Bump in the road for guidance counselor

Photo by Ron Leir/ From l., Kelly Durning, Noura Farih and Kelsey French appealed to School Board to keep their guidance counselor.


By Ron Leir


‘Bumping” is a process that occurs when a public employee who isn’t reappointed exercises rights to a lower classification in which he or she has certification, thereby, “bumping” the current occupant.

In the Kearny public school district, a high school guidance counselor is being bumped out of his job – the only such casualty among the hundreds employed by the Kearny Board of Education.

The plight of the unfortunate counselor, Gerald Santoleri, came to light at a special meeting of the school board held last Tuesday night when three of his advisees – juniors Kelly Durning, Noura Farih and Kelsey French – submitted a petition bearing the signatures of 86 students calling for his retention.

Durning told the board it would be “totally unfair to stick us” with a replacement counselor unfamiliar with the students, as they enter their senior year when they’ll be weighing post-graduate options such as choice of college.

Durning lauded Santoleri for offering personal support and encouragement and by attending students’ athletics events.

After the meeting, Farih and French echoed their fellow student’s high praise of the counselor. Farih characterized Santoleri as “also a friend who helps with sports, classes and personal issues. He knows us personally, and without that connection, we won’t have guidance for college.”

“We only found out (Santoleri’s job status) at seventh period today (June 5) when I was getting my (Dwight D. Eisenhower) award (presented in recognition of character and leadership),” Durning recalled. “That’s when he got his official (notification) letter.”

Second Ward Councilwoman Laura Pettigrew, who was among the many attending the June 5 special board meeting, congratulated the students for having the courage to take a public stand.

“I don’t understand what’s going on,” said Pettigrew, who has served on the high school’s PTA, Soccer Booster Club and Project Graduation. “(Franklin School vice principal) Marty Hoff will be missed and I don’t understand what your decision was based on.”

Hoff, it turns out, was the unwitting trigger for the board’s failure to rehire Santoleri.

As explained by Interim Schools Supt. Ronald Bolandi, “We had a reduction in force due to the board’s denial (on April 30) of a new contract for Mr. Hoff against my recommendation for renewal. So he bumped to a position at the high school – department chair of fine arts – a position currently held by Kathy Estrella, who, in turn, bumped down to high school guidance counselor.”

And that move left Santoleri out in the cold since, according to Bolandi, “he was the last one hired in high school guidance, in February 2011,” and, therefore, has the least seniority among his colleagues.

Bolandi said he understood the rationale for the students’ reaction. “Nobody ever likes to see their person go. … He’s an excellent counselor. It’s very sad we’ve lost him. And I’d be concerned if we were replacing him with someone brand new but I have a real competent person going into that spot. Kathy Estrella, who is a Kearny High graduate, was in guidance for 18 years before she was named fine arts supervisor. So these kids are not going to have a problem.”

Still, board president George King appeared to leave a possible opening when he told The Observer: “We’ll take a look at everything and evaluate the situation.”

The board, which had called the special meeting to discuss the possibility of hiring a permanent superintendent, huddled in executive session for an hour and a half before opening the public portion, at which point King announced that the board would not be voting on the superintendent that night. Reportedly, the board is waiting for Hudson County Superintendent of Schools Monica Tone to sign off on a proposed contract that’s been offered the candidate whose identity hasn’t been publicly disclosed. Tone couldn’t be reached for comment last week.

Instead, the board voted to reappoint Robert Elsmore as supervisor of plant operations. Bolandi said that Elsmore had been inadvertently placed on a list of school employees who were being considered for reappointment to secure tenure and whose appointment wasn’t renewed by the school board on April 30. However, Elsmore’s job slot “wasn’t a tenured position,” according to King. So the board corrected that by voting to renew Elsmore’s contract. Trustee John Leadbeater abstained due to a conflict of interest situation.

The board also voted to accept monthly employee health benefit premiums with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of NJ and monthly employee dental benefits premiums for the 2012-2013 school year but voted to replace Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of NJ with BeneCard Services, Inc., as its group prescription insurance carrier, effective July 1; designated Brown & Brown Benefit Advisors, Inc., as its group insurance broker and accepted monthly premiums for 2012-2013 prescription benefits.

In another personnel development, Bolandi told The Observer that in the past three weeks, the district has received 35 applications for the position of high school principal, which will be vacated July 1 when the incumbent, Cynthia Baumgartner, leaves to take a new job as curriculum director in the Harrison school district. The Kearny school board voted April 30 not to renew her contract and she had no bumping rights in Kearny for lack of continuous service as principal.

Five of the applicants are from within the district and the rest are outsiders, Bolandi said.

However, Bolandi hasn’t yet initiated interviews with the applicants. He said he’s waiting to hear from the board’s personnel committee “for direction” on whether they’d prefer to wait until a new superintendent is on board to handle that task.

Whether a permanent assistant superintendent will be sought “will be left up to whoever they hire (as the new superintendent),” Bolandi said.

And the district’s new school leader may be able to start work without the worry of having to negotiate new employee labor agreements.

About three months ago, the board nailed down a new three-year contract with its biggest employee union, the Kearny Education Association, representing some 500 teachers, counselors and child study team members who received increases in pay and mandated increments totaling 7.75% over three years, retroactive to July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2014.

Photo by Ron Leir/ Part of the overfl ow crowd waiting for School Board to begin special meeting


According to Bolandi, under the new salary guide, the annual base pay for a starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree will rise from the current $42,933 to $44,996 over the life of the contract; a teacher with B.A. and three years on the job will go from $45,434 to $47,618; and a teacher with B.A. and top of the guide with 15 years will go from $81,252 to $83,914.

However, the district is still bargaining with the unions representing custodial and maintenance workers; secretaries and clerks; department chairs; and administrators. All of those contracts expired June 30, 2011. Bolandi is hoping they can be wrapped up soon.

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