By Ron Leir
The New Year will see a continued 5-4 split in the Kearny Board of Education (BOE) but, this time, the “majority” bloc will flip in favor of a dissident faction.
Incumbent board member James Doran Jr. and newcomers Cecilia Lindenfelser and Deborah Lowry – who ran as a team – were the top vote-getters for the three open seats in the Nov. 6 BOE election.
As a consequence, when the new board reorganizes in January, the new lineup will feature a new five-member “majority” of incumbents Sebastian “Zibby” Viscuso, Bernadette McDonald and Doran, Lindenfelser and Lowry.
Board president George King and trustees John Leadbeater, Robert O’Malley and John Plaugic – who have tended to vote as a bloc – will find themselves in the “minority.”
Board vice president Paul Castelli, who has tended to vote with the King faction, finished a distant seventh among 10 candidates.
Incumbent Lisa Anne Schalago didn’t seek re-election.
A total of 10,477 votes – a remarkable 60.1 % turnout — were cast in the school election – which Town Clerk Pat Carpenter attributed to the coupling of the BOE race with a Presidential contest. It also marked the first time in memory that the BOE election was held in November instead of April – as now permitted by state law.
Another oddity about this year’s election was that provisional ballots prepared by Hudson County for the ninth and 10th congressional districts in Kearny flip-flopped Columns A and B for national and county races so that all Democratic candidates (president, senator, congress and county clerk) were listed as Republicans and vice versa.
The non-partisan Kearny BOE election wasn’t affected by the miscue.
Meanwhile, the winners of that race were looking ahead to achieving unity of purpose among all board members.
Doran, Lindenfelser and Lowry agreed that the board should be prioritizing finding and hiring candidates for a permanent superintendent of schools and high school principal, getting a better grip on the high school construction project and keeping board members and the public more informed.
“We need to get stability back into the district,” was how Doran summed up what he sees as the board’s objective. “We need to put our personal differences aside” to work for the betterment of the district,” he added.
Doran said that he and other trustees were concerned that the fractiousness of the board – which he said was evidenced recently by the non-renewal of contracts for former high school principal Cynthia Baumgartner and former Franklin School vice principal Martin Hoff – would only discourage educators with good credentials from applying for jobs with the district.
While the current board majority has publicly introduced Frank Ferraro, a New York schools administrator, as a candidate for superintendent, Doran said it would probably make more sense for the board to hold off making any significant appointments until after it reorganizes in January.
Asked if that meant starting new searches for superintendent, assistant superintendent and principal, Doran said: “It could be a matter of going back to square one.”
Lindenfelser, a litigation attorney, said she felt that the board should be guided by an Oct. 21, 1999 appellate court case, Gonzalez vs. Elizabeth Board of Education, where, by her reading, the court determined that a lame duck board should refrain from important hirings before the board reconstitutes itself.
Doran and Lowry said they’d like to see a candidate for superintendent with a strong background in classroom and building leadership, particularly, Doran noted, in light of a board policy recommending that candidates for superintendent have at least 10 years’ experience as a teacher and at least five years as an administrator. Ferraro’s resume reflects a track record of mostly school management.
For Lowry, a retired Kearny school administrator, the district would profit by having “someone preferably who has run a school building, who has dealt with staff, teachers, parents because as a principal or vice principal, you have opportunities to hone your skills, to evaluate staff, deal with conflict management.” Acknowledging Ferraro’s experience in dealing with school facility and finance issues, Lowry said it’s even better to have someone in charge who is skilled in all areas of education because “running a school district is different than running a business,” especially since the Kearny district already has a facilities director.
As for the high school construction job, Doran said that, “the whole project has gotten bogged down under its own weight,” and that the board needs to get a clear picture of where the job stands at this point.
And, Doran added, there’s also the matter of the Midland Avenue construction project which calls for relocating the board’s administrative staff to that site to relieve overcrowding at Franklin School, along with the opening of two basement-level classrooms at the site. “Very little has been done there (other than environmental remediation) in the last year and a half and I’m not really sure why,” he said.
Doran said the board also needs to be open to more public discussion of school-related issues. “Too much of board business is being held in closed session,” he said. “I feel we’ve been very restricted on getting information.”
And when the board does get that information, it typically comes at the 11th hour and with pressure to move quickly, Doran said. “It’s like vote on this today or these teachers don’t get paid or this program gets canceled.”
To help expedite transparency, Lindenfelser said she would push to get the board to “televise its meetings, whether by streaming live into a computer or through an arrangement with the local cable channel; to put board meeting agendas on line in advance; and to reinstitute the practice of having committee reports.”
Getting a seat on the board is “exciting, a new challenge,” Lindenfelser said. “We have a good group of people and I’m looking long term to create a great school district and one that other districts would envy.