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Does Fort Lee need a Business Expert to run our School System?

The Fort Lee Board of Education is making an “Art” out of shooting itself in the foot!

When the BOE finally engaged a new Superintendent and a new principal for Fort Lee High, for a moment it gave the community a sense of relief. Both of them seem to be experienced, competent individuals who have the ability to put the Fort Lee school system back on track toward reestablishing its excellence in Bergen County.

Putting aside the recent debacle at Fort Lee High School regarding privileges for upperclassmen, there have been some positive signs.  There is a sense of stability among the students and the first semester seems to be progressing smoothly.  So some of the angst that was a result of the chaotic 2012-13 school year has now subsided.  There is new construction at School #4 that appears to be a positive improvement and we appear to be approaching the completion of the final construction on the high school gym.

So why is it that the BOE continues to exist as a frozen wasteland of decision-making when it comes to the simplest propositions?   This Board lives in such abject fear of making a bad decision or that someone may choose to sue them that they seem incapable of moving forward. 

Let’s address the lawsuit issue first. We live in a highly litigious society where anyone can sue at any time.  You can accept that fact and move forward or forever live in fear.   If every major corporation refused to ever make a decision, there would never be any progress. So they engage a slew of attorneys and “deal with the problems as they arise”.   We have a Board attorney, i.e. if someone sues the Fort Lee BOE, it is his responsibility to handle the case.   For the record, by August 2013, the Board attorney had billable hours to the tune of $ 84,000, so it is not as if controlling legal fees appears to be a Board priority. 

Bad Decision #1

Recently, a local purveyor made an offer to the Fort Lee Board of Education.   A reputable organization offered $ 6,000 to put a banner up at the Middle School during Saturday games and to place advertising on the Fort Lee High School and Lewis F. Cole Middle School scoreboards.   Instead of accepting this windfall, that could have been used for new sports equipment or new computers or new science lab equipment, the Board froze.   This should have been a no-brainer; there was absolutely no down side. So what occurred, the offer was rejected for no rational reason.  

To look further into what occurred, let us state the reasons given for this rejection: 

(1) Protocols must be followed.  We must investigate all the ramifications.   Answer:  many other local communities are doing it and have profited. One local community even got a corporation to purchase the scoreboard and pay annual fees to advertise.

(2)  Maybe we can get a better offer.   Answer:  If there is only one offer on the table and the school year is starting, you would have to wait until next year for any other offers.  Since this is a one year deal, it is a windfall profit and we can spend the next year investigating other possibilities.  This simply emphasizes the total lack of business acumen on the part of the Board.

(2)  What do we do next year if “Hooters” wants to put up a banner?  Answer:  Clearly this is my favorite!  To be clear, a BOE would always retain the right to determine what is appropriate for a community.  There is no discrimination involved here, as it is not mandatory to accept advertising from any specific business entity. Additionally, the BOE could mandate a protocol that clearly states a policy on selling advertising. If other communities are profiting from this type of program, why is the Fort Lee school system last on the block to follow.  Personally, if “Hooters” was willing to pay enough, I would definitively be willing to give them consideration, but that is just me. 

The ultimate result is that we forfeited this money for this year and it is unlikely that this organization will offer again next year.  One can be fairly certain that the BOE members will neither have the time nor the energy nor the willingness to solicit other companies in the upcoming year and will have let a golden opportunity to benefit the students of Fort Lee slip through their fingers. 

Bad Decision #2

Getting back to the issue of the BOE continuing to push its own “self-destruct button”, we have the issue of the Fort Lee High School community service program.  For those citizens who may be unaware, high school students are required to perform fifty (50) hours of community service.   The teacher previously in charge of community service, Barbara Pastore, retired this past year.   As in the case of Ms. Farrell retiring, it is fairly certain that there were BOE members or high school administrators that were aware of Ms. Pastore’s pending retirement long before the school year ended. So how is it that we currently have not engaged anyone to handle our “community service program” for the school year 2013-14? 

According to my information, this matter was first taken under consideration in the 2012-2013 school year.  But with all the upheaval in the community, it was never addressed.   So now we start the 2013-14 year with no individual in charge of community service and students who need to complete the requirement. 

Recently this was discussed with the new Superintendent and one of the BOE members.  One valid point was made that this should not be a full time position, i.e. a staff member could be paid a small stipend, e.g. $ 10,000, to oversee the program.  However, a rather spurious decision has been made that a new Director of Guidance should be engaged and that individual should be in charge of community service.   Not to be the Devil’s advocate, but there are a few minor questions regarding this apparently quixotic decision:

(1) Since the community service program would appear to be primarily data entry and coordination of the students with available community service opportunities, exactly how does this fall under the auspices of “Guidance”?

