By all accounts, it would seem that Fort Lee School Superintendent Steven Engravalle is not having a good year, beginning this past summer when his wife, Samantha, died at the age of 40. In an effort to come to terms with that tragedy, he took a two month leave of absence in November.
"Tragedy happened and I needed to get my life back in order," Engravalle said.
However, Engravalle stressed that it was never his intention to be out of touch with the district during those two months.
"It is my understanding that staff were 'threatened' not to have 'any' contact with me during my leave. As such, I had no idea what was going on for two months. Not a clue," Engravalle said.
Shortly after his return on Jan. 2, there was another death of a close family member for which he took days off, came down with the flu and now is recuperating from a back injury.
"I'm using my own accrued time for these days off," Engravalle said.
Regarding his time off, Engravalle said that coming into this year he has 71 vacation days due to the fact that he took nearly no time off during his first two years of employment.
"No one remembers all the months I came in at 4 am and left at midnight," he said.
Engravalle said that when he first came on, he was dedicating enormous amounts of time examining every aspect of the district--from the failing infrastructure to the state of the textbooks students were using--so that he could plan the direction he wanted the district to move in.
"We are a great district," he said. "But we have the potential to be so much better--we should be at the top of Bergen County."
Engravalle, who spoke to Patch after the fallout from missing the last two Board of Education meetings, as well as Wednesday's Town Hall meeting on school security, said that he is not letting the school district down.
"Being a school superintendent is like being the head of a large multi-million dollar corporation," he said. "Within the Fort Lee School district I am responsible for 400 employees and a client-base of approximately 10,000 students and parents combined."
Engravalle said that as with any large organization, he surrounds himself with capable people who can manage things in his absence.
"Business is not being delayed because I'm not here," Engravalle said.
One parent who spoke to Patch on condition of anonymity said that it is the same small group of parents that continually come to the Board of Education meetings and stall the business of the schools from going forward by focusing on Engravalle's personal issues.
"These are the same people that had issues with the other Superintendents that preceded him," they said. "As long as the Board continues to entertain them, our district will never have stability."
Engravalle agreed that there is a relatively small group of parents who take objection to everything that he tries to do.
"They are so focused on finding fault in my personal life during Board of Education meetings that it stalls any real accomplishment," Engravalle said.
"We should be talking about the curriculum, school resources, reviewing programs," he said. "Instead, I'm being asked if I carry a gun to school." A question, he said, asked without context, and one that makes him "hesitant" to re-establish the practice of having student liasons sit at the table during Board of Education meetings.
The purpose of the student liasons, Engravalle said, is to give them an opportunity to see how concensus works. He feels that exposing them to some of the "out-of-control" behaviors and remarks by adults who attend these meetings adds nothing of value to their learning experience.
Engravalle agreed that the decades long lack of stability within the district has done much from keeping the school district from moving forward and reaching its true potential.
"In my heart of hearts I truly believe that the district has achieved as much as it has solely because of the dedication and talent of the teachers and students," Engravalle said.
Engravalle said that having so much consistent turn-over at the top creates instability and a void in leadership. He credits the district's teaching staff with filling that void with creativity, intellect and dedication to make their students successful.
Defending his accomplishments as superintendent, Engravalle said that he is the only superintendent who was able to get the referendum passed, had a $2 million surplus and has started on much needed work on the infrastructure.
Engravalle said that when he first came on as superintendent, the text books were not only outdated, but there was no conformity in what each grade level in each school was learning. As an example, he said that the Language Arts and Math textbooks being used for one grade level at School 1 were completely different from the ones being used in the same grade level at the other schools.
"I updated and conformed the textbooks so that all grade levels in all of the schools were learning the same material," he said.
"Still," he said, "I'm not moving as fast as I'd like to."
Engravalle said that he wants to assure everyone that even in his absence children are still learning, schools are safe and things are getting accomplished.
"I'm trying to do the best job possible for the place that I love--a place that has immeasurable potential," he said.
"I've been absent, I regret it and I'm sorry," Engravalle said. "But sometimes life happens, and I'm trying very hard to deal with it."
Engravalle invited anyone who wants to speak with him directly to call, email or make an appointment.
No Board member has agreed to comment on Engravalle's absences.