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Still making do without key public school leaders in Kearny

By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent

KEARNY –

When public school classes resume Thursday, Sept. 6, Kearny High School will have no principal at the helm. Nor will the district have a permanent district superintendent.

Cynthia Baumgartner, who served in the principal post for a year, left the district after the Board of Education voted April 30 not to renew her contract despite a favorable recommendation by the interim superintendent.

She applied for – and got – an administrative job with neighboring Harrison public schools.

In the intervening time, the Kearny school district posted for a replacement high school administrator but the school board never hired anyone from the list of applicants.

The district has operated with an interim superintendent since June 2011 after Frank Digesere resigned.

Former school trustee John Campbell, who is running for one of three seats on the school board in November, blasted the district for having failed to fill the two vacancies.

“I know we have three vice principals at the high school and, since schools are going to open Thursday, any one of those guys could take over – with a stipend to make up the difference in pay between positions,” Campbell said. “They all have knowledge of the building and can do the job.”

As for the top schools post, Campbell said: “We should’ve had a (permanent) superintendent in place six to nine months ago when most people in education are looking for school jobs. All the good (candidates) are gone now. We need someone who can shake people up here.”

Asked about the superintendent search, Bolandi said that process – and decision – is completely up to the board members.

“I have nothing to do with that,” he said.

Board President George King couldn’t be reached for comment.

During the summer, King said the board felt it had settled on someone to fill the slot but that individual bowed out.

As for the principal position, Interim Schools Superintendent Ronald Bolandi said: “The lead candidate pulled out and we only had two choices. The second choice could’ve done the job but we felt it would be better to have a bigger pool of candidates to make a selection.”

So Bolandi said the district would readvertise this month for a new batch of applicants and, in the meantime, “we’re looking at hiring an interim principal.”

Bolandi said he hoped to put the interim hiring on a fast track so that the board can conduct interviews of candidates and have someone in place by mid-September.

“I would hope to have someone (permanent) on board no later than New Year’s,” he said.

Asked why he would go the interim route first, Bolandi said: “The vice principals are doing a good job but we do need someone to control the building with the construction going on.”

The high school continues to undergo – in jerks and starts – a $37 million fix-up financed by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the Federal Aviation Administration and state Department of Education designed to soundproof the 89-year-old building against the noise of low-flying planes, provide a new heating/ventilating/cooling system, more classrooms and new culinary arts section.

Starting this month, students and staff will, at various intervals, be rotating through portable classroom trailers stationed on the high school’s front lawn. Despite previous assurances by board staff that parents and students would know in advance what to expect, it now appears that nobody will know who will be initially occupying the trailer units until they report for the first day of classes and get their class schedules.

Bolandi said he would do everything possible this school year to see that things run as smooth as possible at the high school.

“I am going to see that department chairpersons will keep open the lines of communication with teachers and staff to get problems solved quicker and calm morale issues down.”

When Baumgartner made a public appeal to the school board in late June to reconsider her contract, she alleged that the district created health and safety hazards for students and staff by not dealing appropriately with dust and asbestos issues, arising from interior construction work.

But Bolandi said, “I’m not aware of anything toxic” at the high school. “Dust, yes,” he said.

This summer, district officials had expected to see the start of a key phase of the project – bringing in steel to erect in the old swimming pool section that was demolished to clear the way for the new classrooms – but that never happened. Bolandi now expects that the steel work will be done “next summer.”

In the meantime, Bolandi said the contractor, Brockwell & Carrington Contractors, of Towaco, can proceed with other phases of the job such as ductwork related to the installation of the new HVAC system.

“We’ve still got a ton of work they can do inside the building without disrupting classes,” he said.

Despite Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, Bolandi said that students will still be able to attend physical education classes in those sections of the gym not being used for the storage of construction materials and equipment.

“We’re still on target to finish within our three-year build-out schedule,” Bolandi insisted.

Two administrative personnel issues settled by the school board on July 30 were: the appointment of Marilyn Kaplan as director of school-based youth services at $115,000 a year and of Justin Avitable as vice principal assigned to Franklin Elementary School, at $117,012 a year, both effective Aug. 1.

Avitable, a 1998 Kearny High graduate, was a manager in private industry before beginning his education career about eight years ago at his alma mater as a teacher of business education.

Avitable replaces Martin Hoff, whose appointment in that job wasn’t renewed by the school board, despite a favorable evaluation by the interim superintendent. Hoff exercised “bumping” rights to the job of high school fine arts chairman.

The N.J. Principals & Supervisors Association has appealed the board’s non-renewals of contracts for Baumgartner and Hoff to the state Department of Education (DOE) as “arbitrary.” It’s unclear when the DOE will act on the challenge.

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