Without a Vote, Fence Going Up Around Kennedy High School
Sunday, September 2, 2012 • 5:49pm
PATERSON, NJ – Construction has begun on the controversial new security fence at Kennedy High School without approval from the Paterson Board of Education.
Several board members said they expect state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans to ask them to approve the fence construction contract at an upcoming meeting. But, the board members said, Evans should have sought their approval beforehand, rather than after the work started.
“It has the appearance of being underhanded,’’ said veteran city schools commissioner Jonathan Hodges. “I can’t imagine that the superintendent would do that. But it certainly does have that appearance.’’
“It went forward without us engaging the community on this,’’ said Board President Christopher Irving. “If we exhausted all other options, the community needs to know that. We should have made sure the community understood the reasons and benefits for this. We’re not as transparent as we should be.’’
PatersonPress.com on August 29 submitted questions about the fence - including why the construction began without the contract being voted upon by the school board – to the school district’s spokeswoman, Terry Corallo. She said she would refer the questions to the district’s executive director of facilities, Chris Sapara-Grant. The district has not yet provided answers.
Evans has said the fence would help to ensure the safety of students at Kennedy’s four academies. Last year, there were a number of fights at the Kennedy complex, including some that involved non-students coming onto the school grounds.
But critics have expressed concerns that the fence might make the school look like “an institution.’’ Earlier this year, elected officials said Evans had backed away from his plans to build the fence because of the community opposition.
Two weeks ago, City Council members directed the municipal law department to research whether the 1960s deeds under which the city gave the school district the land to build Kennedy contained any restrictions on what could be constructed there. There’s been no public disclosure yet on the law department’s findings.
Under the system of state control of city schools, the school commissioners’ approval of district contracts isn’t necessary. Evans, as superintendent, can veto any board vote and can pretty much decide what he wants to do regardless of the board’s position. That has happened in other instances, such as when the board last year voted against consulting contracts for the Innovation Zone education reform initiative and Evans went ahead with the program.
The protocol generally has been for the board to have its say before a contract went into effect. But there have been recent instances in which Evans presented contracts for board approval afterwards.
It’s not clear how much the fence at Kennedy will cost, or which company is doing the work. Those are among the questions the school district has not yet answered.
So far, most of the work on the fence has been done behind Kennedy, along the outskirts of Westside Park, according to Hodges. “I don’t think anybody is going to be that concerned about the back of the school,’’ said Hodges. “I think people are more concerned about a fence being put up along Totowa and Preakness” avenues, he added.
Board Member Manuel Martinez said he hoped the fence work could be delayed until the commissioners were presented with the plan. “I’m not opposed to it so long as it’s constructed in a way that’s esthetically acceptable,’’ said Martinez. “I understand the reasons behind it. But I don’t think it should be some solid structure like the Berlin Wall.’’