Friday, August 31, 2007

Read Some Good News

The current issue of “The Positive Community” magazine has several articles featuring Plainfielders or people who are active in Plainfield. It’s available at City Hall and other locations.

The Rev. Gerald Lamont Thomas of Shiloh Baptist Church has a commentary on minorities in the 2008 presidential race.

Nancy Jordan, the Rev. Shirley B. Cathie and Plainfield High students Ce’Rae Tyler and Marc Williams are featured in an article about awards given by the NubianUnion.

Another article details the 50th wedding anniversary and renewal of vows by Malcolm and Flora Dunn, along with some family background.

The Relay for Life event, which raised $40,000 for cancer research, is described in another article by Charlotte Banks of Shiloh Baptist Church.

McDonald’s owner/operator Angela Adderley and Marc Williams are in an article about the company’s Future Achievers scholarships.

A colorful advertisement features Bishop Donald Hilliard Jr. of Cathedral International, which has a Plainfield congregation in addition to its Perth Amboy and Asbury Park locations. The ad is for a leadership conference and also features Bishop Hilliard’s new book, “After the Fall.”

Pick up a copy or click here for the online version and read more about these community figures.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Save Seeds, Divide Perennials

Some city gardeners are busy at this time of year, collecting seeds for next year and dividing perennials.

I don’t buy a lot of plants, relying instead on what I can do for free. I also like to give away seeds and plants, something I expect to do at least on a small scale when I take a turn at the Shade Tree Commission’s table at the PMUA’s environmental fair Sept. 15 in Library Park.

Here are before-and-after pictures of irises, which need to be divided every three to five years. I donated a bunch of trimmed plants to the Ward 2 Challenge for National Night Out. Once you dig up, separate and trim these plants, you have enough to cover a lot more territory or to share with neighbors.

Daylilies are very easy to divide, if you don’t mind getting a little muddy. Dig up clumps and shake or wash off the dirt. Clip the tops and roots and create new borders in the yard or in the strip between the sidewalk and curb.

Seed collecting is fun and instructive, as you figure out how each plant produces seeds. Let them dry out in lunch bags or other containers. You can either just toss seed heads of perennials where you want them to grow next year, or you can while away some time sorting the seeds from the plant material enclosing them. So far this year, I have gathered seeds from lychnis, columbines, black-eyed susans, portulaca, cosmos and forget-me-nots. The portulaca seeds are especially fascinating, being an iridescent black and barely bigger than grains of salt, but starting in July they produce flowers in a range of brilliant shades.

Stop by the Shade Tree Commission table on Sept. 15, learn more about what the commission does and maybe pick up a seed packet or some plants to take home.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Write 1,000 Times

Let the whole city be your blackboard to remind students of the new school opening date!
I was certainly glad to make a fool of myself by sitting on the sidewalk creating my back-to-school message. Finally a good use for the sidewalk chalk I have been hoarding.
The school opening under former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard was Monday, Sept. 10.
Apparently her successor, Interim Superintendent Peter Carter, took one look and decided a Sept. 6 opening was much more desirable. Now Carter asks all to get the word out in any way possible.
Sir, mission accomplished , sir!
--Bernice Paglia

Peach Festival, Carillon Concert Photos

A diverse crowd enjoyed peach desserts of all sorts Sunday evening at Grace Episcopal Church.

People assembled on Cleveland Avenue to hear the carillon at its best (with less traffic noise from East Seventh Street).

Attendees remarked that this event exemplified Plainfield's unique attractions.

Carilloneur Scott Brink Parry's concert choices ranged from classics to contemporary romantic ballads, Brtish folk tunes to Maleguena. Parry capped it with his own lively improvisation.

Mother Carolyn Eklund invites Jacqueline McGreevey to meet the carilloneur.

Dottie Gutenkauf poses with James E. McGreevey and Mark O'Donnell of Plainfield.
A good time was had by all! Check the Grace Church web site here for future community events.
--Bernice Paglia

TNR on Block 832

A neighbor on Block 832 recently took on the task of rounding up feral cats and having them neutered with the help of an animal advocacy group and several volunteers.

Her success in getting 13 cats neutered (at her own expense) no doubt benefits a larger part of the East Seventh-Crescent neighborhood than just our block and she is to be thanked. The total included 11 females and two males.

Due to the differing views on how best to deal with feral cats, I will not name our neighbor. She chose a route known as TNR, for Trap-Neuter-Release. TNR advocates disapprove of having cats removed by local animal control agencies, saying few will be adopted and most will simply be euthanized.

At our end of the block we are still seeing several feral cats which did not get trapped and neutered. One persistent tomcat (above) is among them. We are figuring out how to do a similar TNR project over here.

Click here for more information on the animal welfare group People for Animals and ways to help.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Quality of Life on Block 832

My block in the middle of Plainfield is full of apartment buildings. There is not a lot of hanging-over-the-fence neighborly chitchat. Still, some of us were able to join forces to address a couple of quality of life issues recently.

