Pleasantville’s school district will get a new state monitor today. That person must reverse years of dysfunction that have become part of the district’s culture.
David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which has represented children in the state’s urban districts, said the new monitor must arrive with a game plan that has the full support of the state Department of Education.
He said the recent state audit that was highly critical of Pleasantville schools calls into question the effectiveness of the state monitoring system. He believes the state Department of Education itself should bear some blame for current problems in the district and should be made to answer for the audit findings.
“The state monitor has tremendous power,” Sciarra said. “The state auditor should have been in there looking at what the state monitor was doing.”
State auditor Stephen M. Eells said auditors looked only at district programs and finances and did not address the fact that the district had a state monitor. He said that issue is a matter for the Department of Education.
Department of Education officials did not address current monitor James Riehman’sperformance, but said they felt progress had been made in the district. Spokesman Mike Yaple said that Riehman, who worked a maximum 30 hours per week, had fulfilled his maximum two-year term, which began in 2011, and would be replaced by a full-time monitor who will be introduced at today’s Pleasantville school board meeting. He said that person’s priority will be to address items in the audit.
The 24-page audit by the Office of the State Auditor said the Pleasantville Board of Education and administration did not ensure the efficient and effective use of state funds. It cited unassigned teachers and cost overruns in after-school programs, among other problems.
The board has been plagued by a lack of continuity — 11 superintendents in 10 years. Charges of nepotism and favoritism are rampant, especially in hiring.
Superintendent Garnell Bailey said recently it is a myth that people are hired in the district due to connections to the board or administration. But some school board members admit there is a tendency to hire friends and close connections. Board members Tony Davenport and Jerome Page said in recent separate phone interviews that there is definitely a practice of hiring friends who are not always the most qualified for the jobs.
The audit noted that the adult son of a then-board member was hired for a program in violation of district policy.
In addition, board Vice President Joanne Famularo said, administrative positions are given to friends and used to insulate the administration and create a structure that works in its favor.
Attorney George Frino of the Teaneck firm of DeCotiis FitzPatrick & Cole, which represents the district in labor issues, said recently that the firm will finish up current cases, but take no new ones.
He declined to elaborate on specific issues, but said: “Based on the current climate, we intend to close out pending cases then terminate our agreement. Professionally, you can’t work with them.”
School board President Darleen Bey-Blocker said decisions should be made based on what is good for the community, not personal issues.
Sciarra said that is the whole point of bringing in a state monitor — to take over decision-making in a district that has proved it cannot manage itself or put the students first.
“This should have been an audit of the state monitor’s performance in Pleasantville,” he said of the recent state audit. “How are the monitors being monitored? How did this happen under their watch?”
Riehman said in a recent interview that the problems in Pleasantville have been going on for more than 20 years and are not easily overcome. He said his job relates only to fiscal oversight of the district, not to dealing with procedural or behavioral concerns. During the three years he has served as monitor, Riehman was paid $450,000.
The state law that created the monitors gives them broad powers over all fiscal and hiring decisions, including the ability to overturn decisions made by the school board. The district’s first monitor, John Deserable, used that power often, which made him very unpopular in the district.
Sciarra said any state monitor is going to have to make unpopular decisions, which is why they must have strong state support.
“Anyone is going to have a difficult time,” he said. “A state monitor is a form of state takeover. They need to come up with a game plan to control the problems.”
Currently six other school districts have had state monitors: Trenton, Asbury Park, Garfield, Elmwood Park, Elmer and Camden. Camden was subject to a full state takeover in March.
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