East Newark school chief resigns

EAST NEWARK — For Patrick Martin, it was always about the kids.

That’s what brought him to the East Newark Borough School July 1, 2014, after having completed four years as the chief administrator of the Union Township Board of Education with 7,500 students spread among 10 schools.

“I was looking to get back into the classroom, to do hands-on work with the children,” he said. “It was wonderful to come to a new place where I could do that again.”

But he’ll be leaving that experience behind on June 30 when he bids a fond farewell to the nearly 300 students occupying East Newark’s only school where he’s presided as superintendent/principal.

Martin, whose appointment was only recently renewed for five years, said the district won’t be on the hook for paying him for the additional time since he’s leaving of his own volition. His starting pay in 2014 was $115,000 and he’s leaving with a salary of $127,500.

“A search for a replacement has begun,” he added.

So why the change of heart?

“This,” he said, “is my 25th year in education,” which he began in 1979 teaching sixth-grade at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in New York City, and which he now ends putting in papers for retirement and a state pension. “And my wife and I have new grandchildren in our life,” he said.

And while he didn’t mention another variable as a potential trigger for leaving, Martin’s impending departure comes amid escalating tensions between borough teachers/staffers and their employer over an unsettled labor agreement that now threatens to reach three years.

Economics – borough educators are the lowest-paid in New Jersey – has taken a toll on the district as an increasing number of employees conclude they have no choice but to leave to seek higher-paying jobs. Five of the 20+ staffers departed this past year.

When Martin assumed control of the district, the financial outlook was pretty gloomy. “My first budget (2014-15) we were $700,000 in the red,” he recalled, due largely to the high tuition costs of educating special needs youngsters with outside placements.

But that situation was righted, he said, by bringing back a total of 10 children with the creation of two special needs classrooms, one to handle younger kids and a second for middle-schoolers, in the district.

“Now,” Martin said, “we’re very financially secure.”

Another factor contributing to the district’s financial health was the settlement of a long-simmering dispute between it and the Harrison Board of Education in March 2015 over the tuition fee charged East Newark BOE for educating 100+ borough residents at Harrison High.

Both sides agreed to set the annual fee at $13,000 per student for the 2015-16 school year and increasing at a rate of 2% per year for each of the next six school years. At the time, Martin reckoned the initial savings at about $300,000.

Looking back on his East Newark experience, Martin likes to point to such achievements as having “witnessed an overall increase in standardized test scores” by an ethnically-diverse student population whose parents are largely blue-collar and “initiated a ‘one-to-one’ program where all students received a T-Mobile tablet that allows them to access the internet for classwork, homework and special projects.”

And while Mayor Joseph Smith has said there’s no way the borough could afford the cost of replacing the 100+-year school, Martin noted the district has managed to keep the building in optimum shape by finding contractors at the right price to upgrade Internet, phone and security systems, maintain a balanced heating and ventilating system, installed tile flooring and repaint the entire structure.

Meanwhile, Martin has continued to search for ways to connect with students, whether that’s meant running math “bees,” distributing daily morning handwriting sheets, sharing “Word of the Day” and conducting an all-school spelling championship — all inside the building.

For activities just outside school, he organized the August “ice-cream social” as a welcome-back to the fall term, the “Trunk-or-Treat” Halloween event, spring egg hunt/bike giveaway, Saturday Academy/soccer play and a field trip to Washington, D.C.

No matter the situation, Martin has always seemed to find a way to keep it real. One day last week, while delivering his daily dismissal-time announcements via school intercom, he acknowledged providing an inaccurate spelling for the word “archaeologist” and credited a teacher with tactfully pointing out the error.

So noted, Dr. Martin.

Proving that even a magna cum laude Fordham University alum is capable of making mistakes.

Ron Leir | Special to the Observer

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.