Montgomery Township school district officials have agreed to renew the contract of Melissa Hodgson, the supervisor of social studies for grades 9-12, for one more year, following a lengthy school board meeting last week.
Hodgson would have been eligible for tenure, which is a permanent appointment, in September 2017. But she was told several weeks ago that her contract for the 2017-18 school year would not be renewed.
Hodgson and her attorney, Robert Schwartz, appeared before the Montgomery Township Board of Education to challenge the reasoning behind that decision at its May 23 meeting.
The school board offered Hodgson a one-year contract after meeting in executive session at the request of Superintendent of Schools Nancy Gartenberg. Closed door meetings are permitted to discuss personnel issues.
The terms of the one-year contract are being ironed out between the school board attorney and the attorney who represented Hodgson. It is expected to be ready in time for the school board's June 13 meeting.
Upset at the initial news that Hodgson's contract would not be renewed, several Montgomery High School teachers - including social studies program teachers - made impassioned pleas to renew her contract at earlier school board meetings, but without success.
So, in a rare move, Hodgson requested an informal appearance before the school board to make the case for a renewal of her contract. Gartenberg, the superintendent of schools, had recommended the non-renewal of the contract.
Hodgson requested a statement of the reasons for non-renewal, which Gartenberg provided. In that document, Gartenberg identified deficiencies in Hodgson's performance during the 2016-2017 school year - her third as supervisor of social studies.
Among the alleged deficiencies were Hodgson's "conscious and deliberate decision" not to implement the district's curriculum in social studies, which violated policy, as well as a decision not implement the design curricular framework which contains benchmark assessments of student performance.
Instead of implementing the benchmark assessments, which are short-term assessments of the students' academic performance, Hodgson allowed teachers to create their own assessments.
Schwartz, who represented Hodgson, spent about an hour at the meeting trying to persuade the school board that the decision not renew her contract was wrong - starting with the "positive" evaluations of Hodgson's performance by the school district's director of curriculum, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and the Montgomery High School principal.
As late as February, Hodgson's reviews were positive, Schwartz said. In the most recent evaluation, which occurred Feb. 24, the overall comment was that she was a "highly valued educational leader," he said.
Based on those evaluations, she expected her contract to be renewed, Schwartz said. She played by the rules and did whatever was asked of her, so she thought that she would receive a contract renewal.
"But that was not the case," Schwartz said.
On May 17, Gartenberg wrote that Hodgson was "oppositional" and "insubordinate," and did not follow directives, Schwartz said.
Asking rhetorically what happened between February and May, Schwartz answered his own question. It was a meeting on April 3 that dealt with assessments, in which Hodgson was alleged to have said that she was philosophically opposed to benchmark assessments.
That's not true, Schwartz said. Hodgson indicated that she believed benchmark assessments are not cast in stone and that they could be modified to meet individual students' needs, which is in line with the concept of "differentiated instruction." Other administrators agreed, he said.
Schwartz said Gartenberg wrote her statement of reasons based on information that she was given about the April 3 meeting. Gartenberg was not present at the meeting and the information she received was inaccurate, he said.
Three supervisors who hold positions similar to Hodgson and who attended the meeting said they were all asked to state their opinion on assessment practices. They were encouraged to talk openly and discuss their thoughts, Adam Warshafsky told the school board. He is the supervisor of visual and performing arts for grades K-12.
Karen Stalowski, who is the supervisor of English for grades 9-12, told the school board that Hodgson is a professional and would never be subordinate or disregard a directive, even if she disagreed with it.
Finally, given a chance to speak at last week's school board meeting, Hodgson said she was shocked that her contract was not being renewed, given the positive performance evaluations that she had received.
Hodgson said that "under no circumstances" was she insubordinate. She said that she is a "team player" and was asked for her opinion at the April 3 meeting.
Hodgson asked the school board for a one-year extension of her contract so that she could at least demonstrate that her performance evaluations were more accurate than what was contained in Gartenberg's letter. She offered to resign at the end of the 2017-18 school year, if the board would offer a renewal contract.
Wrapping up the presentation, Schwartz told the school board that he understood that it had a difficult decision to make. The easy decision would be to uphold the recommendation, he said, but it would take some courage on the part of the school board and the superintendent to reconsider.
He advised the school board to "stand back" and reflect on what it had been told and to understand that performance evaluations do matter. Three evaluators had come to the same conclusion - that Hodgson is an exemplary employee - and that she had earned the right to a new contract, he said.
Then, the school board went into a brief executive session.
When the school board emerged 18 minutes later, Gartenberg said that considering the information presented at the meeting, she would recommend extending Hodgson's "probationary period" for one year, which is an acceptance of Hodgson's offer.
Cavalli praised Gartenberg and congratulated her on her leadership, considering everything that she had heard during the meeting.
It was not an easy decision to make, Cavalli said, adding that many others "would have stood their ground for the sake of ideology."