By Ron Leir
In the latest in a series of organizational hiccups, the Belleville Board of Education has lost its most recent chief school administrator.
At a special meeting last Thursday night, the BOE accepted the resignation of Helene Feldman as superintendent of schools – after only 15 months on the job – and installed elementary school principal Ricardo Acosta as acting superintendent, effective Sept. 1.
The BOE also agreed to retain Strategic Educational Advantage to conduct what BOE attorney Stephen Edelstein characterized as a “nationwide” search for a new superintendent. No stipend was set.
And the BOE approved an “early separation” agreement with the departed Feldman, whose contract runs through June 30, 2016.
“In the past,” Edelstein said, “it was the board’s prerogative to negotiate or buyout a superintendent’s contract [and] the state [Department of Education] played no role. All that has changed. Now, it’s very regulated. Superintendent Feldman decided to resign and the law tells us what she’s entitled to.”
Under that law, Edelstein said, Feldman “is entitled to three months’ pay for each year remaining in her contract,” which, in her case, “because of the way the year breaks,” works out to [a total of] 5.5 months,” plus compensation for “unused and accrued sick and vacation days,” all of which, he added, was audited by the state.
As spelled out in the agreement, Feldman – whose salary was about $167,500 a year – will receive $76,770 in salary payments, plus $11,163 for 43 unused accrued sick days (calculated at 40% of her $644 per diem rate), plus $7,730 for 12 unused accrued vacation days, for a grand total of $95,664.
For legal guidance in connection with the terms of the agreement, Feldman was represented by Andrew Babiak, a staff attorney with the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
Feldman was elevated to superintendent in September 2012 from her position as the district’s special services director to replace the then-Superintendent Joseph Picardo, who ultimately resigned after he was sued by a former employee on sexual harassment charges. Picardo had replaced Edward Kliszus in 2010 and two interims followed before Feldman came aboard.
During the past two years, the district went through a succession of business administrators and this school year, was assigned a state monitor, Thomas Egan, who has reported that the district ran up a deficit of about $4 million for the 2013-2014 school year.
To try and get the overspending under control, the BOE has reduced its payroll by shedding 59 of its employees from the administrative, secretarial, custodial and instructional ranks, Raymond Jacobus, the current BOE secretary/ school business administrator, told The Observer.
“That’s subject to re-evaluation in September when we look at the needs of the district and school enrollment,” Jacobus added. At this point, he said, enrollment figures appear to be holding steady. “In the high school, we’re showing a little more but we can be a little more flexible than with the elementary schools,” he said.
Aside from the fiscal woes, Feldman’s short stay has been rocked by confrontations with the teachers’ union – and its president Michael Mignone in particular – in the wake of the district installing a $2 million elaborate security system, which the union has blasted as ill-advised and ineffective and argued that the money would’ve been better spent on instructional supplies and tools.
Meanwhile, Acosta is preparing to step through the chief school administrator’s revolving door.
“When Mr. Egan called me into his office [to offer him the job of acting superintendent], I was shocked,” said Acosta, who will be 37 in October. But he’s set his sights on “moving the children forward and working hand-in-hand with the teachers for the benefit of our students.”
Having just completed his sixth year with the district, Acosta served this past year as principal of Elementary School 4 and will continue to serve in that post as acting superintendent. He was vice principal of the Middle School two years prior. For his first three years, he was a fifth-grade teacher at Elementary School 10. Before coming to Belleville, he taught five years at Our Lady of Czestochowa School in Jersey City. He’s one of three Belleville school employees who hold a school administrator’s certificate, Egan said.