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Finances, test scores alarm school chief

By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent

KEARNY –

Schools Superintendent Frank Ferraro sounded two alarms – one about the district’s finances that he’d previously mentioned in March – and one about its students’ performance – at the Nov. 18 Kearny Board of Education meeting.

A recently concluded audit of the BOE’s spending blueprint found that the district “has used $1.9 million from our reserves to balance the [ever-climbing $80 million] 2013-2014 budget,” Ferraro observed.

“Using money from our reserves is similar to using a savings account to pay for your mortgage. Eventually these funds will be exhausted and our district will face some very harsh choices: to substantially raise taxes to make up for the lost revenue or substantially cut instructional programs and extra-curricular activities,” he said.

Ferraro is hoping to get some rescue strategies from “Vision 2018,” a five-year plan being developed with input from members of the school community. One option likely to be more thoroughly explored is creating a middle school program.

While it’s trying to figure its way out of the fiscal morass, the BOE also needs to reverse a flatering academic performance by its students.

Piggybacking on a public presentation by Assistant Superintendent Debra Sheard, also at the Nov. 18 BOE meeting, Ferraro said: “The data shows that five of our seven schools did not meet [the district’s] performance targets [as measured by 2013 state standardized tests].

“This is a major issue for Kearny schools because the information illustrates our administration and staff must work diligently to improve the instruction…,” he said.

Of the district’s six elementary schools, only Washington School, school-wide, met the progress targets for Language Arts Literacy and Math, as set by the state, as did Kearny High, school-wide, according to the data collated by Sheard.

For each of the schools that failed to meet the performance benchmarks, test scores by Hispanic students and economically disadvantaged (those qualifying for free or discounted school lunches) students lagged behind whites. (Interestingly, Washington School has the highest number of economically disadvantaged students in the district.)

A school-by-school breakdown of the test results can be found to going to www.kearnyschools.com, clicking on the link for Instruction and Programs and then clicking on “Progress Target Presentation.”

Sheard said that, beginning this year, with a new state-mandated evaluation system in place for administrative and instructional staff, part of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on assessment of his/ her students’ performance.

And, for better accountability, if a student transfers to another school in the district or outside the district, that student’s assessment “can be rolled over from school to school or from district to district,” Sheard said.

Among the instructional strategies being put into place to try to improve students’ performance is a partnership with Teachers College, Columbia University, for a reading and writing pilot project that, according to Sheard, will “provide on-site coaching to our K-5 teachers [at Washington and Lincoln Schools] with state-of-the-art methods of teaching writing.”

Washington School was picked because of its high percentage of lower-income population, Sheard said. “We chose Lincoln with the intention that, if we go to a middle school, most likely the Lincoln School elementary staff would be redistributed throughout the district [and] this would help to expand the program at a quicker pace ….,” she added.

Eighteen staffers at Lincoln and 23 at Washington are being trained at a cost pegged at $36,000, Sheard said.

The district is also paying LoTi, a California- based consulting firm, about $200,000 to make teachers aware of what’s expected of them in terms of how they can work with students to create a win-win outcome for their evaluations.

Other instructional tools that, Sheard said, the district is deploying include: the Fountas & Pinnell benchmarking system in K-5; Achieve 3000, a differentiated instruction system for elementary students; Go Math, an instructional system designed to meet the Common Core standards; Ticket-to- Read, an online reading program for K-6; Larson’s Big Ideas, a math program for middle schoolers; and more frequent, “three-to five minute” classroom observations by principals and vice principals.

Given that only a few parents or staff at the Nov. 18 meeting probed Sheard further about the test results, Ferraro told The Observer he felt “there wasn’t any sense of concern” driving the school community on this issue.

“People don’t seem to understand the implications [of failing to meet progress targets],” he said. “We’re accountable to the state and some serious consequences could result. The state [Department of Education] could, basically, come in and give us directives.” A more palatable option, he said, is for Kearny to develop its own solutions.

In other business: District Plant Operations Director Mark Bruscino reported progress on the resumption of construction work at Kearny High. He said that a newly hired contractor is ready to begin work on the KHS’s South Building, that the board will be seeking bids soon to complete demolition of the old pool area and will be bidding out work on the North Building by January. He said that the field houses would get new roofs and that staff were “reviewing quotes” for stadium lights.

Board member Cecilia Lindenfelser said that the public wouldn’t be permitted to tour the high school work site because of safety concerns. Instead, she said, “we will shoot a video,” narrated by the project’s supervisors, to show how work is progressing. “This is the best way to go,” she said. “We can’t have people traipsing through with construction going on.” Ferraro said he plans to “post work schedules” on the district website to keep the public in the loop.

As the BOE continues to await an accountant’s review of how much has been spent so far on the KHS project, it learned from its business administrator Michael DeVita that it has exceeded its contractual obligations to Piscataway construction manager Epic Management and to New York architect Sen Architects. Epic, originally hired on the KHS Aircraft Noise Abatement & Renovations part of the job for $970,918, is now billing for a new total of $1,745,968 and Sen, initially hired on the same job for $300,000, is now up to $964,000. DeVita told The Observer both had to perform additional work after the original contractor was terminated “for convenience.”

A delegation of Roosevelt School parents asked Ferraro to look into what one parent spokeswoman described as “a serious issue affecting the wellbeing of our children.” Several sources said the parents’ concern focused on allegations of inappropriate behavior by a school employee. Later that week, Ferraro told The Observer that after reviewing the situation, he was persuaded there was “no danger – not any issue of children being in harm’s way … based on what we know of our personnel [at the school]. Nothing credible was brought to our attention.”

The BOE agreed – conditional on approval by the Kearny Education Association – to hire an additional KHS track coach, at a stipend of $4,955, to be assigned to work with disabled student athlete Stephen Koziel, a varsity member of the KHS cross country, indoor and outdoor track teams and a 2013 USA Paralympics High School Track and Field All American. Koziel told the BOE that under Section 504 of the federal Disabilities Act, he was entitled to a “track aide to help me navigate” – with use of a javelin, discuss and 3-wheel racer – for safety reasons. Ferraro later told The Observer that Section 304 provided for “adaptive technology for special needs students.” He said the school track coaches “came to me to get him more [human] support.”

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