Saturday, December 29, 2007

Top 2007 Story: School District Woes

Having made a couple of passes at putting together a “year in review” piece, I realize that I covered several big stories as Pressgrrrl instead of Bloglady. This is complicating my list-making. Overall, I think the the story of the year, with many chapters, is the turmoil in the school system. I did some of the reporting for the Courier News and some for Plaintalker.

A state monitoring team visited Plainfield in early 2007 as part of a new program called New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or NJQSAC. In April, incumbents Wilma Campbell and Martin Cox won re-election for three-year terms, along with new board member Christian Estevez. In May, Patricia Barksdale became school board president for the year and Bridget Rivers became vice-president. At the end of the month, Business Administrator/Board Secretary Victor Demming left the district. High School principal Frank Ingargiola also left the district.

In June, Schools Superintendent Paula Howard suddenly resigned after a board meeting where her recommendation for an interim business administrator/board secretary was rebuffed. Within days, the board accepted her resignation and hired Peter E. Carter as interim superintendent and Michael Donow as interim business administrator/board secretary. The board soon approved hiring Walter Rusak as assistant superintendent and he also served as interim high school principal.

Carter learned in July that the state Department of Education had found the district deficient in four out of five performance areas studied in the monitoring. While awaiting release of the full report, Carter began weeding out uncertified staff and making other personnel changes. The monitoring report, released Aug. 20, showed that Plainfield met only 8 percent of standards for Instruction and Program, 11 percent for Governance, 32 percent for Fiscal Management, 38 percent for Personnel and 61 percent for Operations Management

Carter’s “post-6/11 team,” as he called himself, Donow and Rusak, then had not just to keep the district afloat pending searches for a permanent chief school administrator and business administrator/board secretary, but had to address the state findings. In October, something happened between the team and the board that resulted in all three submitting their resignations effective Dec. 31. News of the resignations was leaked to the press. Barksdale condemned the leak of confidential information, apparently by a board member.

A search for a new high school principal failed in the fall and was to be taken up again in the spring.

In December, the board asked Carter to step down 10 days earlier than planned and gave the duties of interim superintendent to Human Resources Director Garnell Bailey. State officials met with the board in a special meeting about the assignment and decided Bailey should have a state-assigned official to give her “technical assistance” in the dual role.

Gary Ottmann, who formerly served 13 years as the Plainfield district’s business administrator/board secretary, was hired back in December in permanent capacity. Meanwhile, screenings were conducted by the Illinois firm Hazard, Young and Attea for a permanent superintendent. The board’s stated goal is to hire a permanent superintendent by July 1, 2008. John Martucci was named interim high school principal.

Before he left, Carter submitted responses to the state monitoring reports on Instruction and Program, Fiscal Management, Personnel and Operations Management, with plans to address all deficiencies. The board also set goals to address the Governance report.

The state is expected to return in March to check on the district’s progress. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Jerry Green is calling for a return to an appointed, not elected, school board. A new school funding formula portends changes in the amount of money local taxpayers may have to come up with to support local education. State aid now makes up about 80 percent of the school budget.

Carter’s team had been expected to stay on through the 2007-08 school year, but now Bailey will have to work on filling gaps in the administration while seeing to the personnel needs of the 1,200-member staff.

In one more fillip adding to the disarray, the DOE’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance found that the district’s general counsel, Raymond Hamlin, had improperly interceded in Carter’s hiring and had failed to disclose an existing attorney-client relationship with Carter. The report was forwarded to the New Jersey Bar Association for investigation of possible ethics violations. The board was also found to have violated the Open Public Meetings Act by not giving adequate notice of the emergency Friday night meeting in June where Howard’s resignation was accepted and Carter and Donow were hired.

Despite it all, Plainfield students distinguished themselves in several areas, as reported on the district web site. Click here and scroll down to see the press releases.

--Bernice Paglia


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