Teachers protest Fenton school board's superintendent choice, to be voted on Saturday
A proposed five-year contract for Fenton High School District 100's new superintendent could be approved Saturday morning -- despite objections from the teachers union and the concerns of at least one board member.
President Mary Ribando said the school board is prepared to approve a contract to promote second-year Principal James Ongtengco to the district's top administrative post and pay him roughly $1.1 million over the length of the agreement. In the first year he will make about $167,000.
She said the board will vote at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, following a last-minute meeting cancellation Monday night. Ribando said the meeting was canceled when it was discovered two of the seven board members would be absent.
Ribando said the board announced in October that it hoped to name a new full-time superintendent in February.
But not everyone was happy when Ongtengco's name was leaked Friday afternoon and plans to approve the contract were put on the agenda for Monday's regularly scheduled meeting.
Members of the 112-member Fenton Education Association denounced the hiring, and some had planned to speak against it at Monday's meeting. They now intend to speak Saturday morning.
Union President Michael Laudermith said his membership long has expressed its disappointment in not having any input in the selection process.
"We couldn't have been more disappointed Friday evening to learn Mr. Ongtengco was who they came up with," Laudermith said. "We have expressed our concerns about some of the choices Mr. Ongtengco has made and the leadership style he has shown."
Laudermith said the union also believes the decision unfairly "handcuffs" the district to Ongtengco just one month before five of the district's seven board seats are expected to turn over to new members.
Ribando and Dave Shimanek are not seeking re-election, and the union successfully had incumbents Nancy Gonzales, Susan Ralph and Dave Vogel removed from the ballot earlier this year. The union is financially supporting and endorsing the five remaining candidates.
"This is a lame-duck board making a major decision that will outlast the terms of anyone elected in April, and we feel they've made the decision out of spite," Laudermith said. "They're stripping the incoming board of it's most important duty."
Ribando, along with Ralph and board member Laura Wassinger, all acknowledge how the move could be perceived but argue that locking Ongtengco up with a long-term deal is the best move for the district.
Wassinger stressed that the board was advised from several sources to secure its choice by February.
"We were told all of the qualified candidates are typically locked up by March 1," she said. "We've got the best choice right here in house, so why would we wait?"
Ribando said the district went into "crisis mode" in January 2016 when former Superintendent Kathie Pierce retired six months earlier than expected and it hired interim Superintendent Gayle Wahlin. She said Ongtengco, who was hired in July 2015 when longtime Principal Todd Leden left to serve as superintendent of Kaneland Unit District 302, was forced into taking on a larger role.
"Someone needed to be at the district," she said. "James, without any kind of direction, stepped up to the plate and was diligent about assisting Dr. Wahlin run the district."
In addition to his "baptism by fire," Ribando said Ongtengco rose to the top after more than 26 of the 40 candidates who applied were interviewed.
"We are planning on securing James as our next superintendent, and it's going to be a hire that is in the best interest of the children in this district," she said. "Our major goal was to find the correct candidate to lead our district, and we worked really hard to do that. This was not an arbitrary decision. We worked very hard and took everyone's input to heart to make this decision."
Wassinger agreed, saying Ongtengco's positivity is "infectious."
"James was selected unanimously after our January meeting," she said. "Everyone in the room felt the same way, that James is 100 percent qualified to be our superintendent for a long time."
The board may have been unanimous in January, but at least one member said he was shocked to see the contract in Friday's board packet.
Vice President David Vogel, who is now running a write-in campaign to retain his seat, said Monday that he was very disappointed in the way his fellow board members presented the contract information.
"All I know is, I got an email Friday that outlined (Ongtengco's) new contract," Vogel said. "We had not yet talked about those contract terms, and I have no idea where those terms came from or who approved them. If I were just a taxpayer and not also a board member and I read these terms in the newspaper, I would have a lot of questions."
Ribando said she was absolutely "baffled and shocked" by Vogel's statement.
"That's absolutely false, and I can't even begin to explain why he's telling you this. Every board member was involved in this process," she said. "Every board member was given all of the information and the same opportunity to speak when we were discussing the employment of James."
Ongtengco did not reply to a request for comment.