By Ron Leir
What’s going on here?
Earlier this month, the Kearny Board of Education (BOE) came together in recommending Daniel Esteves to fill the vacant seat – a choice ultimately ratified by the acting county superintendent.
Now the BOE and Kearny’s municipal government – often distrustful of the other – are looking to be potential partners in an endeavor to upgrade two municipal playgrounds that sit on land owned by the BOE.
At its meeting last Tuesday, the BOE agreed that, if the town applied for state and/or county grants to fix up those play areas, it would endorse those applications – conditional on the BOE reviewing any restrictions that might apply under the grants’ award.
“Mayor (Alberto) Santos is really leading the charge on this,” said BOE Attorney Kenneth Lindenfelser. “The mayor and (Town Administrator) Michael Martello have become aware of funds that may be available to upgrade town playgrounds including two owned by the board.”
Lindenfelser identified the potential funding sources as the state Green Acres and the county Open Space Trust Fund account.
The two board-owned properties are known as the Rogers Playground, the larger of the pair at about three quarters of an acre, bordered by Hickory St. to the west, Oakwood to the south and Spruce St. to the north; and Pettigrew Playground, about 40 feet by 40 feet, in the rear of Washington Elementary School, at Highland and Woodland Aves.
Over the last decade or so, Santos said, the town has improved most of its play facilities. “These are the last two to be upgraded,” he said.
And both are showing signs of aging.
Rogers Playground, which takes up a square block, offers half-court basketball and typical playground equipment but, as noted by Santos, the basketball court’s asphalt surface is marred by cracks and the play facilities are old. Additionally, the playground’s walkways’ stone pavers are either uprooted by trees or are simply deteriorating, he said.
At the Pettigrew Playground, the matting on which the play equipment sits is hardly protective: The “safety’ surface is uneven at best and, is punctuated by depressions that can easily trip toddlers coming down off a slide. There are a handful of primitive swings and a small hardscrabble play area that, in bad weather, turns into a mudflat. And, in warm weather, there is an absence of overhang or trees to offer shade.
But, essentially, it’s the only outdoor recreational facility for small children in the neighborhood.
Santos estimated the improvements for both playgrounds could run between $200,000 and $300,000, with a good portion likely to be spent for drainage work at Rogers Playground.
BOE President Bernadette McDonald said the trustees were receptive to the town’s overture but added, “We have to make sure, with the grant money, that nothing hinders the board.”
For example, if the town secured a Green Acres grant, and if sometime in the future, the board decided it wanted to take down the Rogers Playground to put up another school, the grant’s conditions could prevent the board from disrupting the play area, Mc- Donald suggested.
Years ago, the town had title to the Rogers Playground but around 1990/1991, it swapped that parcel for property across the street so that the old Emerson School – which had been closed in 1965 after Lincoln School was updated – could be torn down to clear the way for construction of the Spruce Terrace senior apartments.
Some 13 years ago, the then-Kearny schools superintendent had pushed for building a middle school on part of the town-owned Gunnell Oval off Schuyler Ave. and, turn, the town would turn over the Rogers Playground to the district but that never happened.
Asked about the possibility of the board reviving the notion of a new middle school somewhere in Kearny, Mc- Donald declined to speculate on what the board might do in the near future. “That’s what we’d have to look into [if the town got the grant],” she said. “We don’t want to tie the hands of future boards.”
In the meantime, McDonald said, the board has to focus on moving forward with converting the old Midland Ave. tire factory it acquired several years ago to accommodate central office staff and the board under one roof plus two basement classrooms. It’s been undergoing environmental remediation, she said.
In other business at its Feb. 19 meeting, the BOE granted a request by three of its current members (George King, John Plaugic and John Leadbeater) and one former member (Paul Castelli) for legal defense against an ethics complaint filed by former Kearny High School Principal Cynthia Baumgartner.
Those four individuals voted against renewing her contract despite a favorable recommendation by the then-Interim Superintendent Ron Bolandi. Four other board members voted to renew – one short of the five affirmative votes needed. In her complaint, Baumgartner alleges that the four who voted against improperly went beyond the scope of their duties as school trustees.
King, Plaugic, Leadbeater and Castelli will be represented by Brenda Liss, of the Morristown law firm Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti, at $250 an hour.
However, if the New Jersey Ethics Commission determines that Baumgartner’s complaint is valid, the board won’t pay any legal fees incurred, according to Lindenfelser.