By Ron Leir
And on goes the war. Kearny Board of Education member Bernadette McDonald is suing the board for dumping her, by majority vote, as its president June 17.
After that same five-member majority voted in Robert O’Malley as her replacement at a special meeting last Thursday night, McDonald asked the board’s secretary/ business administrator Michael DaVita to read into the record a letter from her attorney, Anthony D’Elia.
The letter from D’Elia, a member of the Secaucus law firm Chasan Leyner & Lamparello, advised the board that a school board president “may be removed by a majority vote of the members of the Board only if he or she refuses to perform a duty imposed upon him or her by law.”
And, D’Elia wrote, “This is not the case here.”
At last month’s stormy meeting, board member George King initiated the move to displace McDonald as president, saying that she was being obstructionist and combative by constant challenging of Schools Superintendent Frank Ferraro.
Since the board majority – King, John Plaugic, John Leadbeater, Dan Esteves and O’Malley – is standing firm on its ouster of McDonald as board president, D’Elia said, “My client has authorized me to immediately file an order to show cause with the Commissioner of Education and/ or the Superior Court of New Jersey to obtain an order compelling the Board to [reinstate McDonald] ….”
Board Counsel Ken Lindenfelser declined to comment on D’Elia’s assertions.
During the public portion of the meeting, Stephen Mc- Donald, Bernadett’s spouse, addressed those board members who voted for his wife’s ouster by name, asking them to justify their actions, which none did. He called their decision “vile, immoral, wrong.”
The board’s devisiveness was evident again on two other issues brought to its attention by Ferraro.
One was his recommendation to hire Debra Sheard as assistant superintendent at $150,000 a year, effective July 15 and running through June 30, 2014, with her salary prorated for the 2013-2014 school year.
McDonald wondered why Sheard – currently an administrator at a Hunterdon County school district – has never achieved tenure in any of her previous jobs and why the positions she’s served in have since been “downsized. … That’s a little telling to me. Did any board member check her references?”
Ferraro said that he’d checked the candidate’s references, that her selection was “a unanimous recommendation” by the search committee whose members – which included two teachers, three principals and two administrators – “used a maxtrix based on New Jersey school leadership criteria, and that the candidate “had a big tech background” – a strong point in her favor “since our school system needs to be prepared for computer-based testing, so we had the best interests of our children in mind” by picking Sheard.
When board member Sebastian Viscuso asked why Ferraro initially recommended a different individual – someone from inside the Kearny district – then, when a new search was conducted (after the teachers’ union president complained the search committee had no faculty representation), recommended someone else, Ferraro said: “It’s my prerogative” to change. Ferraro added, “we had a transparent process this time.”
The board then approved Sheard’s hiring by a 5-4 vote. Viscuso, McDonald, James Doran Jr. and Cecilia Lindenfelser dissented.
Next, Ferraro asked the board to authorize the hiring of D’Archangelo & Co., CPAs & Financial Advisors, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to perform a Kearny High School construction risk assessment for up to $75,000. “I have to be able to tell our taxpayers if we have money to finish the job,” Ferraro said. [Later, Ferraro said that 18% of the project has been completed and that the board has spent an estimated $7 million.]
“We’ve fired one architect, we’ve had all kinds of problems with change orders, so I want to know that the procedures we’ve followed are adequate and if the change orders we’ve approved are proper,” Ferraro continued. “We’re talking about a $44 million project [including the windows and brick façade], we’ve had 1,800 students displaced [in outdoor classroom trailers].”
Ferraro added that, “This isn’t a financial audit. We’re looking for an audit of the process used and to determine if the payments we’ve made were done so appropriately.”
Maybe he himself could have done that analysis, Ferraro said, “but I don’t have two months to spend on this. I have a budget to prepare for the coming year.” And, he added, the board’s current auditor “doesn’t have the necessary experience” to conduct such a review. Ferraro said he had an obligation “to provide taxpayers and staff that what’s been done [on the high school construction job] is proper.”
Ferraro said he met with a representative of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which is co-financing the project with the Federal Aviation Administration and state Department of Education, toured the construction site with him and stressed “the need for a financial review and [that individual] concurred.”
When he solicited proposals for the risk assessment, D’Archangelo’s was the only one received, Ferraro said. However, Lindenfelser griped that the D’Archangelo proposal “should have come through the [board’s] finance committee” before bringing it to the full board for a vote. I just got this [proposal] 30 minutes ago. It’s unfair to the board to get this now. I haven’t read it. I don’t know who these people are. I’m not prepared to vote on it. And it’s for $75,000. We still have to cut $800,000 from the school budget.”
Ferraro said the information “was mentioned at the April 11 board meeting in a detailed memo.”
Asked if there was money allocated in the board’s budget to pay for the risk assessment, DaVita replied: “It’s not in the budget.”
Asked what the district would do if D’Archangelo found procedures weren’t properly followed and money improperly paid, Ferraro said: “We’d correct the process and if any illegalities were found, there would have to be legal steps taken to determine how to recover funds and to make sure we’re on solid financial ground.”
Ultimately, the board voted to table action on the proposal to the July 22 meeting, pending further discussion.
When a member of the public asked when work would resume on the high school project, Ferraro said that architectural plans “are being reviewed and upgraded to include code changes and we’re putting together [bid] specifications for phases 4 and 5. Once work on those phases are done, our students and staff can move out of the trailers.”
But Ferraro didn’t say when construction bids for the remainder of the project would be awarded nor would he predict how long it would take to complete the project.
Asked about the status of plans for conversion of the former tire factory building at 174 Midland Ave. that the board bought for more than $900,000 several years ago as the future home for board offices and two basement classrooms, Ferraro said: “The site has been cleared environmentally and building permits have been issued. I am doing a financial assessment of the project. We plan to have the property re-assessed.” When it was suggested that the board could look to sell it and apply the profits elsewhere, Ferraro had no response.