By Ron Leir
Political divisions within the Kearny Board of Education were further evidenced at a special meeting last Monday night over the issue of the superintendent’s status. He’s currently on an involuntary paid leave.
A bid by the board’s minority bloc, led by Dan Esteves, to reinstate Frank Ferraro as the district’s chief administrator was rebuffed by the majority, whose members voted to circulate a Request for Proposals for an investigator to review Ferraro’s dealings with the board since he was hired in December 2012.
The majority may be looking to build a foundation for possibly firing Ferraro by bringing tenure charges against him and, ultimately, buying out the balance of his $167,500-a-year contract which runs through June 30, 2016.
Mayor Alberto Santos reminded the board that, “there is a financial consequence to removing a superintendent” which, if he’s removed “without cause,” could compel it to pay the entire amount remaining on Ferraro’s contract. “That’s tax dollars. It has to come from somewhere. So I want full disclosure,” he said.
Board Vice President Cecilia Lindenfelser responded: “We’re not naive about it. Nothing’s been done in regard to that.”
Santos said he hoped the board wouldn’t end up in a protracted legal battle with the superintendent comparable to the situation in the Perth Amboy public school system where the board voted twice to dump Superintendent Janine Caffrey who, twice, was ordered reinstated by the state Commissioner of Education but who continued to collect her $177,500 salary in the process. After the board placed her on administrative leave a third time, she dropped her appeal.
Board President Bernadette McDonald said she initiated the move to displace Ferraro after the board’s reorganization on Jan. 6 because the board was “getting mixed signals from the superintendent” in discussions about filling certain school jobs.
“At one meeting,” McDonald said, “[Ferraro] tells us one thing, the next meeting he tells us another. I have no confidence in what he says.” As an example, McDonald mentioned the board’s recent consideration of the appointment of a district truancy officer which ended up tabled because, according to McDonald, the superintendent was “wishy washy” on his recommendation for filling the position.
A bit later in the proceedings, Lindenfelser, who is an attorney, echoed McDonald’s gripe about alleged inconsistency by Ferraro on proposed hirings. “At least three times, we had discussions about certain appointments,” Lindenfelser said, “and we get to the meeting, and lo and behold, this is a completely different person put up [for the job].”
Aside from that, Lindenfelser said, “the superintendent made his own decision to terminate an employee without getting board ratification. … There are a lot of things that sent up red flags for me. … There was a huge lack of trust between the superintendent and the board.”
And that, Lindenfelser said, is why the board wants to hire an investigator to probe further into the legalities of the superintendent’s actions.
But board member John Leadbeater countered that Ferraro’s removal “was totally illegal” and based purely on “politics.”
“You stopped every single action [proposed by Ferraro] because it wasn’t the person you wanted,” Leadbeater asserted. “… Because you don’t like the way he doesn’t do business the way you expect it to be done, you want to run him out of town.”
McDonald said the board also needs to hire an investigator “to find out more about [Ferraro’s prior work] background. I never saw his transcripts.”
Ferraro, sitting in the audience during the meeting, which was held in the Franklin School auditorium, was accorded a chance to address the board and he used the occasion to defend his record in Kearny, citing his having engaged the community in developing a strategic plan for the district, resuming construction work at Kearny High and starting work at the Midland Ave. building.
“My first focus always has been the 6,000 children and 900 employees in the district,” he said.
Nonetheless, board member Sebastian Viscuso – who, along with board member James Doran Jr., had sought to have Ferraro removed three months after his hiring on the grounds that he failed to comply with the board’s policy that calls for at least 10 years’ teaching experience on the elementary and/ or secondary level – pressed Ferraro on his elementary/ high school classroom time which, according to Viscuso’s reckoning, totaled “315 days in four [school] years [during the mid to late 1980s].”
When Viscuso asked if those numbers were accurate, Ferraro said he couldn’t verify them. “That was 30 years ago,” he added.
As the discussion turned to the Jan. 6 appointment of Patricia Blood, district director of curriculum for grades 6 to 12, as acting superintendent, as opposed to Assistant Superintendent Debra Sheard, board member Samantha Paris said that, “teachers look up to Patti” because of Blood’s familiarity with the people working in the district.
In response, board member Dan Esteves suggested that it might have been more useful for some of his colleagues to have spent more time with the No. 2 district administrator “and learn more about the person instead of pushing your friends.”
Esteves put forward a motion to return Ferraro from administrative leave to the superintendent’s slot but his motion failed. Lindenfelser then proposed a resolution to solicit RFPs to hire an investigator “for a report on the activities and qualifications of the superintendent,” which passed.
“We’re paying [Ferraro] to stay home and do nothing,” Esteves grumbled.
McDonald said that if the investigator concludes that the superintendent has a clean record, “There’s a possibility that Mr. Ferraro could be reinstated.”