One was the emergence of a sort of camp in a secluded section of the block. A group of men started gathering to hang out, eat and drink. They created a big mess of trash, cast-off clothes and debris and frightened at least one neighbor with their loud commotion just behind her rear yard fence.

The land where they gathered belongs to Connelly Properties and after we documented the problem and asked for help, the site was cleaned up and the men stopped hanging out there.

Of course, the problem didn’t go away from Block 832. The group just became more entrenched at Municipal Lot 7, which had become quiet after another bunch of drug and alcohol users moved away. Every day we began seeing men sitting on the curb at the far end of the lot. They started drinking as early as 10 a.m. and kept it up all day.

On Thursday, the group left food containers and beer cans all over their new gathering place. On Friday, not two or three, but seven men returned to regale themselves at the same spot.

We don’t know why this group has so much time on their hands or why they have to eat and drink on public property. But because students, young mothers and children and the general population should be able to walk through Lot 7 without encountering a bunch of drunken men, we view it as a quality of life issue. The lot is also used by at least two churches and visitors from out of town take away an image of Plainfield as a place where open-air intoxication on Sunday morning is no big deal.

After a few fleeting thoughts about the right to assemble and social injustice, we called the cops.

A patrol car was soon on the scene and the men were ordered to clean up the trash. They did so and quickly dispersed. Thanks to the Plainfield Police Division for responding to this quality of life concern and impressing on these men that their behavior is not going to be tolerated.

Councilman Harold Gibson has recently raised the question of how to reduce the number of alcoholic beverage licenses in the city. Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson has explained some of the problems, mainly a license holder’s right not to be arbitrarily deprived of its value. Some cities have limited single-can sales of beer or malt liquor in an effort to rein in public drinking. There are larger social issues involved here, including unemployment and homelessness or overcrowding that lead to these outdoor gatherings.

Meanwhile, thanks again to the police for taking the neighbors’ concerns seriously. We all appreciate it.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, August 24, 2007

Appointed Board Needs Study

The release of a state monitoring report Monday has sparked talk of reverting to an elected school board.

Having only been here since 1983, I didn’t know much about the appointed board. So I turned to a resource I have often used over the years, the 1982 edition of “This is Plainfield” compiled by the League of Women Voters. It is a “Know Your Town” study of the city that follows 1954, 1965 and 1972 editions. It is also the last one published.

A lot of things have changed since 1982, but looking back can be a valuable exercise and the booklet is still a good reference. I once tried to mark it up with changes in hopes that a more current version could be developed, maybe even online. It certainly would be a lot easier to produce nowadays with digital photos and such. Many of the organizations listed in the back of the booklet have disappeared and others, like the League, are smaller than in the heyday of civic organizations. The current League may not be equipped to take on the project.

Anyway, the booklet tells me that the board used to consist of seven members appointed by the mayor. They were required to be American citizens with at least two years’ residency in the city before being appointed. They could not have any direct or indirect claims against the board. Terms then, as now, were three years.

There are more rules and duties, but for now the simple question is whether an appointed board would be better than an elected board. This is a matter for fact-finding on the process and discussion on the pros and cons before folks jump on a bandwagon because the state gave the district low marks for governance.

I looked up the election results for 2005, the year that produced those whose terms will be up in April. For three three-year terms, 11 people ran. An unexpired term attracted another five candidates. I invite people to click here and go to Plainfield to see all the names. How many of them can be seen at board meetings now?

The state has the power to add three members to the present nine-member board. Here again, how will dedicated, non-political candidates be found?

The board is only one part of a complicated network of people who affect the quality of education in Plainfield. With No Child Left Behind, outside forces have a stronger role in achieving positive outcomes. The goal of the monitoring, it seems, is to identify strengths to build on and weaknesses for intervention.

Board members are supposed to receive training that assures a common understanding of their roles and the laws regarding education. At the least, any state-appointed members should have had that training before being named. As for changing the local system from an elected to an appointed board, that decision is very weighty and requires deliberation.

Meanwhile, I’m glad the question drove me back to the LWV booklet. It is a fascinating look at what was, in light of what is here now. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a copy, take a spin through it and see what you think.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Council Approves Planning Contracts

Planner Mark Munley sits in on weekly redevelopment meetings, helps find developers and works on identifying financing sources for projects, he told the City Council before a vote on his $25,000 contract.

The council had questions Monday on what his firm, Cityscape, does when the city is already using the Union County Improvement Authority to guide redevelopment. Munley appeared Wednesday night to explain. In the past year, he said, he helped Dornoch Plainfield LLC on a timetable that resulted in one of the quickest approval processes in New Jersey. Dornoch broke ground in July on a $15 million project that will include 63 condos, a new senior center and a veterans center at 400 East Front Street.

