By Ron Leir
The Harrison Board of Education is working on plans to remedy overcrowding in its elementary schools but who exactly will be in charge of seeing those plans through isn’t clear as it continues to grapple with its leadership issue.
Its five-year contract with Schools Superintendent James Doran expired June 30 and, instead of reappointing him to that post, the board revived a position that has been vacant for several years – director of personnel/human resources/ compliance and crisis management – and named Doran to fill it at its meeting last Thursday.
“I want to thank the board for their continued faith in me,” Doran said during the board’s public session.
Karen Murray, the board’s labor attorney, said the board was still in negotiations on Doran’s new salary but Doran said it was likely to end up at “about $200,000,” which, he said, would represent a $42,000 cut from what he was earning as superintendent. At the same time, the board agreed to ask the state Commissioner of Education for a waiver of the state-mandated salary cap “for superintendent and acting superintendent.”
Two Atlantic County lawmakers introduced a bill in the Assembly on June 21 to permit the Commissioner, upon written application by a board of education, to waive a superintendent’s maximum salary restriction under certain circumstances, but the bill has languished in committee since then.
Still, board officials remain confident that the Commissioner has the latitude to review their request even without legislation to waive the existing statewide salary cap keyed to size of school districts.
Meanwhile, Harrison’s current Assistant Superintendent Frederick Confessore – whose contract was renewed for one year with a 2% increase at $223,252 – is now the acting chief school administrator. Confessore, a 40-year educator, has submitted a letter of intent to retire “by the end of this year or shortly thereafter.”
According to Murray, “If a school district is without a superintendent for a week or two, the assistant superintendent can serve as acting superintendent until we get a salary waiver.”
The board also reappointed M. Christine Griffin as its business administrator, for a year, with a 2% increase, at $184,522.
Murray noted, however, that, “the amount that [Griffin and Confessore] pay for their insurance benefits exceeds the 2% increase.”
After the meeting, Doran said that pending talks with the state, “the board asked me to stay on as director of personnel,” which he agreed to do. “I’m very happy with our working relationship,” he said. “We’ve done some great things for the district.”
Doran added: “I’d love to stay as superintendent and I’d love to see that relationship continue but [as of now] it’s a significant pay cut [to $157,500, the maximum salary for a district the size of Harrison’s].”
In the meantime, school administrators will be focused on negotiations with the state Schools Development Authority, which fully funds and manages new construction and modernization of school infrastructure, for money to relieve overcrowding.
“We hope to get more [school] space,” Assistant School Business Administrator Michael Pichowicz told the board. And the district expects a favorable response from the SDA by next month, he added.
Later, Doran elaborated on Pichowicz’s comments, telling The Observer, that since he’s been superintendent during the past five years, he’s been pressing the SDA for funds for any of a series of alternate plans to relieve overcrowding in elementary school classrooms.
“We’re in discussions to purchase the former Holy Cross School,” he said, as part of a concept to set up “neighborhood schools” – in this case, placement of early grades and special education classes in the old parochial school which a Newark charter school recently vacated.
“We feel we can do a better job educating our autistic kids, instead of busing them [to private schools] outside the county,” Doran said.
If the district does acquire Holy Cross School, Doran said one plan calls for using Lincoln School as an “early childhood center” for K to grade 2 and using the parochial school and Hamilton School to house grades 3, 4 and 5.
Another option being studied, he said, is construction of an addition to Washington Middle School on space now occupied by Shields Park, adjacent to the school, for fifth-graders.