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Will KHS project run out of cash?

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By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent 

KEARNY – 

Is the Kearny High School improvement project budget set to spiral out of control?

No one at the Kearny Board of Education is saying that – not yet, anyway – but the district is reaching out to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – one of the primary funders of the project – to learn how much leeway, if any, might be available if costs exceed the $44 million allocation.

If the project runs over budget, and if the agencies pay for the work won’t provide bailout money, the BOE may have to go hat in hand to local taxpayers for help.

The Federal Aviation Administration and state Department of Education are partners with the P.A. in the KHS Noise Abatement and Exterior Renovation-Addition job that has been sputtering along since 2010.

When will the job end? Will there be enough money left to pay for it? No one has definitive answers. The BOE hired New York CPA firm D’Arcangelo & Co. in July 2013 to crunch the numbers but the board says it has yet to get the company’s report.

But Michael Dassatti, president of Brockwell & Car rington, the Towaco firm originally hired to do the job but “terminated for convenience” in March 2013, warned that the district is on a path to crash and burn.

Just to finish work on the high school’s North building – a job that includes erection of steel for a five-story addition – the only bid the BOE got was for more than $48 million — $4 million more than the overall project budget. It has rejected that bid and is looking to rebid the job.

As the BOE was preparing to separate itself from B&C, Dassatti said his company tried to persuade officials to allow the firm to complete the KHS South Building for about $1.6 million – a proposal the BOE rejected.

Instead, Dassatti noted, the BOE hired a new contractor, Paul Otto Building Co. of Flemington, to complete the South Building for a contract price of $2,968,000.

B&C, which has been paid $10.9 million of $38.1 million in billings, with change orders, for work on the South and North Buildings could have completed both buildings for $26.4 million, Dassatti said. “We pretty much knew what had to be done but the people in charge seemed to want us out of the picture.”

As it stands today, however, Dassatti said, the BOE is on the hook for the $2.9 million for Otto, plus $1.9 million for consultant fees, plus, potentially a contract fee at or close to $48.7 million for the North Building – if it can’t find a way to reduce the scope of services – for a grand total of $53.6 million – about double the price B&C would have charged. Not to mention more construction time lost while BOE staff assesses revisions of the bid specifications for the North Building, he added.

(There will likely be extras resulting from B&C’s pending arbitration on the KHS Exterior Renovation contract in addition to whatever payment B&C and the BOE negotiate resulting from the termination of convenience agreement.)

Dassatti said he was disappointed that no BOE members had reached out to his firm to get all the facts. “We’re not in litigation with them on the [KHS] Addition project so they can feel free to talk to us,” he said. “Are they worried about saving the taxpayers’ money or saving face?”

Meanwhile, the BOE has adopted its 2014-2015 school budget. At a special meeting held earlier this month, the BOE projected total spending at about $80.2 million, of which the district expects to get about $46.2 million in local school taxes. The tax impact on the “average” house, assessed at about $95,000, is a projected increase of about $74, due partly to a $7.3 million drop in town ratables.

Still, according to a BOE budget document, the new budget will reflect reductions in the following categories:

• Surplus cut by $1 million.

• Instructional payroll cut  by $840,000, by not replacing 11 teachers who are retiring. • Custodial salaries cut  by $107,840 by not replacing two custodians who are retiring and custodial/ maintenance overtime cut by $60,000.

• Technology supplies cut  by $100,000.

• School supplies cut by  $45,000.

That same document listed as “further cuts,” minus cash projections, “all freshman athletic teams and coaches,” along with “possible additional reductions” to unspecified staff. KHS Vice Principal Michael Barbone will be retiring June 30 and, so far, the BOE hasn’t named his replacement.

While the freshman teams and coaches will likely remain untouched, the district’s No. 2 administrator will not be around after June 30. Debra Sheard, who was hired June 2013 as assistant superintendent of schools for $150,000 a year has been notified by Acting Superintendent Patricia Blood that her one-year appointment isn’t being renewed.

Blood couldn’t be reached to discuss the matter. Sheard said she was told that “they’re eliminating the position” and that she would be seeking employment elsewhere.

A source familiar with the situation said that Sheard was advised through a written notice from Blood that she was being let go as part of a series of budget-cutting moves by the school board and that it should be up to a “permanent superintendent” to choose a second in command.

Sheard was recommended for her job in Kearny by the then-Superintendent Frank Ferraro and was narrowly approved by a 5-4 vote. The four dissenting votes came from Bernadette McDonald, Sebastian Viscuso, Cecilia Lindenfelser and James Doran Jr., all of whom became members of a new majority voting bloc after last year’s school board balloting who subsequently voted to place Ferraro on an involuntary paid leave and authorized hiring a detective agency to “investigate” Ferraro’s background.

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