Munley said he is also helping AST Development of Lavallette, the designated developer for the Marino's tract on West Front Street. He said he introduced AST to the New Markets Tax Credit incentive, which should pay half the cost of that project.

In addition, he is helping on the North Avenue proposal of Landmark Development Corp. of Jersey City for condos, stores and an entertainment center by the main train station.

The council approved his contract, but other planning questions came up in connection with a $100,000 contract with another firm. Councilman Cory Storch said it was not always clear who a planner from Remington & Vernick was working for, the city or the UCIA. The planner is working on updating the master plan as well as on various redevelopment tasks.

Storch made a motion to table the matter until the contract could be revised, but the motion failed and the contract was approved.

A year ago, the council agreed to turn over all redevelopment to the UCIA, with city approvals required at each step. Dornoch did not follow the redevelopment process that involves a study, a plan and options such as use of eminent domain, but worked out the deal to build on city-owned land with private funding. Landmark and AST are among a half-dozen developers that are using the formal process and working through its steps with the UCIA. Costs for studies and plans are to be recouped from the developers, at no expense to the city.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has called for four transit village clusters around two existing and two former train stops and the UCIA and planners are also working on that concept. An "in need of redevelopment" study arond the Netherwood train station is on the works, but recent court decisions on the use of eminent domain may cause the study area to be scaled back.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

NJQSAC Rattles Board

School board members who were shocked by the headlines on state monitoring results spoke out at Tuesday’s meeting, some vowing to turn the district around and others challenging the state findings. Board member Vickey Sheppard called for an appeal, but did not get a consensus backing her up.

The report will be discussed in depth at a board meeting in September. Interim School Superintendent Peter Carter said state Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy is supposed to send him a bound copy of the voluminous report, which he and his staff will study once it is received.

Davy announced monitoring results for Plainfield and six other school districts Monday, and the full report is online here. The results showed that state monitors found 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.

I wrote an article for the Courier News that was published Tuesday and will be doing a follow-up. About 60 people attended last night’s board meeting, far more than usual, and several spoke about the NJQSAC report.

Carter took umbrage at Davy’s press conference comment that there was a “hole” in the top leadership, saying he must be the hole because, “I’m at the top of the administration.”

Later, resident Dottie Gutenkauf drew a laugh when she said to Carter, “You’re not the doughnut hole, you’re the munchkin.”

Actually, the administration is missing some key figures and a search has begun for a permanent superintendent. Currently, besides Carter as interim schools superintendent, there is an interim assistant superintendent who will also serve as interim principal at Plainfield High School and an interim school board secretary/business administrator. The district also needs a Curriculum & Instruction director and a supervisor of testing and evaluations.

Dottie, who for several decades has been what talk show personality Barry Farber might call the “mystic mainspring” of local school and city politics, patiently spelled out her name for Interim Board Secretary/Business Administrator Michael Donow Tuesday night.

Gutenkauf and several others offered to help the district in any way to overcome the NJQSAC findings. More later from Plaintalker after another press stint.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, August 20, 2007

Pressgrrrl vs. Bloglady

As Pressgrrrl, I spent many hours putting together a story on the NJQSAC report and other district news for the Courier. Read all about it tomorrow. Night owls can get it online by about 1 a.m.

As Bloglady I found a couple of items of interest at the City Council meeting. One will have to wait a day or so to ripen. The other is that the council intends to approve Solid Rock Construction as the contractor to fit out the 17,000-square-foot basement of Tepper’s at a cost of $459,000. That is the amount of a grant arranged by Sen. Frank Lautenberg when the space was under consideration several years ago as a senior center. The grant is due to expire soon, thus the need to commit it.

As it happened, the seniors did not want to be put in the Tepper’s basement. (Insert your own mushroom joke here.) They held out for, and got, their very own new senior center promised at 400 East Front Street, as part of the Dornoch Plainfield project with three floors of condos overhead.

The former Tepper’s department store now has three layers: 75 apartments on top, commercial at ground floor and the city-owned basement. The city took possession of the basement some time ago, but has never figured out another use for it. Possibilities have included a downtown camera surveillance center, storage, new City Council chambers or a communications center.

City Administrator Marc Dashield said Monday the contractor now will build “pretty much a vanilla box” in the basement. The administration may come back with other plans later.

The city will be liable for maintenance of the space and also for condo fees, Dashield said.

Plaintalker recently attempted to find out what the condo fees for the city are, but the information was never forthcoming. Time for another OPRA request. The city will also be responsible for around 13 percent of the condo fees for the Dornoch building, which of course won’t be known until the building is up and running.

The idea of a municipality being a condo association member just seemed weird, given the wacky stories about condo association rules. What if the city wants to put up a flag? Will there be fines and sanctions? Some suburban associations come close to fascism in their regulations. See this take on condo rules.

Anyway, the plan for the $459,000 fix-up may cover installation of air conditioning and walls, but will result in “no functional space at this time,” Dashield said.

