By Ron Leir
A strange thing happened at last Tuesday’s Kearny Board of Education meeting: The typically fractious board members were in agreement on two key issues.
They voted 7-0 to appoint Kenneth Lindenfelser as general counsel at $170 an hour and David Rubin as special counsel at $180 an hour. Trustee Cecilia Lindenfelser, Kenneth’s ex-wife, abstained. It was a role reversal from a year ago.
Last month, after it had deadlocked on the matter, the board had ended up with no lawyer so it arranged to get an interim attorney from Genova Burns Giantomassi & Webster, its labor counsel.
The board also selected Daniel Esteves to fill its ninth seat, left vacant after the board declared its occupant Deborah Lowry ineligible because of a “contractual interest” with the district.
But board President Bernadette McDonald said that choice had been rendered moot by the Hudson County Superintendent of Schools office.
During its closed session, the board reviewed applications it had solicited for the empty seat and settled on Esteves from among the six candidates to fill the seat for one year. Esteves, the only applicant who had run for the board in the Nov. 6 election, finished fourth.
“We were unanimous in our decision,” McDonald told the audience.
But it was all for naught, Mc- Donald said. “We got a call from the county superintendent’s office saying that the board isn’t filling the seat, that Monica Tone [manager of the county superintendent’s office] is.”
A clearly exasperated McDonald added: “We had no idea until 6 p.m. today that she was picking [the board member]. We don’t like it because we know what the right thing to do is.”
McDonald said the board “could bring litigation” to challenge Tone, who is an agent of the state Department of Education, but it concluded it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.
At this point, she said, the board “can only recommend” the appointment of Esteves since the decision is “out of our hands.”
“We’d like to honor the request of the town of Kearny [in terms of voter preference],” the board president said. The board is “baffled” by the county superintendent’s 11th-hour action. “This can’t get any more complicated than it has.”
Board Vice President John Leadbeater felt the board’s authority had been usurped. “I don’t know where [Tone] gets off, all of a sudden, to tell us at 6 p.m. tonight [the board can’t make the appointment].”
Mayor Alberto Santos, who was an observer at the meeting, asked about the legal justification for the decision and was informed by the board’s interim attorney Jennifer Paganuccio that there was statutory precedent for it.
Later, Santos – who is Esteves’ uncle – told The Observer that the state law dealing with school board vacancies “is not clearly written. The question falls on whether a board member has been removed or not; if that member hasn’t been ordered removed, [picking a replacement] falls to the board, in my opinion. However, rather than spend money on litigation, my feeling is, ‘let’s work together to get the right result.’ ’’
Even if the board did go to court, Santos said, it could take up to a year to get the matter adjudicated and by that time, there would be an election for the disputed seat, “so I think the judgment of the board is correct.”
“I’m hopeful that Dan gets to fill the seat and that the board can continue to work together,” the mayor added.
Meanwhile, Superintendent Frank Ferraro said the district is looking to hire an assistant superintendent and candidates had until last week to apply. He said he expected to have input from principals and teachers in the selection process to “make it as transparent as possible.”
In other business, the board voted to hire attorney Gary Werner, of the Schenck Price Smith & King law firm with offices in Florham Park, Paramus and New York as construction attorney at $170 an hour.
Asked what was prompting the hiring, Mark Bruscino, director of plant operations, said that “it’s because of things we have to look into” at the lagging Kearny High School construction project. “Construction can be a very volatile thing,” he added.
When The Observer asked Ferraro if the district was being sued in connection with the $37 million high school project, he said: “There’s no litigation that I know of. We’re proceeding to get the project on schedule since it’s about a year behind. Some things have slowed down.” One example, he said, is the delivery of steel, which was supposed to happen this past summer.
The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the Federal Aviation Administration and state Department of Education are funding the project which is designed to minimize noise from planes and to add classrooms and a new cafeteria. Brockwell & Carrington, of Towaco, is the general contractor.