By Ron Leir
Since he came aboard as interim superintendent of schools in June 2011 Ronald Bolandi has steered Kearny’s public schools through a cauldron of politically divisive forces.
Before he even arrived, the stage was set for an explosion when several board members filed ethics complaints against each other, still pending, such as a challenge to the right of Kearny P.D. employees George King and John Plaugic to sit as school trustees.
“This board [of education] I have found the most split in my 20 years [as a district administrator in New Jersey],” Bolandi said last Friday, his last scheduled day on the job.
That internal turmoil has been evidenced, Bolandi said, by the board majority’s votes to deny reappointments of three administrators and five teachers – despite favorable recommendations by the superintendent.
“I never had – in 20 years – my recommendations turned down,” Bolandi said. Later, “by reasoning with them,” Bolandi said
Later, “by reasoning with them,” Bolandi said he did get the board to reconsider its decisions on all of the teachers and one administrator but that effort failed to restore Cynthia Baumgartner and Martin Hoff as high school principal and Franklin School assistant principal, respectively, and both have contested the board’s action, which will cost the board in legal fees.
“Of course, the board has the legal right to do that,” Bolandi said. “But I have to run the place. … When you have a split board, the superintendent has to rise above that and gain the respect of both sides.”
Asked if he considered quitting after his recommendations were sidestepped, Bolandi said: “I thought about leaving but eventually I realized it was beyond me. I had to be here in the interest of the kids.”
And it was as an advocate to “protect and educate” students that the superintendent found himself smack in the middle of another controversy when he acted at the 11th hour to cancel a November gridiron game pitting a decimated, beat-up Kardinal varsity squad against a powerhouse St. Peter’s Prep team against the wishes of the district’s athletic director.
Although Kearny ended up being placed on a one-year probation – which the district is appealing – Bolandi said he has no regrets about scheduling a substitute lastminute opponent.
“St. Peter’s was racking up scores of 50 to 70 points and our varsity team was down to 13 or 15 kids playing both ways and I agreed with my head coach it would be a bad situation for us to play [Prep],” he said. “My A.D. didn’t agree [but] I could care less about winning or losing a game. My job is to protect and educate students.”
And last month Bolandi renewed a request to the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League to shift Kearny to a less competitive division in the interests of “the safety of our student athletes.”
The superintendent said he bears no ill will toward the A.D. “It’s one little blip on the radar screen,” he said. “John [Millar] is one of the best A.D.s I’ve ever worked with.”
During his Kearny tenure, Bolandi has had to deal with the sputtering high school construction project which finally saw some students and teachers moved into temporary classroom trailers on the school’s front lawn last year.
On the academic side, Bolandi acknowledged there’s room for improvement, given, for example, districtwide 2011 NJ ASK test scores which underscore general under-achievement in language arts and weakness in math among seventh-graders in particular. But he believes the district is on a path to “raise test scores” by launching a new elementary math series and there are plans to implement a new language arts program for pre-K to grade 5 in the fall.
“We’ve also put in a performance tracker software program to look at how our kids are testing and set benchmarks for them,” he said. “We’ve also arranged an entire student data base – which has meant more work for teachers.”
Bolandi said he’s gotten nothing but cooperation from staff and parents in working cooperatively toward better outcomes for students. “At no time in my year and a half in the district did any teacher or staff member come to me and say, ‘This is too much work.’ ’’
And, despite the political in-fighting, Bolandi said he was “never disappointed by the board” when it came to implementing curriculum changes and providing sufficient numbers of instructional staff.
Students, too, were a pleasure to be around, he said. “In all my years of being in education [since 1979], this is one of the nicest group of kids I’ve worked with and they deserve more. They are polite and charming kids.”
“This place will always have a warm spot in my heart,” Bolandi said. “The district has tremendous potential. The adults have to pull together to make it right for the kids and I’m hoping the bickering will stop.”