Maybe the city is just trying to make the best of flawed plans for past years, but it’s too bad the $456,000 is not being expended on more specific intentions for the space.

--Bernice Paglia

State DOE Releases AYP Report

The state Department of Education has released the No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress report giving preliminary status for each school in the 2007-08 school year.

In a press release Thursday, the DOE said more than 72 percent of New Jersey schools met the AYP standards. The press release and all the findings are online.

A school that fails to make adequate yearly progress gets an “early warning” and then if the school does not meet standards for two years in a row, it is placed on the “early warning hold” list. Each year without improvement results in increasing sanctions. Parents may be offered intra-district school choice or students may receive tutoring if there is no other choice. For the full list of sanctions, see the press release.

In Plainfield, the high school, middle schools and three elementary schools did not show adequate improvements. The high school and Maxson are in Year 5 status. Hubbard is among 38 schools statewide that are in Year 7, a category for which the No Child Left Behind has no provisions, but Commissioner Lucille Davy said the DOE “must continue working with these schools.” Individualized action plans will be developed.

Among the elementary schools, Dewitt D. Barlow met the AYP standards but must do so again next year to get out of Year 2 status. Cedarbrook met the standards for two years and is out of Year1 status. Clinton met the standards but is on hold in Year 3.Frederic W. Cook met the standards and is out of Year 1 status for Language Arts. Emerson met Mathematics AYP standards, but not Language Arts and is Year 1 status. Evergreen met the standards and is on hold in Year 3 status. Jefferson met Mathematics standards but not Language Arts and is on Year 3 status. Charles H. Stillman met mathematics standards but not Language Arts and remains in Year 3 status since the 2003-04 school year. Washington met both standards and is on hold in Year 2 status. Woodland met AYP standards for the second time since 2005-06 and is not in status.

There is a massive amount of detail accessible by links on the press release. Parents who have the time can learn a lot on the DOE web site. But there is more to the equation than all these findings. Each child is unique and parents are not only the first teachers, but in many ways the most important teachers. As an anarcho-parent in the 1960s, I used to tell my daughter, “You will get a good education, despite having to go to school.”

--Bernice Paglia

Council, BOE Meetings This Week

Tonight’s City Council meeting kicks off a busy week.

The City Council meets at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. for an agenda session. The items that are moved to the agenda will be voted on Wednesday at the regular meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

On Tuesday, the Board of Education will hold its business meeting at 8 p.m. in the Emerson Swing School, 1200 W. Front St. The agenda, which is available at the Plainfield Public Library, contains many personnel matters, including appointment of Interim Assistant Superintendent Walter Rusak to serve also as interim high school principal. Rusak will receive $25 per day in addition to his $600 per-diem compensation as interim assistant superintendent and $40 per hour for all duties performed after 5 p.m. daily and on weekends.

The resolution states no permanent or interim principal could be found “in the time span available.” Former Principal Frank Ingargiola resigned in May for a post in Pequannock. Interim Superintendent Peter Carter and Rusak were hired in June following the sudden resignation of former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard.

According to the resolution, Rusak has over 30 years’ experience as an administrator, mainly as a secondary principal.

Plaintalker will report on the council meetings but may not be able to attend the school board meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Franklin-stein Monster

The state of the building at 340 Franklin Place is truly shocking.

I went to look for myself last week and it was appalling, starting with the great wall of Dumpsters and ending with the realization that restoring the building at this point would require a fanatical and wealthy preservation buff. The chained door, the empty windows and the missing trim make this once-striking building more than an eyesore.

I used to live on Putnam Avenue and I recall seeing the early stages of the building’s decline. At that point, it was still salvageable. Later it began to crumble and now major portions will have to be rebuilt, not just restored from a structurally sound base.

In those days, roughly around 20 years ago, there were several young investors in the city who took on projects such as renovating the Elks building on Watchung Avenue and the former Runyon Funeral Home on Park Avenue. One owned the three-family that I lived in on Putnam Avenue, but sold it to someone whose neglect caused me to make an emergency move to my present place. The emergency was a third-floor leak that ended up with water sheeting down the walls of the floors below for days. Finally a city inspector came to confirm the conditions, but I had to accelerate my intended move because living there had become untenable.

The landlord showed up at the time of the inspection, but would not come into the building. He sat in his car instead.

It’s a mystery to me why anyone would buy a property and then just let it sink into ruin.

To the Crescent Area residents, the Franklin Place situation is a nightmare and a heartache. With all those 30-yard containers on site, people appear to be adding household trash and cast-off furniture to the mix while the problem of the container removal is being resolved.

Those who are keeping their properties well-maintained and attractive must gnash their teeth at the sight of a nearby hulk that seems to defy both city maintenance codes and historic district standards.

Ironically, a sign on the overgrown front lawn touts a home that is “completely renovated.” One looks from the sign to the building and back again, marveling at the disconnect.

