By Ron Leir
By a 5-4 majority, the Kearny Board of Education voted last Monday night to hire a New York auditing firm for a fee capped at $75,000 to undertake a “construction risk assessment” of the $44 million Kearny High School Façade and Noise Abatement Capital Projects.
As the district prepares for the opening of the fall term, aside from the audit, it will have a new assistant superintendent of schools aboard for the first time in years and it will be undertaking a new state-mandated evaluation procedure for teachers and administrators.
Referring to the high school project audit, Superintendent of Schools Frank Ferraro told The Observer that D’Arcangelo & Co. of Rye Brook, N.Y., is, essentially, being asked to “confirm whether what we’re doing is right.” He said the company’s fee averages out to about $220 per hour.
The job, which began in 2010 with the expectation it would take three years to complete, is only 18% complete with an estimated $7 million expended, according to Ferraro. The project is being funded by grants from the Federal Aviation Administration, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and N.J. Department of Education.
While the façade and window portion of the job has proceeded well enough, an ambitious but daunting interior construction project aimed at creating additional classrooms, a five-story atrium and a new cafeteria has been delayed by disputes between school board staff and the contractor, who was “terminated for convenience” last year, and by the town Construction Department’s enforcement of revised building and fire safety codes. The school board also ended up firing the original architect on the project.
Ferraro, who wasn’t hired until after the project was well under way, said: “It’s my understanding that oversight could’ve been a little better. This audit will give us another set of eyes on the project.”
Asked if there was a timeline on the audit, Ferraro replied: “I want to say six to eight months.”
As to the financial viability of the project, Ferraro said: “We’re going to make sure that the grant funding will continue. At this point, I have no reason to think that’s not going to happen.”
Asked how much longer it would take to finish the project, Ferraro said: “We’re trying to get the south building done by the end of the calendar year and get the kids [those who’ve been taking classes in outdoor trailers] back in the building.” He was reluctant to look beyond that.
Ferraro said that the New York auditing firm was the only company that responded to the district’s Request for Proposals. He said he’d alerted the firm to the solicitation and asked if they’d be interested, only because he’d previously worked with them when he was an administrator for the Greenburgh (N.Y.) Central School District 7 on a student transportation project.
“We ended up saving $600,000 by switching school bus vendors and doing some re-routing,” Ferraro said.
“The work they did in Greenburgh should be very similar to what they’ll be doing here,” Ferraro said, in terms of evaluating protocols and controls applied by the district in the project.
As part of its 21-page proposal submitted to the board, D’Arcangelo & Co. said it would “determine whether proper procedures were observed” during the project and “determine that anticipated funding for the project is still available and the total amount of funding for the project [and] assess whether the school district complied with the terms of grant(s).”
D’Arcangelo will also “consider whether the available funding to be used to complete the project is in accordance with the revised scope specifications as proposed.”
The board, which is now serving as its own general contractor (in consultation with Epic Management, its construction manager), is expected to advertise for bids for completion of work in the high school’s south building by early August.
As part of its audit, D’Arcangelo will “verify that costs incurred on the project to date are accurately supported and documented” by reviewing billing, change orders and the grant budget for the job.
When it’s done with the work, the company will “provide detailed findings of any unusual, unnecessary, or unexplained cost variances” and “recommend improvements for internal controls over capital projects.”
Board member Cecilia Lindenfelser, who cast one of the four votes opposing the auditor’s hiring, told The Observer she voted “no” because “we only had one company put in a proposal – we [James Doran Jr., Sebastian Viscuso, Bernadette McDonald and Lindenfelser] wanted to send [the solicitation] out again.” She also felt it was wrong to spend so much money for the audit because “we don’t have an unlimited checkbook” and, since “it’s really a money question – looking at the in-and-out match – we could just have our regular auditor and business administrator look at the numbers.”
Meanwhile, Ferraro will look to his new No. 2, Assistant Superintendent Debra Sheard, an 18-year educator, for help in coordinating the new staff evaluation protocol, among other duties. Ferraro said the district is paying LoTi, a Californiabased educational consulting firm, around $120,000 to train Kearny teachers and administrators in the new system.
In other school developments, the board has authorized Mark Bruscino, director of plant operations, to prepare bid specifications for the installation of lights at the Franklin School athletic field as a potential backup play site for the town’s environmentally compromised Gunnell Oval recreational complex off Schuyler Ave. Sheard came to Kearny this month from Hunterdon County where she worked the past year as interim superintendent for the tiny (pre-k to grade 8) district of Califon with an enrollment of 153.
“My smallest class was eight,” Sheard said. “My biggest had 21.”
For two years before that, Sheard was director of secondary education for the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District which had 4,500 students spread among seven schools. Her most lengthy tenure was at Franklin Township where she spent five years as director of social studies and technology in a district with 8,000 students.
Part of the new evaluation system for public school instructional personnel very specifically factors in student “readiness” in English language arts, math, social studies and science in grades 3 to 11, as measured by standardized tests, which, in turn, are aligned with the district’s achievement goals for each grade, Sheard said.
Thirty percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on a student’s performance, Sheard said. Teachers will be evaluated three times during the school year and will end up with one of four possible ratings: highly effective, effective, partially effective and ineffective. Teachers who get an ineffective rating two years in a row cannot continue.
Anyone hired as a teacher after July 1, 2012, can attain tenure rights after working in good standing for four years and one day.