“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty no safety. Benjamin Franklin 1775.
When we engaged a new superintendent for the Fort Lee schools it was with the intention of creating stability in a school system suffering from a chaotic 2012 and 2013. Approximately two weeks after starting his tenure as Superintendent, Paul J. Saxton managed to alienate the entire student population at Fort Lee High School and the majority of the community with one poorly conceived decision.
After attending the BOE meeting on Monday evening, September 9, 2013, one gets the impression that Paul Saxton is a decent, caring individual that truly wants to do the right thing for the students. He speaks well and appears to be a true professional. However, the cardinal rule in assuming a new position is to first get situated, analyze the current state of affairs, and then implement necessary changes to improve the situation. The worst possible method to ingratiate yourself into a community is to make a decision with a major impact, one guaranteed to be extremely unpopular, and then have to backtrack. Perhaps the most ironic moment of the evening was when the Fort Lee High School administrators: Frank Calabria, Principal; Pat Ambriosio, Vice Principal; and John Coviello, Vice Principal; proceeded to state that opening day was a great success, with everything going as smooth as silk. I fail to see how having the entire student population infuriated qualifies as a “great start to a school year”.
Mr. Saxton’s decision to alter a long standing policy, i.e. that Fort Lee High School juniors and seniors are permitted to leave the confines of the building during lunch, was destined to create havoc from the moment Mr. Coviello relayed this message on the PA system. (Note: The former principal, Ms. Priscilla Church removed the privilege for sophomores several years ago, a questionable decision at that time.) Mr. Saxton justified his decision at the BOE meeting by citing “good conscience”, “morality”, and “safety and security” as the rationale behind this decision. Mr. Saxton appears to be “old school” with his approach, not necessarily a bad thing. But “good conscience” and “morality” have absolute no relevance to this issue. We need our schools to focus on educating our children, not on deciding the “higher moral ground”. Let’s leave that to the parents, even if some do not do such an excellent job.
“Safety and security” is a synonym in this case for “easier”. It is “easier” to keep track of the students if they don’t leave the building and return. It is “easier” to keep the “problem children” from creating issues if they are confined. Unfortunately, “easier” is not necessarily better.
Our new interim superintendent stated that he spoke to the Fort Lee Chief of Police and asked if this was a “safety issue”. Depending on how the question was asked, any police chief would respond that it is clearly more secure to incarcerate the students, rather than let them roam free. Mr. Saxton stated that he conferred with administration, which leads to the possibility that Mr. Saxton did not even initiate the idea for this policy. Perhaps, one of the administrators suggested that it would be “easier”. In any case, the public clearly displayed its dissatisfaction with the new policy at the BOE meeting. Mr. Saxton even stated that perhaps there was room for compromise, but not immediately, i.e. this week. Truthfully, Mr. Saxton is unlikely to revoke this decision quickly, even if he agrees that it was rash, as he most likely believes that he would lose face in the community for not having the courage to stand his ground.
Since the Fort Lee Police Chief was brought into the conversation, it only seems fair to mention that the Fort Lee Fire Dept. is concerned about the capacity of the lunch room being exceeded. The solution to this apparently is to allow insufficient time for the students to digest the “less than gourmet” foods provided by Chartwells and then be quickly shuttled to an alternate area for the remaining lunch period.
Mr. Saxton’s reference to Lemoine Avenue being a dangerous crossing street is accurate, but irrelevant. The same students. that he is “protecting”, walk to school across Bridge Plaza North and South and Lemoine Avenue every day. Are these intersections more dangerous during school hours? Are the students less responsible and/or attentive during school hours? High School juniors and seniors are 16 years old to 18 years old. One would hope that they have the ability to cross a street, even a major thoroughfare safely. But if administration wants to err on the side of caution, the high school could place a crossing guard by the building during lunch hours.
In reality, Mr. Saxton is treating the students with disdain and disrespect. If you treat high school students like children, they may react in kind. If you treat students with respect, you may gain their respect. High school students are young adults and deserve to be treated with respect, unless otherwise indicated. Having watched so many of the students grow up in this community to be fine young people makes this travesty of judgment that much more unfortunate.
The ultimate truth is this situation is that Fort Lee Schools remain in chaos, with no relief in sight. We have four key figures that are not permanent, our interim Superintendent, our interim Assistant Superintendent, our high school principal, and our business administrator. We have several unresolved building issues in the district. We have major overcrowding in our schools with no redress on the horizon. We have an on-going, currently unresolved union contract negotiation with the teachers. We have three new teachers in the Academy of Finance that have never met with the AOF Board. We have no Director of Guidance and no individual on staff in charge of Community Service. Etc.; Etc; Etc.
So instead of focusing on the aforementioned issues, our new interim Superintendent, Paul J. Saxton, chooses to focus on a non-issue and blow it up into a major issue. For a hundred years, the high school students have “safely” crossed Lemoine Avenue to luxuriously dine at the plethora of high end restaurants proximate to the high school. After a hundred years of safe crossings, in the past two weeks, that situation suddenly became one of “imminent danger”, requiring immediate attention.
Sorry, Mr. Saxton, we’re going to have to give you a failing grade on this decision.