Good luck to the neighborhood association that is pushing hard for resolution of the Franklin Place situation.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lots of Volunteers Needed

Volunteers will be in high demand on September 8.

Not only is the Division of Recreation attempting to revive the annual Outdoor Festival of Art in Library Park, the division is also calling for volunteers to help out at six playgrounds for the 2nd Annual Community Fun Day. The contact number for both events is (908) 753-3097.

Art Festival organizers in past years worked over the course of a year preceding each event to line up artists and arrange all the other details. This year, July came and went without an art festival. Now the Division of Recreation is trying to pull it off in five weeks. But the first committee meeting reportedly only attracted two volunteers.

The remaining committee meetings for the 44th Annual Plainfield Outdoor Festival of Art are scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Division of Recreation 0ffice, 510 Watchung Ave., on Aug. 29 and Sept. 5 and 7. Topics will include entertainment; artist and vendor contacts; park set-up; contestant and judging procedures; and work to be done on the day of the event. The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sept. 8.

For the 2nd Annual Community Fun Day, the Division of Recreation is seeking volunteers to bring food and grills to Milt Campbell and Seidler fields and Bryant School, Hannah Atkins, Rushmore and Mathewson playgrounds. Volunteers are also needed for face painting, cooking, serving and clean-up. The events, from 1 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 8, will feature give-aways, games and music in addition to food and face painting.

My inner curmudgeon is muttering, “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part,” but maybe those of sunnier disposition will rise to the occasion. Remember, to volunteer, call (908) 753-3097.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Mark Your calendar

Another carillon concert is coming up, this time with a Peach Festival as well.

Click here for more information and an update on Mother Carolyn's adventures in learning Spanish.

My proximity to Grace Episcopal Church keeps me tuned in to such events, but this community has dozens of religious institutions that welcome people for worship and fellowship. Some make more public outreach than others and Grace seems to be especially welcoming.

See you at the concert!

Summer Wanes

The crickets are telling us that summer is giving way to fall and we must enjoy the final beauties of the season. Relentless heat has made my garden somewhat raggedy, but there are still surprises like this russet sunflower. Back-to-school this year will mean some rough revelations about Plainfield's status and small things like the sight of this flower serve to buoy our spirits while we mull what we can do to make things better.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Plaza Clean-up Promised

Over the weekend, someone remarked on the unsightly, overgrown shrubbery at the Twin City plaza. On Wednesday, I called the office of Moorehouse Seventh Corporation and was told, “It’s on our list.”

The shrubbery will be trimmed in the fall, after the growing season is over, according to the person who answered the phone.

If you are among those who are affronted by the lack of landscaping maintenance at this plaza, you can call Moorehouse Seventh Corporation at (908) 704-8989 or write to them at 33 Division Street, Somerville, NJ 08876.

The plaza at Park and Seventh is highly visible to hundreds of drivers and pedestrians who pass by daily. It is at the crossroads of the city’s main north-south and east-west routes through Union County. Once the shrubs are trimmed, maybe they can be kept neater-looking with maintenance through the spring and summer.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Superintendent Search Starts

In a single-topic special meeting Tuesday, the school board voted to hire an Illinois firm to conduct the search for a new superintendent.

Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates of Waukegan, Ill. will receive $17,000 for the search and an additional $6,000 for expenses. On its web site, the firm calls itself the “nation’s largest executive search firm serving public school districts.”

The search is necessary due to the sudden resignation on June 6 of Schools Superintendent Paula Howard, who was hired in June 2003. On June 8, the board hired veteran administrator Peter Carter as interim superintendent.

In the last search after former Schools Superintendent Larry Leverett resigned in February 2003, the district engaged the New Jersey School Boards Association. Howard emerged as the sole finalist after competitor Julian Stafford withdrew on the eve of a public forum in June 2003.

Since Howard’s resignation, several of her top staffers have been found to be lacking proper credentials. Some came along with Howard from the Newark school district, where Howard was formerly an assistant superintendent.

Whoever becomes the new superintendent will have to build a credible cabinet.

At Tuesday’s work and study meeting following the special meeting, former school board appointee and frequent candidate David Graves questioned several Curriculum & Instruction items, noting there was no C & I director in place.

These are among the additional questions to be answered once a superintendent is named.

The school board will meet again next week (Aug. 21) at 7 p.m. at Emerson Swing School, 1700 W. Front St., according to a school board schedule published Aug 10 that did not mention the special meeting.

Also in a pet peeve for many, the agenda was not online before the meeting, This writer picked up an agenda at the Plainfield Public Library. But again, it did not mention the special meeting.

Communication! How important can it be? We need to know in advance about these meetings in case we are among the lucky few (retired, at large, committed to the public interest) who can or will show up.

--Bernice Paglia

Forum Probes Board, District

On July 11, someone using the nickname “Offshore” asked on the Plainfield forum whether readers thought suburban schools held students to higher standards than urban schools.

