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BOE beset by fiscal woes, internal strife

By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent

KEARNY –

“We will soon be seeing RED, if we don’t act accordingly.”

That’s what lies ahead for the Kearny public school system unless it takes steps to enact a middle school program, Superintendent of Schools Frank Ferraro has warned the Kearny Board of Education.

But a skeptical board seems unwilling to go there.

And, in fact, it’s a mystery where the board is going, period, given that at its most recent meeting, on June 17, a majority vote appeared to have removed Bernadette McDonald as the board president although the board’s counsel is questioning the vote’s legality.

As the meeting neared its end, board member George King – who preceded Mc- Donald in the president’s seat – introduced a resolution to oust her.

Here’s how King explained his action last week to The Observer: “There was a lack of working relationship between the board president and the new superintendent (Ferraro) and there was obvious discord there. There was a lack of respect shown and I don’t think it’s healthy for the board or the district …. You’re not getting things done.”

King, who isn’t seeking re-election in the November school balloting, said he “wrestled with [pitching McDonald’s removal] all night,” and, by the next day, concluded that “we had to have this discussion.”

“I know that being the board president is a tough job because you’re pulled in a lot of different positions,” King said, “but if you’re not in a working relationship with the superintendent, it’s damaging to the district.”

Asked to cite instances where McDonald may have been hostile to Ferraro, King said he couldn’t give specifics. “It’s just been a culmination of things that have happened in the last six months,” he said.

Although King said he “didn’t expect [the resolution] to take life,” it got a second from Dan Esteves, who was appointed to the board in late January after Deborah Lowry was declared ineligible to take the seat to which she’d been elected. Esteves will be running in November for a 2-year term.

The resolution passed 6-3, with King, Esteves, Board Vice President John Leadbeater, John Plaugic, Robert O’Malley and, oddly enough, McDonald, voting in favor. James Doran Jr., Sebastian Viscuso and Cecilia Lindenfelser dissented.

In a phone interview last week, McDonald said she threw in her lot with the majority, “I guess because I was blindsided,” and seeing that a majority would carry the day, “I felt my vote didn’t really mean anything.”

Asked if she understood King’s point, McDonald replied: “I have no clue. The superintendent is the one that brings forward proposals. All the board president does is run the table.”

Asked to assess Ferraro’s performance so far, McDonald said: “He’s doing the best he can,” adding that the board is still waiting to hear from its business administrator recommendations on how it should implement $800,000 in budget cuts it authorized in April.

Meanwhile, McDonald said, the board has been advised by its attorney Kenneth Lindenfelser that “a board president can only be removed when he or she refuses to do their duty under the law – apparently there’s a whole list of duties under [N.J. Statute] 18A – or if I resign.”

Since she hasn’t been told that she’s in violation of the law, McDonald figures to remain as board president.

At the June 17 meeting, King – joined by Plaugic and O’Malley – voted against approving and paying a $3,265 change order to Fallon & Pacheco, the Bloomfield architects retained to perform environmental consulting work related to preparing a facility at 174 Midland Ave. to house the board’s offices and two classrooms. King said he objected “because the work [soil borings related to an off-site contaminated soil condition and lab testing of samples] had already been done before the change order was sent to us. It’s a procedural problem. We didn’t get an explanation. The information should come to us before the work is done.”

King and his allies were outvoted.

Nearly lost in the commotion over King’s surprise resolution was a recommendation by Ferraro for the appointment of Debra Sheard as assistant superintendent. Sheard, an educator since 1994, is currently interim superintendent for the Califon school district in Hunterdon County. The board took no vote but after a closed-session discussion directed Lindenfelser to talk with Sheard about contract terms and get approval from the county superintendent’s office.

But the board did vote to hire Advanced Solar Products of Flemington to replace solar modules/mounting system and related components for Franklin Elementary School gym damaged by Sandy at a cost of $147,512.

Meanwhile, there’s no word on what, if anything, the board is doing about Ferraro’s dire forecast and prescription for recovery that he pitched at a joint meeting of the board’s curriculum and facilities committees in late May.

Ferraro said he’s had preliminary talks with the Rev. Joseph Mancini, pastor of St. Stephen’s Parish, about the possibility of the board leasing space at the former parish school on Midland Ave., last occupied by Mater Dei Academy, as a nearby “annex” to Lincoln School and as part of a middle school “campus” that, he said, could be phased in over the next two years.

By going this route, Ferraro said, the district would eliminate overcrowding in most of its elementary schools, improve the delivery of instruction to grades 6 through 8, and cut costs.

Ferraro said the Board of Education must do something to change the current system; otherwise, it will be facing troubled fiscal times ahead, very shortly.

Right now, he said, the district is working with a modest surplus of about $2.4 million in an annual budget of $85.8 million, of which $30.5 million comes from state aid and nearly $47.7 million from local taxes.

But for the 2014-2015 school year, because “revenues aren’t keeping pace with expenses,” Ferraro projected that surplus would morph into a $2.4 million deficit, meaning that the board would have to reduce its instructional payroll by 25 to 30 positions to balance its budget.

And the following year, Ferraro said, the deficit would grow to $4.6 million, which, he added, means “we will be facing a reduction in force of as many as 60 teachers….”

“The Lincoln Campus provides the needed solution,” Ferraro asserted, because it offers a more efficient way of providing education to all elementary school children with fewer staff needed.

Ferraro proposed phasing in the plan, with sixth-graders moving into the former Mater Dei building during the 2013- 2014 school year and grades 7 and 8 occupying Lincoln School during the 2014-2015 school year.

These steps, he said, among other things, would ensure “increased instructional time” in math and language arts, provide teachers “common planning time” and even out enrollment at other schools.

But Doran said he didn’t think there was sufficient lead time to work out terms for a lease of Mater Dei and get the first phase done in time for September opening. McDonald said: “We’re spending too much on leases now. Let’s get done with one project (Midland Ave.) before we start another.” Lindenfelser added that, “maintenance [of Mater Dei] could potentially be real costly. This needs a lot more [analysis] before we even present it to the public.” And Esteves said: “Spending money [to lease Mater Dei] is going to set us back further.” Instead, he suggested the board look at “restructuring the district” or cracking down on “out-of-district” kids going to Kearny.

Ferraro replied: “At least this starts the conversation…. We’re not rushing into this.”

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