Saturday, August 11, 2007

Smoke? Fire? Fog?

At the risk of offending a media colleague, I am inclined to comment on an article that appeared in print Thursday.

First of all, the article seems to be based on release to the press of a letter to state Department of Education Commissioner Lucille Davy. Assemblyman Jerry Green calls on Davy to investigate the “operation and governance” of the school district. Excuse me, isn’t that what the state just did in the new Quality Single Accountability Continuum monitoring process? No, Green is pointing to the hiring of Peter Carter as interim superintendent at $850 per day following the sudden resignation of Paula Howard. He alleges Carter was hired on “the sole recommendation of the board’s legal counsel,” according to the article. Sorry, we don’t know for sure who suggested Carter as a possible candidate, or who made the call that Carter answered as he stood on Rehoboth Beach on June 6, contemplating the Atlantic Ocean. On June 12, Carter said only, “I received a phone call advising me there was a situation where I could possibly be of service to the children of Plainfield … I said, let me come and do what I can for a time for the children of Plainfield.”

As for Carter being a client of an attorney for Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley, this writer was given evidence of a link in early June, soon after Carter was hired. But no one – not Carter, Hamlin, a contact person for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators or board president Patricia Barksdale – would confirm the link or comment on it. The status or outcome of the case, which appeared to be based on a 2004 incident, could not be verified. The article alludes to the case but does not clarify any details. It is possible that if Carter was suing the state association that keeps a list of available administrators, maybe his name would not be on such a list.

What we do know is that after Carter was hired, Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley received board approval to serve as general counsel, labor counsel and Workmen’s Compensation counsel. The firm replaced Weiner, Lesniak as labor counsel. The June 19 resolution gave no hourly rate for Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley’s services. The firm will serve as general counsel through June 2008 and in the other roles through Sept. 30, 2007. Again, no answers were given on the alleged link.

On another point: If Green thinks the board did wrong to hire Carter at $850 per day, what about the board’s approval of hiring Walter Rusak as interim assistant superintendent for an additional $600 per day? That brings the cost for a chief school administrator and an assistant to $1,450 per day. Why single out Carter for disapproval?

And what does Green want the board to do about Howard? She tried to rescind her resignation on June 10, but the board had already accepted it June 8 and hired Carter and interim Business Administrator/Board Secretary Michael Donow the same night.

Now it is two months later and Green is raising all these issues, but not to the board itself. He appears to want to use Davy as a cudgel. But by all accounts, the state will already be coming down hard on the district in the soon-to-be-released NJQSAC report. If the district’s performance under Howard is in question, why add to the bad news by picking on the board for hiring someone whose short-term burden is to set things straight?

If Howard wants her job back, she will have to fight her own legal battle. But revelations that some of her top aides were unqualified won’t help her cause.

It’s hard to say whether Green’s actions are second-guessing, misdirection or a sincere attempt to get to the bottom of who recommended Carter to the board and why. The board is just beginning the process of searching for a new superintendent. If things should have been done differently, should the board now look for another interim superintendent? How much disruption can the troubled district take?

--Bernice Paglia


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