The post set off exchanges on the state of education here that continue to the present. Many are very detailed and thoughtful. One poster appears to be a board member and another is surely a veteran teacher. Recently, someone questioned whether postings from three to five main contributors mean anything for the larger community. True, many people “lurk” and read without ever venturing into the debate, so the size of the audience is unknown.

Still, a fast spin through the active forum and the previous set of posts back to No. 1532 reveals some interesting viewpoints on the district. There may be some topics that people would like to raise in person at the school board microphone.

Meanwhile, the day is getting closer when city residents will see what a state monitoring team found in the district based on visits earlier this year. No matter what the locals think, the focus will then become dealing with the state findings.

At least the online forum gives the public a voice that was largely lacking at the so-called public forums organized by city officials – heavy on “show” and lacking time for people to “tell” what they think.

Thanks to Offshore for kicking off the discussion and to all the posters for taking part. Maybe after the NJQSAC report comes out, the forum will attract even more thoughts and comments from a broader range of posters. Get a nickname and give it a try.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Wicket Good Time

In dappled shade under towering maples Saturday, a Hillside Avenue family set up a centuries-old game.

Players wore neither Victorian garb nor modern whites, but came dressed casually for a good time and a good cause.

The game was croquet and the event, now in its seventh year, benefits Midland School in North Branch. Organizer Doug Keating lent his back yard for the game, and an array of food and drink was supplied by Mike Ambicki, the general manager of Applebee’s in East Hanover. The front yard was given over to a giant water slide for the kids.

Keating said the annual event has garnered more than $20,000 for the school, which serves developmentally disabled young people between the ages of 5 and 21. Gail Russell, a Plainfield neighbor and also The Midland Foundation’s director of development, said 245 students come from 90 sending districts in 13 counties to the day school. The school also has an adult career education program, an on-site work center and five group homes in Branchburg.

Participants donated $50 to try their hand at the ancient game, which according to sports history sources is on the same family tree as golf and lawn bowling. Some sources place its origin back in the 1300s, but its modern popularity occurred in the mid-1880s. It was one of the few games where both men and women could take part, as also happened Saturday.

There are lots of rules about how to play croquet, but Saturday’s event was not about playing strictly by the book. There was, however, that bit about “poison,” once a player’s ball went through all the wickets.

“If anybody touches you or you touch anybody, they’re out of the game,” Keating said.

Bob Pisack of Hillsborough was attending for the third time, along with his wife, Lindsay.

“It’s great,” he said. “It’s a lot of friends from college – we all get together.”

Keating said the event attracts neighbors, classmates and friends. Taking a break from authoritatively advising players on strategy, he said he expected more than 30 players and more than 60 guests in all to attend.

For those who missed the event but want to add a neighborly Queen City boost to the cause, Russell may be reached at (908) 722-7210, ext. 150. Upcoming benefits include a golf outing in October and a November “Midland Goes to the Movies” event featuring an independent film and a buffet dinner.

(This writer, having been laughed off many a playing field in school, declined to pick up a mallet. When it comes to competition, I’ll stick to spelling bees.)

--Bernice Paglia

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

Friday, August 10, 2007

Ceasefire Clarification

After reading the Operation Ceasefire post on the forum, I e-mailed Public Affairs & Safety Director Martin Hellwig seeking confirmation and further details.

Then I received an e-mail from the director chiding me for writing about the posting without checking with him. It turns out his address was no longer in effect and my message did not go through. I replied to him at a Gmail address. Director Hellwig said the forum posting was not authorized.

More on Ceasefire

The advent of Operation Ceasefire was publicized in December 2006.

In February, it was expected to start by mid-April.

Now it seems the recent announcement of its inception was unauthorized. The announcement was made on an online forum.

Whatever the issues are behind the scenes, can we please have an official start soon? I heard gunshots at 2:20 a.m. on July 8 and at 3:24 a.m. on July 22, both early Sunday mornings. The wanton Newark killings point up the fact that there are people to whom gun violence is just a way of life. The average citizen doesn't stand a chance in an encounter with such a person.

In the 2006 annual report of the Office of Attorney General, Operation Ceasefire is expected to be "fully operational" by mid-2007 in Newark/Irvington, Camden, Paterson, Trenton and Plainfield. It's a bit scary to be counted among that group of municipalities because many of us think of Plainfield as more of a small town than a city, a place where people know each other and take part in community activities. But then there are those who are behind the early-morning gunshots and even the daytime shootings that have taken place. The sooner Operation Ceasefire is up and running, the better.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, August 06, 2007

Operation Cease-Fire

With all the thousands of dollars committed to public relations and communication in this administration, how strange is it that the roll-out of Operation Cease-Fire should take place in a post on the Plainfield forum:

