By Ron Leir
On Saturday, Oct. 17, the normal presence of local bluecoats to provide security for Kearny High football games was missing. Nor were they available for the Kearny High girls soccer tourney Oct. 19 at Cochrane Stadium in Jersey City.
And they will likely be missing for the balance of the season – and for all other Kearny school-related events – because the Kearny Board of Education is unwilling to pay the going hourly rate.
Provisional Superintendent of Schools Patricia Blood told The Observer last week that the amount of money now sought by the police for off-duty work simply wasn’t anticipated in the district’s budget when it was adopted in April.
Blood said the district brought in additional school security personnel to cover for the absent cops at the weekend games, “which, by the way, were incident-free,” she added.
Off-duty pay for Kearny police officers is set by the labor contract between the town and the police unions and the current contract calls for cops to be compensated for that work at the rate of $55 per hour, except for school-related jobs which are to be compensated at $40 an hour.
That $40-an-hour rate has been in place since September 2012. Before that, it was $25 an hour.
However, according to Blood, this September, the district was contacted by Sgt. John Manley, on behalf of the Police Department, “who told us they were planning to raise the [school] rates.”
To that end, the mayor and Town Council were asked to introduce an ordinance to increase the rate from $40 to $55 an hour at their Oct. 14 meeting, which they did but the new rate cannot go into effect until it is adopted at a public hearing that was tentatively scheduled for Oct. 29.
There were no plans by the district to send anyone to the meeting to oppose the proposed rate hike. Instead, Blood said, the district is “working on an alternate [security] plan, including the possibility of bringing on more teachers [to supplement school security]. They’re familiar with our students who generally respond positively to them and, between the two [security and teachers], we should be able to ensure a safe environment.”
Under their union contract, teachers are entitled to $36 an hour for overtime work while security personnel get less, so the district will likely be able to afford such a deployment scenario, she said.
District records supplied by School Business Administrator/ Board Secretary Michael DeVita show that the district spent $21,000 for “police charges” in 2010-2011, $20,970 in 2011-2012, $19,980 in 2012- 2013, $25,360 in 2013-2014 and $11,715 through fall 2014.
For many districts comparable in size to Kearny, it’s quite common to get by with one person in uniform and several staff to cover an event, Blood added.
Asked his take on the cops’ school rate predicament, Police Chief John Dowie said: “It’s a matter of being competitive” with what the private security market will bear. And, he said, there are always plenty of off-duty jobs available, “so I can assure the Board of Education they’re not being snubbed.”
On a typical day, Dowie said, “I have six contractors, be it ShopRite, Walmart, Fletcher Creamer, Public Service, looking to get police employees. Besides that, I have eight men assigned to Pulaski Skyway details between 6 a.m. and midnight.
“Plus, every week it seems, there’s some kind of public event – whether it’s a 5k run or a religious procession or July 4th fireworks – those posts have to be manned,” he added.
In Kearny, Dowie said, cops “have always worked Board of Education details for less [money]” in deference to giving back to local schools, but “if they can get a job paying more, why not?”
Generally, he said, Board of Education off-duty jobs “are designated to one individual but if that individual doesn’t want the job, you can’t order a guy to do it.” Such assignments are voluntary, he added.
And even if no uniformed personnel are on site for a schoolrelated event, “we certainly have patrols in area, if they need assistance,” the chief said. Plus, he added, even with the Police Department’s ranks “stretched too thin,” the department “still has a Cops in School program in place every day.”
Kearny High PTA President Irene Olawski couldn’t readily be reached for her assessment of the students’ safety situation.