Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Schools are Second Top Issue

After the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, school district issues appeared to have the second most powerful impact on the Plainfield community in 2008.

The year began with a second interim superintendent after the abrupt departure of Peter E. Carter and his “Team Carter” after unknown issues with the school board at the end of 2007.

From Plaintalker: “Carter, interim business administrator Michael Donow and interim assistant superintendent Walter Rusak had all signed on in June to stay through the 2007-08 school year while the board searched for a permanent superintendent and business administrator/board secretary, but all three quit in December over an undisclosed dispute with the board.”

Former Human Resources Director Garnell Bailey emerged as the next interim superintendent.

A tightly-controlled superintendent’s search that began in August 2007 moved through stages of finalists from five to three to one without public disclosure until the very end of a school board meeting in February when Dr. Steve Gallon III was hired, as Plaintalker reported.

The April school board election returned incumbents Vickey Sheppard, Agurs Linward Cathcart Jr. and Bridget Rivers to the board for three-year terms. Only two others, Yolanda Van Fleet and Jaclynne Callands, had filed for the contest. Sheppard recently resigned after a prolonged absence, meaning three board seats and a two-year unexpired term will be up for grabs in April 2009.

The district saw its first increase in local school taxes since 1992, as a new state funding formula kicked in. Formerly receiving as much as 80 percent of school costs from outside aid, the district was under a state mandate to make the 4 percent increase as the first move toward Plainfield taxpayers picking up a projected 33 percent portion of the cost.

Throughout the end of the 2007-08 school year, the district saw numerous changes in job titles and descriptions which Plaintalker reported on in detail. Many titles were assigned just for one month and were reconfirmed after Gallon took over July 1. Among new titles, Bailey became assistant superintendent for Administrative Services and Angela Kemp, formerly of Miami, became assistant superintendent for Educational Services.

Gallon began making his mark by unveiling a multi-year strategic plan to address learning outcomes, human resources, business practices, a safe learning environment and community and family engagement. He showcased it at town meetings across the district, posted a checklist of metrics on the newly revitalized school web site and began correlating each of his recommendations to the school board to the plan.
He also consolidated all administrative functions from 504 Madison Avenue and other locations into one site, the former Jefferson School building at 1200 Myrtle Avenue. All board meetings since September have been in the new location instead of being held in the Plainfield High School conference room or library.

Besides being an educator, Gallon is an author and motivational speaker. He also appeared as himself in a documentary film, “Year of the Bull,” about pressures on a high school athlete. His transition to Plainfield from the Miami-Dade school district took place just as the New Jersey Department of Education was imposing more regulations on administrators and his contract, approved by the local school board, underwent state review.

Former business administrator/board secretary Gary Ottmann returned to the district in January and just received a new contract, also after state review. Ottmann had served 13 years previously in the same role before a short stint in Wayne.

Former Plainfield Education Association President Eric Jones switched from his union role for a new title as director of Community Engagement, Public Information and Marketing. Part of his job will be to help Gallon draw back to the district schools several hundred students who now attend three charter schools in Plainfield. A fourth is scheduled to open in September 2009. The district had been claiming about 8,000 students, but actual enrollment had dropped to below 7,000. The charter schools receive public funding and Gallon wants both the students and the money restored to the district.

Gallon is also looking to recoup early childhood education programs now operated by several outside agencies, also with state funding.

In October, the school district observed a Muslim holiday for the first time. School board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq requested the inclusion of Eid Al-Fitr on the calendar adopted at the April reorganization and had hoped to have a second holiday, Eid Al-Adha, included. The first is a feast day marking the end of the Ramadan fast and the second honors those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of Islam.

Among Gallon’s many innovations, student performances are now scheduled at each business meeting of the school board. Photo galleries of district activities are now prominently featured on the web site, along with links to numerous news articles about Gallon and the district.

Student performance remains the greatest challenge in the district. Six elementary schools and both middle schools met Adequate Yearly Progress standards under the No Child Left Behind act, while four elementary schools failed to meet the AYP standards and another was placed in Early Warning status. The high school, which welcomed new principal Brian Bilal in September, fell into the “in need of improvement” status after failing to meet AYP for several years. The high school was also labeled the state’s only “persistently dangerous” school, based on a number of incidents in the 2007-08 school year.

In the face of the district’s fiscal and academic challenges, Gallon has taken Barack Obama’s mantra, “Yes, we can” a step further to “Yes, we will” take action to overcome the obstacles. His checklist for improvement includes 95 measures of progress, and several have already been checked.

--Bernice Paglia


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review Bernice. I went to the district website and I must say that I am VERY impressed. There seems to be a lot of positive things happening in Plainfield Public Schools. Gallon appears to be moving the district forward. The metrics page listing what is to be done is a very new, badly needed, and welcomed accountability and marketing tool for Plainfield schools. The Board should be commended for bringing in a fresh perspective to Plainfield. If the state is going to demand that our taxes go up we are going to be looking for more from our schools. In only 6 months, Gallon appears focused on delivering and has laid out a plan to do so. Let's hope that he stays clear of the local politics and politicians that have devasted the City and held back Plainfield for years. Great job Bernice.

10:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The first is a feast day marking the end of the Ramadan fast and the second honors those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of Islam."

As a parent and taxpayer I am outraged that the Board would approve students to be out of school on these days. With many of the schools failing my child and the other students need to be in school as much as possible. I never paid attention to why they were out your explanation is helpful. I am not against Muslims but am for my child getting as much as she can out of the school.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your child will not miss any school. The district is required to provide each student with 180 days of education per year. This will only push back the last day of class a couple of days.

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many Muslims do we have in Plainfield and in the school system...shouldn't that determine whether or not it is a school holiday? Or, are we just being "PC" here?

10:56 AM  
Blogger Bernice said...

I couldn't find a breakdown for just Plainfield, but there are at least two large mosques here. Not sure the school has any stats on religion of students or their families. The time to raise the question again is before the April reorg, when they adopt the calendar.

3:33 PM  

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