digest of his experience and qualifications. A graduate of Edison High School, he has worked in Edison’s school district for 38 years, starting as a substitute teacher at Herbert Hoover Middle School. He moved to J.P. Stevens High School and after three years was the youngest department chairman ever appointed in the history of Edison at that time. He stayed at J.P. Stevens for 15 years, teaching and coaching football. In 1984 he went on to become supervisor of health and physical education. He then became director of the same program. From there he was principal of Herbert Hoover, and then he finally moved on as director of personnel.

“I have served longer in central office than anyone up there; I have been there for 24 years. I feel very capable to handle this position. If you want to go to the schools, if you want to talk to people, go ahead. I’ll welcome it,” said DiMuzzio. He mentioned that he is also certified to be a district superintendent.

Earlier in the meeting, he gave a report to the board on changes in the budget that could be made to make his appointment tax-neutral. DiMuzzio recommended that the district not replace the budget records supervisor position, that a substitute personnel director be hired at $350 a day without health benefits, and the cutting of one school psychologist position in


the 2008-09 school year. He also recommended that the number of staff development trainers be reduced from three to two.

Most of the comments from members of the public on the matter conveyed a sense of anger about Toth’s dismissal, focusing especially on what the public felt was inadequate notice of the decision as well as the costs to keep Toth on paid leave. Among the many people who talked about this was Edison Mayor Jun Choi, who called the board an “embarrassment.”

“The former superintendent was dismissed on paid extended leave, and so, Mr. President, you deserve to give the taxpayers of Edison an answer, a very clear answer, for why this happened, and this legalese is really not acceptable,” said Choi to resounding claps and cheers.

Dickinson immediately fired back.

“That is unfair and you know it,” said Dickinson. Choi attempted to interject, but Dickinson banged his gavel and continued.

“I cannot ethically answer the questions you’re asking me to comment on. You know that ethically, I cannot answer that question, so you can stand there and say I’m hiding, that it’s a legal technicality. It’s not. It’s a legal reality, and I cannot give reasons which would reflect any negative impact on an employee’s performance,” said Dickinson.

Choi then told Dickinson that he has personally asked Education Commissioner Lucille Davy to launch a formal ethics probe. Dickinson, however, was not impressed.

“I welcome that ethics charge, Mr. Mayor,” said Dickinson.

New Jersey School Boards Association president Kevin Ciak said that Dickinson is, indeed, ethically and legally constrained from discussing the circumstances behind Toth’s dismissal.

“Typically any type of personnel action that involves employees working for the public school district, the board cannot comment or divulge information about that action – any comments evaluative and performancebased are considered confidential,” said Ciak in a phone interview.

One resident came up and said that she had a signed letter from Toth waiving her confidentiality rights on the matter of her dismissal, but Dickinson said that this did not matter and that the law still prevented the discussion from happening.

What followed was residents talking about how upset they were with the board for placing Toth on paid leave, raising questions that Dickinson would say could not be answered. Several residents asked that if Toth’s performance was bad enough to warrant dismissal, why her contract was renewed last year.

Resident Hugh Gordon asked whether there had been separate discussions on the matter outside of board meetings. Dickinson answered that “individual board members approached me with their concerns on a oneby one basis.” When asked how many, Dickinson replied five, besides himself.

Emil Ferlicchi, president of the Edison Township Educational Association, pointed out that Toth was appointed without a nationwide search. He also supported Dickinson’s not talking about the dismissal, saying that Dickinson is only following the law.

“I want to point out to the public that they know full well that they don’t discuss personnel matters in public. … Because that’s the law,” said Ferlicchi.

The evening ended with a defense of the former superintendent from Joanna Minucci.

“She was always professional and she was always fair and I think what you did to her is unfair,” said Minucci.

DiMuzzio’s new contract will be a matter of public discussion at the next board meeting, on Dec. 19.