A new chapter for one of the most chronically under-funded and troubled school districts in the state. Paterson has a new state-appointed Superintendent who’s been with the district for 25 years and has the confidence of both the School Board President and the Teachers union. Eileen Shafer sat down with Brenda Flanagan.
Flanagan: So, welcome and congratulations on your new job.
Schafer: Thank you very much.
Flanagan: You said you wanted to start this school year with some important features like a certified teacher in every classroom, a nurse in every school. You’ve got $4.3 million now to spend that you didn’t have before. Part of that package is what the legislature made available to some of the under funded school districts. What do you plan to spend that money on?
Schafer: The $4.3 million is going to be school-focused. We had some needs for teaching staff in addition to that we also wanted to have a nurse in every building and that has not happened over the past couple of years. Some of the money is going to teacher’s salaries and some is going to the nurses so that we have them in every building. We also wanted to bring back media specialists and so each year we’re going to try to bring back at least two. And, so with that additional money we are able to bring back two media specialists for Sept.
Flanagan: Now, there were 88 teachers who got laid off notices earlier this year. Are you going to be using that money to re-hire teachers?
Schafer: We are.
Flanagan: Do you have any idea on how many?
Schafer: Right now, it looks like 15 and then when there is a need, we’re looking to find additional money to make sure our classrooms are equipped with all of the teachers that they need. We are looking very closely and focusing on a limited amount of vacancies starting Sept. 1.
Flanagan: I know that there have been complaints a lot of time the school year would get started and there would be temporaries in the classroom, substitute teachers. Are you going to be having to deal with that?
Schafer: In the past, we had anywhere from over 50 to 75 even over 100 vacancies and I am so happy to say that right now we have 17 vacancies. We are still working on that so that we can fill every classroom that needs a teacher by Sept 1. If that doesn’t happen, it will happen for those 17 right after that.
Flanagan: Now, you are looking at putting together a multi-year plan for Paterson which has been under state control for over 26 years now. You said you’re looking for raising the passing grades from 60 to 70. How are you going to do that given the fiscal constraints?
Schafer: So, I have listened to our Board of Education and our community about raising the passing grade from 60 to 70 for quite some time now. I think it’s time to form a committee and this year is going to be our planning year. You can’t go from 60 to 70 in one year without notifying students, without teachers knowing, without families knowing, so we are going to put together a three-year plan and hopefully from Sept. until June, we will go from 60 to 63. So, next school year we will start at 63 and each year we will go up from 63 to 66 and then onto 70. So, we are going to have a working committee that’s going to involve parents, community members as well as teachers. We are going to be able to get that message out so that students and families are prepared as that passing grade keeps going up each year over the next three years until 70.
Flanagan: What kind of fiscal issues is Paterson looking at at this point in terms of deficits?
Schafer: Right now, the biggest deficit that we have is our charter schools. And right now, we have a strategic budget committee meeting taking place. We had one in August. We are going to have one each month until we start preparing our budget, which is going to be around Oct. or Nov. And, so that specific committee is going to make recommendations of how we can close that gap.
Flanagan: How big of a gap is it at this point?
Schafer: Right now, it’s premature to say. We are looking at projections, we are looking at demographics and again I have to say that our charter schools have a major impact, not only the fiscal constraints that were under because of the charter schools but how the charter schools continued the increase. So, we are looking at all of that. Last year it was at $30 million. In addition to charter schools, you have all of your cost drivers that continue to go up, so it would probably be close to $25 $30 million that we would have to look at.
Flanagan: Are you going to be asking Trenton that?
Schafer: Yes we will.
Flanagan: Here’s another costly program, there’s some 800 special education kids. According to a state investigation, they don’t have proper early intervention programs set up. This entire situation was in disarray apparently last year, you’re going to be confronting this. What do you plan to do?
Schafer: Special education is number one priority for me. We had a lot of students who did not receive compensatory time. Also some of their IEP’s (Individualized Educational Plan) were not implemented with additional support services that those students need. So, we do have a plan now, as to how we are going to be able to get those students the services they need, get them caught up with the compensatory time and monitor that implementation. That is definitely a priority for me, we did just develop in early Aug. a parent special education advisory committee that is meeting monthly, we’ve met twice already. We are going to bring this all together for the benefit of the special needs students.
Flanagan: You want this job permanently?
Schafer: Yes I do.
Flanagan: You’re going to be looking to put in an application for permanent superintendent?
Schafer: Yes I am.
Flanagan: Good luck.
Schafer: Thank you.
Flanagan: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
Schafer: Thank you.