By Ron Leir
If someone sues the Kearny Board of Education, the school trustees will be scrambling to find someone to defend the district.
That’s because, for the moment, the district doesn’t have a general counsel.
Why not, you wonder? Well, at its Jan. 3 reorganization meeting, its currently sitting eight members couldn’t agree, either to rehire lead attorney David Rubin or to hire assistant attorney Kenneth Lindenfelser.
First, a motion to retain Lindenfelser was defeated by a vote of 4-3 with George King, Robert O’Malley, John Plaugic and John Leadbeater opposed; Sebastian Viscuso, Bernadette McDonald and James Doran Jr. in favor; and Cecilia Lindenfelser abstaining.
Then the board split 4-4 on a motion to re-appoint Rubin. The naysayers were: Doran, Lindenfelser, Viscuso and McDonald; voting “yes” were King, O’Malley, Plaugic and Leadbeater.
Despite the board’s orneriness on legal representation, there was unanimity reflected in its choices of McDonald as board president and of Leadbeater as vice president.
McDonald replaces King and Leadbeater takes over for Paul Castelli, who lost his seat in the BOE election held Nov. 6, 2012. Board member Lisa Anne Schalago didn’t seek reelection.
Doran, Lindenfelser and Deborah Lowry were the victors in that balloting but the board, in its last incarnation, got the state Commissioner of Education to declare Lowry ineligible to serve because she had a “contractual interest” with the district in that she was collecting a retirement sick leave compensation package.
Lowry sought to “cure” that obstacle – initially by asking the board to consider either advancing her the balance due before she took her seat or by deferring payment of the balance until after she completed her 3-year term – but the board rejected both options.
Then Lowry asked the board to assign the balance owed her to a “responsible third party” – but this option was ruled unacceptable by a state administrative law judge.
Lowry’s Belleville attorney Frank Pomaco said last week that his client isn’t pursuing the matter and Lowry, in a phone interview, reiterated that fact to The Observer.
“I’m done,” Lowry said. “I’ve pursued it as far as I could.”
Lowry said the board could have asked the school administrators association for the okay to ratify an accelerated payment of the balance due on her compensation package but, “as far as I know, the board never approached (union head John Zimmerman) about that.” Zimmerman couldn’t be reached for comment.
“It would’ve been a simple matter,” Lowry said. “The board had the opportunity to solve it. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t have done it. … It seems the need for power, control trumps a lot of things.”
Some board members insisted that Lowry should have known, simply by reading her nominating petition, that she had a conflict but Lowry said: “I never thought I had an issue. If I had, I would never have run in the first place.”
It didn’t take long for the new board president to begin asserting her leadership.
After the deadlock on legal representation, McDonald – after getting agreement from board members – directed board secretary Michael DaVita to contact Genova, Burns & Giantomasa, the board’s labor counsel, to see if any member of the firm is qualified and interesting in serving as general counsel “on an as need basis.”
Next, McDonald – again, after conferring with the board – instructed DaVita to “have something put in the paper, like a want ad, for people to apply for the vacant seat (on the board), that they would serve only for a year until the next election, that they should submit a short resume and a letter telling why they’d be good for the board.”
McDonald said she wanted a “short posting” designed to get the applicants’ credentials to the board in time for its Jan. 22 meeting. She said that by state law, the board has 65 days (from its reorganization) to pick someone to fill the empty seat or, failing that, the selection is up to the county superintendent of schools.
McDonald also assured the audience that the board would begin meeting as a “committee of the whole” to conduct public workshops of all board committees – possibly the same week as regular board meetings – so “we can all have input.” Because “the board is still split,” McDonald added, it’s more practical to handle the situation this way instead of trying to form individual committees.