Recently, last week, a shooter opened fire in an after hours club on East Front Street in Plainfield. One person was struck twice in the abdomen and a female was struck in her leg...This case is unsolved.
Hello, I am Sgt. Larry R. Brown, Jr., of the Plainfield Police Division. I am the supervisor of Plainfield's new CeaseFire initiative.
CeaseFire is a joint effort between the Citizens of Plainfield, the Plainfield Police Division, the Union County Prosecutor's Office, the New Jersey State Police, and the New Jersey Attorney General's Office.
The initiative focuses on shootings in Plainfield The motto is "The Campaign to Stop the Next Shooting."
Last year we had 286 incidents of shots fired with 28 people hit. This year, we are on #24.
24 people hit is not acceptable.
Under Operation CeaseFire, a team of investigators would be initially called out and would treat every shooting as if it was a homicide.
The Prosecution team will fast track the shooters through the judicial system (The quicker you get a shooter off the street with a football sentence, the better the message to potential shooters) and will monitor bail (If you post bail for a shooter, your income will be scrutinized).
A second team of civilian outreach workers would respond to the troubled neighborhood in which the shooting occurred and to the victim and his family.
The civilian outreach aspect would encourage cooperation with the police (most of our shooting victims follow the street "No Snitching" rule).
The civilian team also creates an atmosphere of "We don't tolerate shootings in this neighborhood and you can't hide here."
In Newark and Irvington, they give out shirts and place lawn signs that advertise Operation CeaseFire and the TIPS number (in Plainfield it is 908-753-8477).
So PLEASE support this initiative. Its been successfull in Newark/Irvington and in Chicago. (Go to ChicagoCeasefire and see what those folks are doing).
I've been a Police Officer since 1985 and grew up in the streets of Plainfield, this initiative will work ONLY with the support of the Citizens.
Sgt. Larry R. Brown, Jr.Plainfield CeaseFire Team(908) 753-3048

My e-mail to the director of Public Affairs & Safety for more information went unanswered Monday.
I urge people to support the initiative. I'm just wondering why this was the means of announcement.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Gimme Seltzer

Just in time for the recent heat waves, Twin City supermarket began stocking 12-can cases of seltzer.

I was pleased because seltzer by the case was one of my staples when I used to shop at the A&P in Fanwood. But since I have done without a car, lugging it home any other way just seemed like too much trouble. Now I can use my trusty folding shopping cart to roll several cases half a block from Twin City to my humble abode.

While loading up on seltzer, I began looking at all the varieties of soda in the aisle. Shopping at Twin City often finds me bogged down in a visual exploration of all the unusual (to me) brands and flavors of food and drink. The soda aisle was no exception.

Here were big bottles of pineapple, coconut and banana soda. There was dark red sangria-flavored soda along with apple and tamarind flavors. Yerba mate, a favored South American tea, was also on sale on soda form.

But by far the strangest potion on the shelves was in bottles with Polish labels and a picture of a dark loaf on the label. Yes, an English translation confirmed, it was bread-flavored soda.

Despite the well-known use of grain-based libations in Polish culture, I doubted there was actually any grain involved in making this soda. Most of the sodas seemed to be made of high-fructose corn syrup, carbonated water and artificial flavors. The image of the bread loaf on the label led me to online descriptions of kvass, a popular Polish and Russian drink made from rye bread. There were few references to bread-flavored soda, although one person used the phrase deprecatingly to describe beer.

On the spectrum from plain water to these unusual soda flavors, seltzer seemed kind of bland. I like it because no sugar is involved. I think of it as “water that does something.” Years ago In Olympia, Washington, I encountered a carbonated water called “Talking Rain,” a name that echoed my notion.

This little shopping trip exemplified the difference between going to the A&P for all the standard American brands and going to Twin City to see what my new neighbors in Plainfield like to eat and drink. On another visit, I found out that the same oatmeal that I remember from school days - in a bowl with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of brown sugar – is the basis for a popular drink called “avena.” The same jolly Quaker gentleman from the oatmeal box is on the bags of avena in Twin City.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Carter Sets Tone for 2007-08

“The 2007-2008 School Year needs to be the year of renewal for everybody involved in this educational enterprise.”

So says Interim Superintendent Peter Carter in his August letter to the community. The letter is the third Carter has posted since he was hired in June and it is posted on the school district’s web site. It’s good to see this communication with its common-sense outlook on running the district.

The first day of school will be September 6.

New teachers will have a four-day welcome that will include a bus tour of the city. To encourage parents to visit the schools, the first report card will be given out in person in November. Parents are also asked to be daily partners in their child’s education, along with teachers and principals. Click here to read the entire letter.

While Carter is already looking forward to the first results of the 2007-08 school year, Plainfield is still waiting for the NJQSAC report. The state Department of Education has not said exactly when it will be released.

