A Chat with the Superintendent
Patch talks with Dr. LeRoy Seitz about ending bullying, the challenges of the new year, and the contract controversy.
Dr. LeRoy Seitz is a controversial figure in Parsippany.
To some, Superintendent Seitz is the strong, experienced leader of a successful public school district, one who has kept test scores and educational quality high; has maintained aging buildings and most academic, sports and co-curriclar programs even in a down economy; and has introduced 21st century technology and communications systems into the schools.
But others have a different view, much of it colored by the ongoing dispute over what Seitz should be paid. In late 2010, Gov. Chris Christie capped salaries for superintendents of districts the size of Parsippany at $175,000 per year. Last year's Parsippany Board of Education disagreed, saying that Trenton should have no say in local school matters. The board's decision to ignore the governor's edict led to nasty newspaper headlines, the threatened loss of state aid to Par-Troy schools (more than one threat, in fact), and a dismissed lawsuit against the state by the board.
In the end, the Board of Education bowed to state pressure and offered Seitz a contract in line with the cap.
The ball, now, is in Seitz's court. He could accept the contract as is, he could turn it down and retire or take another position, he could sue, he could do any or all of the above—or do something else. If he's made any decisions regarding his future employment, he didn't announce them to Patch in an interview conducted Aug. 10 at the Board of Education building. Lee Seitz seems in a good mood as we begin a chat that covers the district's commitment to fight HIB--harrassment, intimidation and bullying, the upcoming school year and the challenges ahead, and—yes—his future.
PARSIPPANY PATCH: A huge focus for the new year is the anti-bullying law. I know that's been a priority of this district for some time.
DR. LeROY SEITZ: Absolutely. This district has been doing this for years. Last year on the first day back, I spoke to the entire staff, I made this one of my key emphases. I told the staff that in this district, we've focused a lot on technology and services, but I may have been remiss in not talking to them more about the importance of each student's emotional well-being. Without that, learning doesn't take place. Unless a child comes to school feeling safe and secured and nurtured, you can't teach him or her.
So, that was my message last year, and out of that, we had the Student Leadership Retreat going, we have all these activities going on. But Parsippany—because of its 10 elementary schools that are relatively small, very stable and appropriately staffed—really lays the groundwork so we have fewer problems as kids progress through the grades. Bullying really takes place heavily at the middle school level. We want to get to the kids before that. Once they're doing a HIB it's very difficult to change that behavior, but if you never get to that point, you have a success story.
At the elementary level, we have wonderful people. Each elementary school has a full-time secretary, a full-time principal, full-time nurse, full-time school counselor and, up until recently, a full-time media specialist. That core team and 350 kids really make sure that if there is soomething developing, they're on top of it. They're educating the child. They're involving the parents of the kids who are affected. I think that way you prevent a lot of things from occurring.
And there are a lot of things that our media specialists do to educate the children. That's how you prevent a HIB from occurring, when they're educated and they realize that every human being has value and that they are valuable as well and they have this self-worth and they have self-respect and respect for others, then these problems go away.
Cyberbullying is new, and it's very damaging. You can hit 100,000 people with a rumor or an allegation in literally minutes. We've never had that before, and that's the challenge I see. The child who says something, we've dealt with that. The child who writes a note, we've dealt with that. But when you put it on the Internet and it shoots out there through one of the social networks and hangs out there literally forever, that is creating problems that are very difficult for all of us to deal with. It's something that as a community we're going to have to learn about and deal with.
PATCH: Such as teaching our kids how to behave on social media and what to say?
SEITZ: Yes, think twice before you hit the 'send' button. It's not just kids. Did you hear the story about this politician...
PATCH: Anthony Weiner?
SEITZ: Oh no, this is another one, a freeholder from New York state who sent pictures of himself [through the Internet]. You say to yourself, 'What are you thinking?' Is there anybody who you trust to that degree that they won't show it to anyone else? ... In any case, this law is going to be helpful. I think it's going to be challenging because of the time frame: We really just got the policy information in late July, the Board of Education will be adopting it, and there's training that has to take place. That's something that would have been nice to have done in the spring.
PATCH: Especially in terms of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which I understand was passed in November...
SEITZ: Yeah, but once it's signed, they have 120 days. And it's a very complicated piece of legislation. The check-off list for the policy is 18 pages long.
PATCH: My goodness, then the law itself must be voluminous. Well, they say it's one of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country.
