Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

Board of Ed Responds to Controversy and Confusion Surrounding MMS Principal Renewal

The recent renewal of Maplewood Middle School Principal Dara Gronau, reportedly against the recommendation of Interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra, continues to raise questions among residents confused by the divided 4-3 vote among the Board of Education members, as well as the process surrounding the renewal.

Gronau, who does not have tenure, was listed among personnel who were slated to be reappointed at the BOE’s annual renewal meeting on May 13. However, she also was listed on the meeting agenda under staff members who were resigning, and she had reportedly submitted a letter of resignation. (The personnel attachment to the agenda was initially included on the district’s website, then was removed before being put back up before the meeting.)

Some MMS community members were taken by surprise to learn, hours before the BOE meeting, about Gronau’s impending resignation and several parents voiced effusive support for Gronau, who has led the school for the past three years.

Gronau’s resignation was severed from an agenda item after a motion by member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, and the board  subsequently rejected the resignation as a separate 4-3 vote, with board members Susie Adamson, Elizabeth Baker, Shannon Cuttle and Lawson-Muhammad opposing it. Board members Robin Baker, Anthony Mazzocchi and Johanna Wright voted to accept Gronau’s resignation. Board President Annemarie Maini recused herself. Javier Farfan was absent.

Gronau later responded to a request for comment: “I love Maplewood Middle School and I love our community. I am so proud to be part of a community that is responsive, supportive and kind. I am grateful to be on the renewal list and look forward to working with all stakeholders in our community next year.”

The vote led to confusion among many — supporters of Gronau and others — as to the way the process was followed. Village Green reached out to BOE President Annemarie Maini for clarification. Initially, she responded: “The end result is that Ms. Gronau is renewed for next school year.”

Asked for further explanation, Maini replied, “As a matter of procedure, resignations are submitted in writing. A notice of resignation is brought to the Board for action. Renewals are a separate process based on performance and evaluations, and not related to other personnel items on the agenda.”

She noted that the board’s legal counsel is always present at meetings to ensure procedures are properly followed.

Village Green asked if the vote can be seen as a sign of a divided board, showing a lack of confidence in Ficarra’s leadership, and raising questions about how the board will work with [incoming Superintendent Dr. Ronald] Taylor. Maini said, “The vote by some Members to not accept the principal’s notice of resignation was not any reflection upon the Board’s continued confidence in Dr. Ficarra, whose commitment to this School District and to the community has been, and remains, greatly appreciated by this Board.”

In a later email, Maini noted, “Dr. Ficarra has tenaciously led our community and the board to address the underlying issues that we have struggled with in the past and has given us a chance of becoming the great district that we want to be. It was under Dr. Ficarra’s leadership and guidance that we how have plans in place to address our deteriorating infrastructure…segregated schools [and] segregation within schools.”

She continued, “We [thank] Dr. Ficarra for the deep systemic changes he has been able to accomplish in the short time he has been with us. Most importantly, I want to thank him for creating the foundation that Dr Taylor will now be able to build upon – ensuring that our schools are inspiring, welcoming learning environments in which all of our students and all of our staff members can grow and flourish.”

Finally, Village Green noted that the incident seemed a step backward in improving communication between the district and the community and asked Maini how the board plans to increase transparency.

Maini responded that newly appointed Interim Superintendent Dr. Gayle Carrick “was asked to present the HR process to the public [at] this coming month’s board meeting and we will repeat it in Spring next year.”

Walter Fields of Black Parents Network is also probing the BOE’s decision, emailing Maini and the BOE “concerning their vote to retain the principal of Maplewood Middle School despite having received a letter of resignation from the principal.” Fields said he copied the NJ Commissioner of Education Dr. Lamont Repollet, Interim Essex County Executive Superintendent Joseph Zarra, and New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal.

See the letter here:

Download (PDF, 847KB)

Fields has a contentious history with the district and the Board of Education, having sued the district for what he claims are discriminatory polices targeting African-American students. Fields also demanded the Board remove member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad after an incident involving a traffic stop last year.

Village Green reached out to individual board members to ask if they would provide any context or explanation for their vote; none responded. We also asked the district to provide a copy of Gronau’s resignation letter; we will follow up when we receive more updates and information.

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