By Ron Leir
The Belleville Board of Education has named administrator Helene Feldman as its interim superintendent of schools as a replacement for Joseph Picardo, who was placed on paid administrative leave pending disposition of a sexual harassment complaint filed against him and the school board by a former school official.
These moves were approved by the board Sept. 24.
Picardo, who has a year left in his three-year contract with the board, collects $176,800 annually. His paid leave was backdated to Friday, Sept. 22. The appointment of Feldman – hired last year as the district’s director of special services – took effect immediately.
At the board’s direction, terms of Feldman’s employment were to be drafted by the board’s interim business administrator Ann Mulvaney for ratification by the Essex County Executive Superintendent. Mulvaney, who was recruited this month by Picardo to replace Edward Appleton, who retired, is now reportedly planning to leave.
At the suggestion of its attorney, the board hasn’t commented on the lawsuit filed by Newark attorney Gerald Saluti on behalf of Michael Meyers, a North Arlington resident who served as the district’s director of curriculum and instruction from August 2010 until December 2011 when he retired with more than 23 years as an educator. Meyers’ complaint, filed Aug. 29 in Bergen County Superior Court, alleges “discriminatory conduct, sex harassment, infliction of emotional distress, civil rights violations, and wrongful termination ….”
“Beginning on or around October 15, 2010 and continuing through November of 2011, Defendant Picardo repeatedly attempted to initiate and continue a sexual relationship with (Meyers) against (Meyers’) wishes,” the complaint alleges.
The complaint says these unwanted advances took place in both private and public places. In one instance, on Oct. 15, 2010, the complaint says that Meyers accompanied Picardo to an area hotel and “engaged in oral sex” with Picardo only after Picardo threatened to fire him if he failed to comply.
“On numerous occasions,” the complaint says, Picardo “ordered (Meyers) into his office” where Picardo allegedly “would open a cabinet door in order to block the view into his office through a window built into the door” before fondling and groping Meyers.
At a birthday party for a Belleville school official held in a Clifton restaurant that was attended by several administrators, the complaint alleges Picardo extended his leg under the dinner table to “nudge (Meyers’) scrotum with his shoe” and when Meyers responded by kicking Picardo’s leg, “In view of the entire table, Defendant Picardo grabbed a steak knife and sliced the top of (Meyers’) hand, causing a laceration.”
On July 16, 2011, after Picardo had invited several administrators to spend the day at his Cape May home, then offered to put them up overnight and Meyers refused and was about to drive away, Picardo spat in his face through the car window, the complaint alleges.
“During the later parts of November 2011, and (with the exception of one day) the entire month of December … (Meyers) used his allotted sick leave to avoid coming into work and facing Defendant Picardo,” the complaint says.
Meyers alleges that Picardo sought “to make an employee’s submission to sexual demands a condition of his employment” – which, he says, constituted a violation of the state’s discrimination law. He also alleges that Picardo and the school board created or tolerated the conditions for a “hostile work environment.”
The complaint asks the court to grant compensatory and punitive damages and legal costs.
With board members staying silent on the litigation, The Observer asked Councilman Michael Nicosia his reaction to this turn of events. “Everyone has to be cautious about rushing to judgment,” he suggested, “because a lawsuit is only an allegation.” Nicosia recalled a situation where another Belleville school administrator was “accused of doing something and it was found to be false.” Unfortunately, he said, the individual ended up retiring. “It was sad. He was falsely accused and ruined.”
“I hope the Board of Education does an investigation to see if the allegations are true,” the councilman said, “and if anyone else may be involved.”
Nicosia added that some teachers he’s spoken to “are upset about the situation because it’s giving the district a black eye.”
In the meantime, the board is looking to Feldman to steer the scholastic ship, with a $59 million budget and an enrollment totaling more than 4,600 as of September’s count.
With some 35 years of experience as an educational leader, mostly in New York City where she earned seven administrative certificates, the Manalapan resident is looking forward to her newest challenge. Last year, as special services chief, she said she got her hands around the issue of “student placements, which were very problematic – things were not always done in a timely fashion.”
“We’re working to bring back out-of-district children,” Feldman said. Currently, 80 students attend special needs programs in other communities. She said teachers are using iPads and behaviorist techniques as part of its indistrict special education approach in hopes of encouraging parents to keep their children in Belleville. “Some have returned,” she said.
Feldman was also special education director for the Newark Public Schools for close to three years.
While working on the other side of the Hudson, Feldman said she served on the Chancellor’s School Improvement Team that involved oversight for 20 “failing” schools in Brooklyn and Staten Island. “Nineteen of 20 schools came off that list within two years,” she said.
“I love this work,” Feldman said. “I love to see progress. I want to build everybody to their true potential. That’s our job in education. And it should be pretty easy to do here with a dedicated staff and an involved community. This is a dream come true, coming to a place like Belleville.”
Feldman said she expects to be focused on the importance of “giving general knowledge” to students, “not just teaching to the test. We want everybody here to be productive citizens, to get a global perspective of what the real world is all about.”