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Fort Lee Parent Starts Petition to Save Principal’s Job

Fort Lee School No. 1 principal’s contract was not renewed for the 2011-2012 school year; one concerned parent hopes her efforts will change that.

When students at Fort Lee School No. 1 return to their classrooms on September 7, one thing is certain: they will have a principal. School officials have said it’s required by law that every school building must have a certified principal in the building at all times.

The question however is who that principal will be, and whether it’s Kristine Cecere, the school’s current principal whose contract was not renewed, an interim principal or someone else entirely remains very much up in the air.

One concerned parent of a kindergartener at the school and staunch supporter of Cecere is doing her part to try and save the current principal’s job, taking it upon herself to start a petition she plans to present to the Fort Lee Board of Education and school administrators at Tuesday’s special public meeting.

Stefanie Stuart started the petition on the website change.org she says because she and a number of fellow parents of children at the school “couldn’t figure out what the reason for the non-renewal would be” and because “basically no information was forthcoming.”

“They basically waited until the last minute to tell her that her contract was not being renewed,” Stuart said. “Clearly it cannot be a credentials reason, because if she didn’t have the right credentials, she shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. Had it been a performance issue, surely there would have been some sort of a record of her underperforming over the course of the year. It shouldn’t come up at the end.”

School officials, who cannot discuss personnel matters, have emphasized that it’s premature to discuss the matter and point to a legal process for staff members whose contracts are not renewed.

According to the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA), such a staff member has the right to a written statement of reasons for nonrenewal upon request and to an informal appearance before the board called a “Donaldson hearing,” so named for a school law decision from the North Wildwood Board of Education.

“It is the teacher who must act first in order to activate these rights,” according to the NJSBA, which identifies the timeline of events as follows:

  • The educator has 15 days after notification of non-renewal to request in writing the statement of reasons.
  • The board then has 30 days to provide the statement to the educator.
  • Within 10 days of receiving the statement of reasons, the teacher or faculty member can request—again in writing—an informal appearance before the board of education.
  • The board must then schedule the appearance within 30 calendar days of the employee receiving the board’s statement of reasons.

“The hearing is not an adversarial proceeding,” according to the NJSBA. “The purpose of such an appearance is to permit the staff member to convince the members of the board to offer reemployment. After the Donaldson hearing, the board can override the CSA’s recommendation not to renew, and can vote to offer the teacher a contract.”

Stuart said last week that her goal was to have about 300 signatures by Tuesday’s meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m. At the time of writing, the petition had garnered 119 signatures—not all of which were of Fort Lee residents.

But Stuart said that people should be concerned “even if you don’t have a child at [the school].”

“This is the way the board handles their talent management, and Ms. Cecere is a talented individual,” she said. “She is someone that we want to keep in the district. If this is how they deal with her, it’s kind of scary.”

Stuart said she planned to “pound the pavement” and get as many signatures as she could by meeting time, print out hard copies for each member of the school board and school administrators and pass out copies at the meeting. She also noted that every time someone signs the petition, the website generates an email that is sent to Fort Lee Superintendent of Schools Raymond Bandlow and board president Arthur Levine, although the website does not make their email addresses public.

Stuart said she had not spoken with Bandlow or Levine about the petition, but she has spoken with Cecere.

“I did have a conversation with her, and she said that she loves her job, she loves the school, and she wants to be there,” Stuart said. “So if that’s her position, then I’m prepared to go to bat for her. My understanding is she’s just as confused as the rest of us. Nobody is 100 percent loved, but the bottom line is a majority of parents hold her in high regard. Her faculty seems to enjoy her leadership and respond well to her. The children love her. So from my perspective and [that of other parents], we just can’t seem to understand why her contract was not being renewed.”

Jerry Bucknoff May 31, 2011 at 05:33 PM
PART 1: While this situation is very unfortunate, for both the principal and for the students, the fact is, you can't have your cake and eat it too. Every dollar that the state and federal governments spends on schools and education is a dollar that can't be passed on to the top 1% of wealthiest Americans in the form of tax cuts. You can't spend a dollar on education, police, roads, health care, government regulatory agencies, medical and scientific research, paying down the national debt (e.g., our loans from China), or job creation and also pass the same dollar onto a billionaire as a tax cut. It's either one or the other. Fortunately, we're a democracy and we can democratically decide how to spend that dollar (since that dollar came out of our own pockets). Last fall the American people went to the polls and voted to cut programs; layoff teachers, principals and librarians; cut medical research; and borrow more money from China so we can take the proceeds and pass it on as tax cuts to the ultra-wealthy. (Cont'd --> Part 2)
Jerry Bucknoff May 31, 2011 at 05:35 PM
PART 2: True, this increases the national debt and means less money from the federal and state governments to pay principals like Principal Cecere. However, it's what the American people decided when they went to the polls. The American people went to the polls and voted for this and, as would be expected in a democracy, now they are getting what they voted for. This shows that democracy works. As much as we'd like Ms. Cecere to keep her job and as much as we'd like our children to have an excellent education so they can compete with China and other countries, the minority among us (who voted for jobs and better schools over tax breaks for the rich) has to respect the decision of the majority of the electorate.
Jerry Bucknoff May 31, 2011 at 05:36 PM
PART 3: Complaining, protesting or signing petitions now, in 2011, is like shutting the barn door after the horse got out. The time to save jobs and funding to our schools (and police, fire departments, road repair, unemployment insurance funds, cancer research grants, etc.) was last November. Sadly, we can't just go and change our minds after the facts -- at least not this year. We can do something in the near future, however. We can vote differently in 2012 than we did in 2010. If we vote the same and then, once again, complain that teachers and principals are being laid off, then we will only be hypocrites.
Anna May 31, 2011 at 06:31 PM
I'm with you Jerry.
Nancy Dougherty May 31, 2011 at 08:11 PM
Mr Bucknoff, Although I agree with many of your points, you're missing the point here. Although I have no idea why Ms Cecere is being let go, it has nothing to do cost cutting. Her position is not being eliminated - the school is required by law to have a principal, so even if she is let go, another principal will need to be hired.
David June 01, 2011 at 11:24 AM
My sister teaches at the school. They were sort of forced to go to a rally headed by the Middle School Principle. Christine cried admitting she is a poor administrator, but she would try harder. Is that a reason to keep her? Everyone knew School 1 was out of control . She is a nice lady but not a good leader.
Shoesymama June 01, 2011 at 02:35 PM
David - I believe this to be a mischaracterization of a faculty meeting. Even if this were the case, I would not take tears to mean anything other than someone being emotional over a difficult situation. The reason for keeping her is that even though she's great at her job, she strives to be better, she has an open door policy to teachers and parents, she loves the kids and she really wants to be at School 1.
David June 01, 2011 at 07:39 PM
Why would she admit to being a bad administrator? Those where her own words. People might feel sorry for her, but alot of teachers feel she is not up to being a principle .
Shoesymama June 01, 2011 at 08:33 PM
Unless you were at the meeting, what you're stating is hearsay and I don't think it's fair to spread an opinion as fact. My personal sense is that just as many experienced teachers, if not more, would like for her to stay. Given that neither the Principal nor the teachers are allowed to publicly comment on the matter, I think it would be better to try and be as factual and truthful as possible with our personal opinions.

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