(2) Since there is no predictable time frame in any hiring process, is it reasonable to have no community service coordinator in the interim? And even if they are fortunate enough to engage someone quickly, that individual would have to be brought up to speed.  It takes time to adapt to a new situation. 

(3) A new Director of Guidance should be extremely concerned with the reorganization of the Guidance Department.   Managing the community service program would be an unnecessary burden on this individual.  More important, exactly why would a Guidance Director desire to handle this program when its relationship with guidance per se is rather random?

(4) There is at least one current instructor at Fort Lee High School that is more than willing to assume the duties of Community Service Director for the recommended stipend, but that individual is not being considered.  Could this individual not be appointed temporarily as a stopgap measure?  And if this individual happens to perform well, perhaps consideration to managing this program in the future could be on the agenda?

Bad Decision #3

Long term planning does not seem to be one of the strong points of our current Board of Education.  It seems they prefer the “band-aid approach”, i.e. let the crisis strike and let’s put a finger in the dike. 

The Fort Lee school system has an interim Superintendent; an interim Assistant Superintendent; an interim High School Principal; and an interim Business Administrator.   So what actions are being currently taken to ensure that this dearth of permanency does not escalate into a more serious problem in the future? 

(1) Has a search firm been engaged to locate quality individuals for these positions?  To the best of my knowledge, there have been no affirmative actions taken that have been listed on the Board agenda.  (The agenda for the Board meeting on September 23, 2013 has not been posted yet.  Upon inquiry, I have been informed that it will be posted tomorrow. Oh, well, better late than never!) 

(2) If Paul Saxton’s contract, six months in length to my understanding, is to be extended, at what point will that decision be made to offer him an extension?  One might also take into consideration that he could turn the extension down!

(3)  Is Dr. Sharon Amato going to be retained as Assistant Superintendent.   Certainly, Dr. Amato has worked hard for the district.   But considering that two BOE members voted against her extension as interim superintendent, it would be a stretch to believe that she has full Board support.    If the BOE is considering a “different direction”, at what point is action going to be taken, what action are they considering, and when would it be implemented?

(4)  Dr. Frank Calabria appears to be settling in as principal of Fort Lee High School.  However, unless otherwise indicated, Mr. Calabria is a one year deal.  Have any actions been taken to either extend Dr. Calabria’s contract or to locate a principal for the future? Or are we just waiting to see how he does, to evaluate his performance and then extend his contract? And if so, is the BOE going to follow its usual protocol of waiting until next July to make a decision? 

To quote the Joker in the Batman classic, The Dark Knight: “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things.  Remind anyone of our current Board?

The Board of Education would like the community to believe that they have a plan.  However, because of privacy issues, they simply cannot share it with us!  Hogwash!  (Hogwarts? Maybe they are looking for a magic spell to provide guidance!)  

Those of us with children in the system are not feeling overly confident these days.   With none of our questions being answered as usual, the community members are being left in the dark.  And it is very difficult to trust the current Board with its track record, which can only be described as abysmal. 

In conclusion, as much as individuals that read my blog might believe that all I want to do is publish a negative picture of our Board of Education, that is truly not my goal.  I desire to print positive accomplishments by our BOE. I want our children to have the best education available.  I want the future of our children to be bright.   But with the constant lack of judgment by the Fort Lee Board members, with the turmoil in the ranks of key administrators, with major overcrowding issues, with no obvious plan for the future, optimism comes at a premium.   

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Baba O'Riley September 23, 2013 at 03:06 PM
Howard, good column. What should it matter if the article sounds negative? The truth is the truth. I thought that the BOE already had a Business Office!? It is probably in name only.
Howard L. Pearl September 25, 2013 at 07:50 AM
New information has come to my attention from one of the Board members. It appears the the contracts for interim superintendent and interim high school principal have clauses that will allow both to remain for periods of two years. Unfortunately, the BOE's ability to communicate is so compromised that this fact has never been publicized.
Jay Pritchett October 01, 2013 at 08:24 AM
I would imagine if someone capable wanted the community service position they would give it to them. I would have to guess that this "willing instructor" might not be deemed able to handle it. What would their reasoning be. I know the kids need a certain amount of hours especially the seniors. And the sign, wow that money could have helped!
emma October 01, 2013 at 07:39 PM
how about them not negotiating with the teachers for 6 months? What are they waiting for a strike?

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