Friday, September 01, 2006

Schools - Asbury Park Press - State intervenes in firing of Antonio Lewis

Published in the Asbury Park Press, Friday, September 1, 2006

N.J. wants to advise school board on superintendent's likely departure

State halts Asbury meeting


ASBURY PARK — It was day one of the state Department of Education's intervention in the city schools, and it was the state that had its way.

In a gymnasium crowded mostly with teachers and staff, Board of Education President Robert DiSanto read a statement shortly after 6 p.m. canceling the meeting in which the board had been expected to accept a resignation from Schools Superintendent Antonio Lewis or else suspend him.

The state, over several hours Thursday, tried to persuade DiSanto to cancel the meeting, and then directed him to do so, most likely until Thursday, so state officials could advise the board on what is expected to be Lewis' departure.

The board had decided to buy Lewis out at a total amount of between $400,000 and $500,000, sources close to the matter said Thursday.

The state, which described its intervention Wednesday as a plan to improve Asbury Park stu-dents' education and bring accountability to the millions in state dollars spent there, did not let the meeting go forward.

"The purpose of the cancellation is to allow the state to assist in analyzing and solving problems that have prevented the district from achieving its full potential," DiSanto read in a statement. "We will honor that request in the hope that a brief delay now will save much time in moving forward in a positive fashion.

"In the meantime, school will open next week as scheduled and all scheduled events will take place," DiSanto said. "You can see that board members are ready to discharge their duties, but again, the state's request will be honored."

The state had similarly intervened in the Camden school district. Superintendent Annette Knox was forced out amid a state probe into her allegedly receiving performance bonuses without board approval.

Kathryn Forsyth, spokeswoman for the state education department, said Thursday night that "the state did suggest that we needed more time to review the situation with Dr. Lewis and what they (the board) were looking to do with Dr. Lewis, and the board agreed to cancel."

Seven of the nine board members want Lewis out after a deep break in trust with the superintendent that by August immobilized decision making. Thursday night's meeting was the fourth to be canceled in two weeks.

Sources close to the negotiations for an agreement with Lewis said the money he was to receive included $150,000 that had been authorized by the board months ago, a settlement Lewis won against a previous city school board that removed him in the winter of 2003-2004. The state reinstated him.

The potential settlement also includes one year's salary, about $182,000, of the three remaining years on Lewis' four-year contract, and sick days and vacation days, sources said.

Lewis' lawyer, Michael Inzelbuch, declined to comment Thursday afternoon as the state and DiSanto were working through their first afternoon of making decisions. But the lawyer, who also is the attorney for the Lakewood School District, expressed displeasure that the meeting might be canceled.

DiSanto said he believed the board will meet again next Thursday.

"I was not happy about calling off the meeting at all," DiSanto said. "We were here to do business tonight. For us to postpone or cancel this meeting without giving a clear reason to the community upset me that this is the situation we are in. The directive was from the commissioner and the governor."

Acting state Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy announced Wednesday that she was sending in an intervention team led by her chief of staff, Penelope Lattimer, to review the board's agendas, examine administrative and personnel decisions, provide guidance on curriculum teaching materials, professional development and budget expenditures.

The state is concerned with the large amount of money spent on the Asbury Park district and the failure of several schools to make adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years, Davy said in her letter to DiSanto and board members which was dated and released to the public Wednesday.

Battle over staff

The break between Lewis and his board became public over the summer when Lewis could not get his recommendations for three district jobs approved. They included Joe Stinson as the high school football coach, Kelly Gayle as the middle school principal and Dorothy Dallah as curriculum director.

All three positions are waiting to be filled.

Aiman Mahmoud, the district's business administrator, who has earned praise from both sides in the fight over Lewis, gave his own 60-day notice in recent weeks after getting a job offer for the same position in the Camden School District. Mahmoud's decision led to more in-fighting over whether it was Lewis or the board that had driven him away.

"It's all about an intervention," said Phyllis Ling, a parent and school staff member who is a parent community liaison. "I think we need a little help and the state will come in and help us get on the right track."

Last week, John Napolitani, the president of the Asbury Park Education Association, released a statement saying Lewis had failed to resolve "a host of problems at the Asbury Park Middle School."

The middle school has failed to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for six consecutive years, Davy pointed out in her intervention letter. The district must implement a restructuring plan but has not been able to realize — or reject — a desire by several board members to change over to a K-8 school building structure.

Lewis, 57, was principal of the middle school in 1999 when, with the help of Vito A. Gagliardi, then a special assistant to the state education commissioner, former Asbury Park Superintendent Robert Mann was removed by the board. Lewis got the job.

Gagliardi was on hand Thursday night as DiSanto announced the latest school board meeting was canceled. Gagliardi said Lewis has hired him as his consultant.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.