Next Tuesday’s work and study meeting has not yet been posted on the web site. (UPDATE: The Aug. 7 meeting is closed. The work and study session is 8 p.m. Aug. 14 at Plainfield High School Conference Room. The business meeting is 7 p.m. Aug. 21 at Emerson Swing School, according to a legal notice). It would be very helpful both to parents and other interested citizens if these meeting dates and locations were posted in a timely way, so people can make arrangements to attend.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, August 03, 2007

Planners Warned on Blight Proof

Plainfield’s ambitious redevelopment plans may need rethinking since a recent spate of challenges to the taking of land by eminent domain.

The city has more than a dozen schemes in the works, mostly all based on “transit-oriented development” with hubs at the Netherwood and North Avenue train stations and two transit hubs at Grant and Clinton avenues.

In a conference Thursday prior to the Planning Board meeting in City Hall Library, a group including attorneys, planners and city officials considered options in light of the challenges. Options now may include offering developers incentives to choose the Queen City for projects. The closed meeting preceded the regularly scheduled Planning Board meeting at 8 p.m. in City Hall Library.

“We’re really treading on new ground,” Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson said in the public meeting.

The issue arose just as the board was considering an expansion of the North Avenue redevelopment area. The proposal was to add most of the PNC Bank block as well as a city-owned parking lot on East Second Street and nearby buildings to the North Avenue plan. Properties had to meet one or more of eight criteria for being in need of redevelopment. Consultant George Stevenson had found some buildings in need of redevelopment because of cracks or even because they were not tall enough to represent optimal use.

But as Stevenson presented a revised needs study last month, Planning Board attorney Michele Donato warned the board that proofs of blight had to be substantial enough to stand up in court. In Paulsboro, Belmar and Newark, blight designations were thrown out and Public Advocate Ronald Chen has called for strict adherence to redevelopment criteria.

Stevenson had attempted to demonstrate blight in one instance by citing a mattress at the rear of one building, saying he saw a vagrant lying on it. But Planning Board members said that was merely a code enforcement issue, not an example of blight. Click here for the previous story.

On Thursday, Robertson said the city may need another approach to redevelopment, such as incentives to developers. He said the Netherwood study, which covers nearly 100 properties, may have to be revisited to see “what parts under the new restraints are even eligible” to be declared blighted.

The board will continue to look into the issue with Donato’s help. Attorneys for the city and the Union County Improvement Authority, among others involved in redevelopment, will meet to come up with a “consensus methodology,” Donato said.

Eminent domain was once used just for public improvements such as roads and schools. But more recently, its use for redevelopment has met rising resistance from citizens who do not want to see beloved landmarks swept aside in a push for greater tax revenues.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who attended the closed meeting, called it “excellent” and “educational.”

The city’s first project under the mayor’s administration, Dornoch Holdings’s 63 condos combined with a new senior center, is being funded privately and did not go through the redevelopment process. The city turned over the land to Dornoch for $1 and developer Glen Fishman is financing the $15 million project, building the new senior center at no cost to the city. Dornoch was given conditional designation to do the project in August 2006 and broke ground last month. Officials last night said those in the closed meeting called the process the fastest in New Jersey. Dornoch did not seek any tax concessions and construction is slated to be completed by early 2008.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Board Seeks Search Firm

The Board of Education will hold its work and study session Aug. 7 and as I understand what was said Tuesday, representatives of superintendent search firms will be present.

The time and place have not yet been announced.

Following the resignation of Schools Superintendent Paula Howard in June, the board appointed Peter Carter as interim superintendent. But the district must now look for a permanent superintendent.

A school superintendent search can take as much as a year and normally the board hires a consultant to guide the search. Some districts choose the New Jersey School Boards Association to conduct the search. On Tuesday, school board President Patricia Barksdale mentioned several other consulting firms that might do the search.

The NJSBA web site has a concise summary of what is involved in a search. Click here to read it.

Among the issues that both Carter and a permanent superintendent must deal with are the NJQSAC monitoring results, staff changes, possible state funding issues and the ongoing challenges of increasing parental involvement and improving student performance. Board meetings draw few attendees and little media attention these days. Public schools compete with private schools, charter schools and home schooling and in Plainfield the number of eligible students who are enrolled in public schools starts dropping off at middle school and tends to get even lower at the high school level.

Still, when we talk about public schools, we are talking about the fate of more than 6,600 students and their parents’ hopes for their future, as well as one of the city’s largest employers. The topic deserves more attention.

Plainfield was really short-changed when the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp. failed in its mission. Plans were abandoned for a new middle school when the state funding ran out way ahead of predictions. There are many other local school construction needs that are now in limbo.

Overall, the picture seems bleak. Right now, Peter Carter is the one to shed some light on how to proceed. Carter exudes confidence and seems more than willing to set direction during the transition. He brings a professional lifetime of school administration to the situation and has apparently already recommended important changes to benefit the district.

The coming weeks will be very important for the school district. Anyone who can spare the time should come out to Board of Education meetings and observe what goes on. It is a time of transition and the district needs lots of help to make the right decisions.

--Bernice Paglia