Move to create middle school

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent


The Kearny Board of Education is on record endorsing a middle school campus.

The board voted 6-0 at a special meeting last Monday, March 24, to get the ball rollling. Missing from the scene were Vice President John Leadbeater and members John Plaugic and Dan Esteves.

On the subject of the middle school (grades 6, 7 and 8 combined into a centralized “campus”), the board authorized district officials to begin formal negotiations with the owners of the St. Stephen’s School (or, as it was most recently known, Mater Dei Academy) on Midland Ave. for its purchase and/or lease.

Under plans outlined at Monday’s meeting by Acting Superintendent of Schools Patricia Blood, if the district is successful in acquiring use of the parochial school building, it would consolidate all of its 400-plus sixth-graders – including bilingual and special needs students – spread among 20 classrooms in that facility by September 2014 as the first step in the process of creating a middle school campus.

Phase 2, Blood said, would be enacted the following school year by changing Lincoln Elementary School – across the street from St. Stephen’s School – from its current pre-K to grade 8 population – to a central location for the district’s seventh – and eighth-grade students.

The children in pre-K through grade 6 would be dispersed to other elementary schools, Blood said. How that distribution would play out will hinge, in part, on a district-wide demographics study currently “in the works,” said Blood. “We should have the results in by next month.”

This middle school campus concept – which has been promoted by prior district administrators – was most recently pitched by Schools Superintendent Frank Ferraro, before being placed on an involuntary paid leave, effective Jan. 6, after the newly reorganized board took a 6-2 “vote of no confidence” in Ferraro’s leadership.

Nonetheless, Ferraro and Blood appear to be on the same page when it comes to their support for a physical realignment of grades 6 to 8 as a strategy for improving the efficiency and quality of instruction for those students, relieving overcrowding in Garfield, Roosevelt and Washington elementary schools and for achieving savings in school spending.

While the board agreed to take the next step in the process by talking money with St. Stephen’s parish, Board President Bernadette McDonald – who has previously voiced skepticism about the economics of it – told the audience in Franklin School auditorium that, “This is not a commitment. We’re just getting prices. We have to know if we can afford this.”

Responding to one parent’s concern that the district wasn’t giving itself much lead time to get ready for a fall opening of the St. Stephen’s School building, Blood insisted that, “This is not a fast push. This has been discussed by district officials, back to [interim] Superintendent [Ron] Bolandi [who served during 2011-2012] when Mater Dei was closing.”

District Operations Director Mark Bruscino said that his staff would do everything possible to ensure that the building complies with state school code standards, including making the first floor ADA-accessible, by September.

To meet staffing requirements, Blood said the Lincoln School principal would serve as overall administrator for both Lincoln and the “Annex,” but “we would need to assign a vice principal to the Annex building itself.” Additionally, she said, there would be an “itinerant nurse” and two custodians, along with teachers.

Another parent wondered if her child could expect to see the same instructional technology she was now enjoying at her current school and Blood reassured her that the Annex “would be equipped with computers and smart boards.”

Since sixth-graders would be venturing across Midland Ave., a heavily-traveled two-way street, to Lincoln to swim in the pool there – and possibly to use the gym since St. Stephen’s gymnatorium is configured only for “aerobic” exercises – one parent worried about kids’ safety and “time lost” in changing and crossing the street. Blood said that the district would assign teachers to help kids cross and ask the town to station crossing guards there.

On the economics front, Bruscino estimated it would cost in the neighborhood of $395,000 for the rental and/ or purchase of St. Stephen’s School building, $100,000 for utilities, $15,000 for repairs and $10,000 for furniture.

If the board doesn’t go with the Annex option, Blood said that based on current enrollment projections, the district would need two additional classrooms at Garfield School and two at Washington School and, potentially, one more at Schuyler School. And, since there’s no room to accommodate the extra students, Bruscino said the district would have to spend an estimated $150,000 a year to rent or $550,000 to purchase “four or five” classroom trailers.

Anticipating questions about alternate strategies, Blood said that deployment of redistrictling alone was ruled out because it would be “a major undertaking” that “wouldn’t eliminate the replication of [instructional] services.”

Equally inadequate, she said, was the idea of using St. Stephen’s as another K-6 school and reconfiguring Lincoln to a grades 7 and 8 middle school because it’s “not efficient and our sixth graders would still be spread out over the district.”

Phasing in the middle school campus over two years, rather than all at once, makes sense because it will be less daunting for children, teachers and staff, Blood said.

On other infrastructure fronts, meanwhile, Bruscino provided updates on construction activities at the high school and at the districtowned property at 174 Midland Ave. being converted to KBOE/administrative staff offices and basement classrooms.

KHS’s south building should be finished by June, Bruscino said. On April 8, bids will be received for a “single overall general contractor for Aircraft Noise Abatement and Renovation work to be performed at Kearny High School north building” including installation of structural steel and related work that will pave the way for five floors of 20 new “instructional spaces,” glass elevator, new cafeteria, new media space and six-story atrium with skylight.

Of the $44.8 million in federal and state funding allocated for the project, the district has spent nearly $14 million so far, Bruscino said. “There’s no guarantee there’s enough left to finish the job,” he said. “We hope all the cards fall into place.”

However, the district will likely be facing additional payments incurred by an arbitration claim involving the $4.9 million façade portion of the KHS construction job, filed by Brockwell & Carrington, the contractor originally hired for the high school job but terminated “for convenience” midway through. Last Monday, the board voted to pay Hoffman Architects of Summit $11,450 as an expert consultant to defend against the claim.

As for the Midland Ave. project, Bruscino said that although there has been a “cost escalation of $83,627” since the job was originally bid in 2010, he’s hoping to bring the job in at the originally bid price of $3.1 million by having some of the preliminary work “picked up by my staff.”

He said the superintendent and support staff will occupy the first and second floors while students from the district’s “G.A.T.E.” program (pull-out gifted and talented classes for grades 3 to 6) will be assigned to two lowerlevel classrooms.

The board’s move to Midland Ave. should create room for four additional classrooms at its current home at the Franklin School campus, Bruscino said.

“We’re hoping to be in Midland Ave. by June and in [the new classrooms at] Franklin by September,” he said.

The project is being funded by a combination of capital reserve funds plus a grant from the state School Development Authority, he said.

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