By Ron Leir
The revolving door to the Kearny superintendent of schools office keeps turning and, like the ball on a spinning roulette wheel, nobody knows who will end up where.
On Jan. 6, immediately after the Kearny Board of Education reorganization, a newly constituted board majority asserted itself by initiating a “vote of no confidence” in the district’s current chief schools administrator.
And, by a 6-2 margin, with John Leadbeater and Dan Esteves dissenting, newly reinstalled President Bernadette McDonald, Vice President Cecilia Lindenfelser, joined by board members Sebastian Viscuso, James Doran Jr. and newcomers Barbara Cifelli- Sherry and Samantha Paris, placed Superintendent Frank Ferraro on paid administrative leave.
Trustee John Plaugic was absent, nursing injuries sustained in a fall outside his home.
The board then voted to install Patricia Blood, director of curriculum for grades 6 to 12, as acting superintendent, thereby sidestepping the No. 2 administrator, Assistant Superintendent Debra Sheard, at least pending a special meeting that was called for Jan. 13 when the board was slated to discuss the employment situations of Ferraro, Blood and Sheard.
McDonald refused to talk about the move to jettison Ferraro but Ferraro characterized it as a reprisal for his firing school maintenance worker Brian Doran, a brother of James Doran Jr.
Turns out this isn’t the first time there was an effort to dislodge Ferraro. In March 2013 – just three months after he got the job – two members of the sitting board (Doran and Viscuso) petitioned the state Commissioner of Education to remove the superintendent.
In legal papers, Doran and Viscuso argued that Ferraro wasn’t qualified for the job because he failed to satisfy the board’s policy requiring the superintendent to have at least 10 years’ classroom teaching experience on the elementary and/or secondary level.
“Because he does not meet this particular policy qualification, his contract should be declared null and void,” their petition said. Otherwise, it said, Ferraro will be “making decisions in a myriad of areas without the necessary academic and teaching background.”
Before Kearny hired him, by a 5-4 vote Dec. 10, 2012, Ferraro had been interim operations director in charge of facilities and transportation for the public school district in Peeksville, N.Y., and, before that, he served three years as assistant superintendent for business for the Greenburgh School District 7 in Hartsdale, N.Y. He has a certificate in advanced study in education and an MBA and has taught in high school and college.
But Andrew Babiak, counsel to the N.J. School Administrators Association, countered in legal papers that the board has the right to waive its policy and that as the holder of a provisional administrator’s certificate, Ferraro was perfectly capable of making key decisions in all areas.
Ultimately, Doran and Viscuso withdrew their petition. But their decision to drop the matter was only a temporary cessation of hostilities.
Correspondence obtained by The Observer via an OPRA request to the DOE shows that Carl Carabelli, manager of the Criminal Review Unit, wrote to Ferraro on Sept. 6, 2013, that Brian Doran had a criminal record – two arrests in Kearny dating from October 1993 and from June 1996 and another arrest in Clifton dating from May 1995, all resulting in guilty outcomes which, according to Carabelli, render Doran “permanently disqualified or ineligible for employment … with any public school or educational facility….”
In October 2013, Doran’s cousin, Jersey City attorney Michael Doran, who filed the Doran/Viscuso petition, asked the state Commissioner of Education to have his client reinstated on the grounds:
That Ferraro failed to present the charges against Doran before Doran’s dismissal “on or about Sept. 24, 2013,” which, the attorney said, violated his client’s rights as a tenured school employee.
That Ferraro violated school board policy by terminating Doran without a concurring vote by the school board.
That Ferraro and the district violated state school law by failing to get Doran’s consent before conducting a criminal background check and by failing to give Doran a chance to respond to the allegations of his criminal history [for DUI and marijuana use convictions] and thereby violated Doran’s right to due process. Moreover, the attorney noted, on Oct. 10, 2013, Hudson County Superior Court Judge John Young Jr. expunged “any prior offenses which may have disqualified Mr. Doran for continued employment with the KBOE.”
Nonetheless, in a prepared statement, Ferraro said: “I have made it clear to the Board that I am opposed to the reinstatement of Brian Doran. I can only conclude that my decision to terminate Mr. Doran and my opposition to his reinstatement, in large part, prompted the Board to take its actions on Jan. 6, 2014. … I will take all necessary and appropriate action to protect my professional reputation and I stand by the decisions I have made.”
Ferraro said he has “successfully moved forward” on goals he set a year ago to improve student achievement, improve public trust and confidence in the district and set a “realistic plan” to complete the high school construction project by undertaking a strategic plan for the district, developing a budgeting process that “allocates fiscal resources by instructional subject matter areas,” resuming construction on the high school, and starting conversion of the Midland Ave. building into board offices and classrooms.
Ferraro, who was slated for an evaluation by the BOE by April 2014, told The Observer that his provisional administrator’s certification runs through July 2014 and that now that he’s successfully completed a state-mandated “mentorship” under retired N.J. school administrator Michael Rush, a former Paterson school superintendent and current DOE operative, he expects the DOE to issue him “permanent certification.” He said he has “enjoyed the people I’ve worked with in the district and I’d like nothing better than to go back.”
But the BOE could opt to bring tenure charges against Ferraro if the two sides can’t work out some sort of settlement that meets with the approval of the Commissioner of Education.
Ferraro’s contract runs through June 30, 2016, at a salary of $167,500 a year. BOE general counsel Kenneth Lindenfelser said that current state school regulations “limit buyouts” of superintendents with contracts to payments of “three months’ salary for every year remaining on his or her contract and pro-rated for partial years.”
Stability hasn’t exactly been the byword for the district’s top leadership position in recent years. In the past five years, three different administrators have occupied the office: Frank Digesere, who returned to the district, from Bloomfield, in November 2009, left in 2011 with two years to go in his contract; Ron Bolandi served as interim superintendent for the next year and a half; and then Ferraro came aboard in December 2012.