By Ron Leir
Two Kearny public school administrators whose contracts weren’t renewed asked their employers to reappoint them last week but were, instead, turned aside for a second time, as supporters loudly registered their displeasure.
Cynthia Baumgartner, whose appointment as Kearny High School principal expired June 30, and Martin Hoff, whose job as Franklin Elementary School vice principal, also came to an end June 30, were afforded an opportunity last Tuesday to explain why the board should reconsider its April 30 vote denying them reappointment, despite favorable recommendations by Interim Supt. Ronald Bolandi. Five votes were needed for reappointment but each came up short.
Both addressed the board in public after waiving their right to confidentiality and William Gossen, counsel to the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, also spoke on their behalf.
At the April 30 meeting, board members who opposed their reappointments or who simply didn’t vote gave no reasons for their actions but later, upon written request by Baumgartner and Hoff, provided a “Statement of Reasons” through board counsel David Rubin.
For Baumgartner, those reasons were that during her one-year tenure as high school principal, there was “low morale” and “polarization” among her staff; a “lack of expected improvement in test scores”; need for a “professional improvement plan” to address “certain weaknesses”; “insufficient presence at school events”; and, finally, the district “can find a better candidate.”
As an overview, Baumgartner – using a slide projector to make points along the way – said that when she took the job, she “found the school in a time warp,” that “the staff taught the same curriculum over and over again,” and that “we had no rich data to analyze (standardized) test scores.” So, she said she created professional development teams to set up individualized learning plans for each student. “It was an arduous task because I had no tracking data but we were learning how to teach,” she said. But it was worth the effort, she said, because by the end of the year, the high school had achieved state-mandated “Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).”
On the morale issue, Baumgartner said that while “no grievances” were filed against her by staff, physical conditions in the high school not within her control could likely have disturbed the staff. Such things as the loss of 11 teachers’ parking spaces due to construction, a workplace that featured a “crumbling building,” an exterior “covered with scaffolding,” a “disgusting” women’s bathroom,” hallways “morose-looking,” utility lights “hanging from the ceiling,” plywood covering classroom windows, and construction drilling going on during school hours, and contractual inequities.
As for the test scores, Baumgartner credited her staff for doing a “kick-ass job” in raising HSPA scores by 13 points, “despite a national decline.” And AP scores were “up 24%,” she noted. “I don’t know what the board expected.”
If she needed to overcome “certain weaknesses,” as the board alleged, Baumgartner said that seems to fly in the face of her evaluation by the interim superintendent who praised her for raising the high school from failing to AYP, for trying to address the needs of students and staff during construction and who “strongly recommended” her “for any administrative position.”
As for failing to attend school events, Baumgartner said she not only devoted much of her time to such events, she “added” new ones “and I attended them.” Among them were the “Candlelight Vigil, Battle of the Classes and Mr. Kearny High.”
As for the board finding a “better candidate,” Baumgartner said that in a lengthy career as an educator, “I’ve raised test scores in five high schools in two districts,” gotten two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in educational leadership, served on College Board committees and “never had a negative evaluation.”
NJPSA counsel Nossen chided the board for ignoring the recommendation of the interim superintendent to reappoint Baumgartner. “Has the board really confined itself to (administering) policy and planning here?” he asked.
Members of the public also came to Baumgartner’s defense. Councilwoman Laura Pettigrew urged the board not to fault the principal for any “bad morale” among staff. Some people were upset, she said, because “the status quo changed.” That’s what happens, she added, “when someone shakes the tree.” And a parent noted that even after the board had voted not to renew her contract, Baumgartner still saw fit to participate in Project Graduation.
But when the vote to reconsider was taken, only four board members – James Doran, Bernadette McDonald, Lisa Anne Schalago and Sebastian Viscuso – voted “yes” – one short of the five votes needed. John Leadbeater, John Plaugic, Paul Castelli and board president George King voted “no.” Robert O’Malley, who abstained on April 30, was absent.
Hoff fared no better after delivering his impromptu pitch to the board which included a couple of key props – a thick folder of discipline cases he’s handled and a large chart he mapped out to solve a sticky class scheduling problem.
Hoff sought to refute the board’s “statement of reasons” for not renewing his contract which listed concerns about his “temperament and objectivity dealing with parents on discipline”; “insufficient confidence in his suitability for the job to merit granting lifetime tenure”; and “an overall sense that despite some strengths as an administrator … the district can find a better candidate.”
Hoff told the board he did his best to control discipline issues that cropped up during Franklin School’s lunch period. “We have 17 supervisors to watch 1,000 children,” he said. “That’s not enough.”
Hoff, a 28-year Kearny educator, said he went out of his way to track students suspected of living outside the district, even taking a bus to follow one youngster to what turned out to be his home in Newark.
“My heart is in Kearny,” Hoff said. “Many times I’ve put my job in front of my family.” And, he added, there was a recent summer family vacation he opted to forego to focus, instead, on a pressing school issue.
He spoke, with emotion, about a number of youngsters he’s dealt with for discipline problems “but a lot of them have turned it around,” he noted.
Several in the audience praised Hoff for his dedication to duty. Among them was 13-year school employee Veronica Doran, who said that Hoff “does walk the halls, he cares for these children. He’s a gentleman and a gentle giant.” He does the job “with respect and honor,” she said, “and it would be a tragedy to lose him.”
After saying she’d “never worked with two finer people” (Baumgartner and Hoff), retired 33-year teacher/curriculum director Deborah Lowry admonished the board for acting “like a runaway train” during the past year. “You don’t discuss (among yourselves). … You got elected and you take it with a cavalier attitude. … Do some soul-searching.”
Nonetheless, a reconsideration vote failed as Leadbeater, Castelli and King voted “no” while Viscuso, McDonald and Schalago voted “yes.” Doran and Plaugic didn’t vote because of confl ict of interest situations.
Afterwards, The Observer asked King about the public’s reaction. “You listen to the people and you vote what you think is right,” he said. “But I value their opinions.”
Baumgartner will likely move on to Harrison’s school district where she’s been hired as director of instruction while Hoff will probably exercise “bumping” rights to fine arts chairman at the high school.
In another personnel development, King told The Observer that the board’s search for a permanent superintendent of schools has been temporarily scratched now that the candidate on whom the board had settled has withdrawn, “citing personal, family reasons.” King said the board would readvertise for the post. The interim superintendent’s contract was recently extended an additional six months while the board continues its search.