By Ron Leir
The Kearny Board of Education is being made whole again.
On Tuesday, Feb. 19, Daniel Esteves was to be sworn in as the ninth member of the board, filling the seat previously won in the Nov. 6 election by retired school supervisor Deborah Lowry. A board majority voted in mid- November to declare Lowry ineligible to serve because she was collecting a negotiated retirement compensation package from the district.
After the majority position was upheld by the state commissioner of education, the then-eight-member board solicited public nominations for the empty seat and unanimously selected Esteves, who had received the fourth highest vote total for the three open seats, only to be told that it had jumped the gun.
Instead, the board was informed that, under state school law, it fell to Interim Executive County Superintendent Monica M. Tone to pick an interim trustee.
And, in a Jan. 31 letter to Board President Bernadette McDonald, Tone wrote that, “pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A: 12- 15a, I am appointing Daniel S. Esteves to fill the vacancy on the Kearny Board of Education” and that he was to “serve until the organization meeting following the next annual school election in November 2013.”
Following completion of a criminal background check, Esteves was to be “sworn in at the next meeting of the Kearny Board of Education,” Tone advised McDonald.
Esteves, whose uncle is Mayor Alberto Santos and whose father, Fred, was appointed last month as a member of the Kearny Urban Enterprise Zone Development Corp., said he was “a little surprised” by Tone’s decision but was “glad that she respected the recommendation of the board” and, in turn, that the board had tried to be respectful of the public’s wishes by going with the candidate with the next highest election vote total.
Ironically, Esteves had previously petitioned the Hudson County Superior Court to prevent the board from picking a replacement for Lowry on the grounds that state election law called for judicial intervention, but the county’s assignment judge declined to rule, referring the matter to the state Department of Education.
And, when the school board invited public responses to fill the seat, Esteves, a Public Service Electric & Gas Co. employee, asked to be considered. The board said he was one of six who submitted resumes but the only one who’d run in the Nov. 6 election.
Esteves said he hoped to push for unity among an often fractious board. “Hopefully, we can find a way to work together,” he said. “In the past, it’s obvious this was a split board.”
Among his first priorities, Esteves said, would be a review of the district’s curriculum.
“The main problem is our kids’ test scores,” he said. “Based on NJASK (N.J. Assessment of Skills and Knowledge) scores, it’s clear that certain grade levels are not doing well. Some grades are 50% below the state standard and that shouldn’t be happening at all.”
Esteves said those test scores point to English mastery deficiencies among students in primary grades “where they’re supposed to be building a foundation” but he said the fact is that for many youngsters there appear to be cracks in that foundation, “and that’s creating a big problem for these kids.”
As examples, Esteves listed 2011 NJASK Language Arts Literacy results in the following schools: Schuyler Elementary, Grade 3, 25% vs. 63% state average; Schuyler, Grade 4, 48% vs. 63% state average; Schuyler, Grade 6, 59% vs. 67% state average; Lincoln Elementary, Grade 5, 33% vs. 61% state average; Washington Elementary, Grade 4, 47% vs. 63% state average; and Washington, Grade 6, 57% vs. 67% state average.
Since district administrators are expected to update curriculum “every other year,” according to Esteves, the new trustee said he would encourage fellow board members to ask Superintendent Frank Ferraro what’s being done to address these apparent weaknesses.