SEITZ: Yes, but it's very detailed. Instead of leaving it up to the districts to enforce the key elements of the policy, it's more like a regulation that says, 'Here is what you will do. You will have a school specialist at each school.' That sounds great, right?
SEITZ: Who qualifies as a school specialist? Can you have more than one at a high school? We're not overstaffed, so I've got to identify 14 people at least who are going to take on this additional responsibility. And the school specialist is key because he or she investigates any allegation of a HIB. Well, we don't people sitting around waiting to do this. So we're seeking clarification on this point.
A school specialist is a good thing, don't get me wrong. These are good things. But you have a site-based committee comprised of a variety of stakeholders, which is great. You have a district person. You have tight timelines on the reporting. ... It's a mandate without funding and the time frame is tight. It's going to be work, because you can't put these things off. You shouldn't put these things off. But we will work out how to implement this policy by Sept. 1. At the end of the day, it's going to be a good thing because it's going to be something that needed to be highlighted and needed to be emphasized. And it will be. Hopefully, a couple of years from now, this will not be emphasized because it will no longer be a problem.
PATCH: In this new school year, we're going to see the implementation of projects and plans decided upon last year. Can you tell me about the various new things we'll see in Parsippany schools in 2011-12?
SEITZ: We'll have the Genesis program, which is very interesting. It's a software program we call a Student Information System. It's designed to maintain student records: progress reports, report cards, test data and scheduling. So its focus is just on the kids, not finances, not human relations or personnel. The first six months to a year, our parents and students are not going to see a lot of difference from what we currently do. They're going to get their report cards and progress reports by mail. However, in September of 2012, we expect to have the Parent Portal up and running. That's the key, because then the schedule, the report card, the progress reports will be done electronically. Parents will go to the website, log in for their child or children and see what they're doing.
PATCH: Like PowerSchool, but better?
SEITZ: Yeah. Genesis and PowerSchool are two of the big ones. So [using Genesis] will be a significant shift, because in addition to that it will include the ability of a parent to check on the progress of their child at any time, 24/7. The grades will be available to them in real time. There will be an accountability that we haven't had in this district up to this point. It's going to shed light on what is going on in the school on a regular basis. I think it will raise the bar across the board. I think that is the really key thing for Genesis. There is also a Teacher Portal and there will be options for students to get information 24/7 based on the teachers they have. I think that's great.
The installation of interactive projectors we started to use last year will be concluded this year. Those projectors are really transforming the way we instruct students. I mean, it has been a phenomenal success. The teachers in the district have just run with this. They're doing creative things with it. They're involving students and it's making learning more interactive as opposed to passive. Teachers aren't standing in front of the room lecturing—the students in many cases are using the interactive boards. They're able to access technology, they're able to access Google Earth and all these other programs. What has really set up apart, I believe, is that we have these interactive projectors, teachers are running with it, but each teacher does not have the time to search for all the appropriate programs. We have teachers funded by ARRA funds [a $1.6 million grant from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] doing that for the district. So if you're a fourth grade math teacher, and you go to a restricted website called Sharepoint, you log in, you go to elementary, then fourth grade, then math, and then addition of fractions. The appropriate software programs we've approved and that are in line with our curriculum are there.
So you're getting a group of teachers to pick the best available resources, lesson plans and activities out there to teach kids more effectively. That's going to be a tremendous asset that will affect the way students learn.
The other change coming this year that will be very difficult for us is the loss of senior administrators. I don't think everyone understands the significance of losing that history and losing that expertise, but it's going to hit us. Now, we have Ruth Anne Estler, who's wonderful as the interim director of curriculum. We're hoping to get a personnel director soon before [Matthew McGrath] leaves Oct. 1, and we have a consultant doing our business administrator work. Those are all temporary fixes, and it's very difficult right now to persuade people to move, to change jobs. So the pool of candidates is not nearly as strong as it was five years ago. With the new people coming on board on an interim basis, and no one having a history at the senior level, I think it's going to be very challenging.
PATCH: As the one experienced senior-level administrator in the district, and also as the one who oversees everything, that puts a lot on you.
SEITZ: Well, it's going to be challenging, absolutely. The thing I think will help us is that we have wonderful principals, support staff and teachers. I really expect them to step up and work with us to get through the rough spots. But everything we do is now going to be seen through different pairs of eyes and, in my experience, I've never had so many [new senior administrators] at once. ... A year ago, we had a director of special education leave and we hired Suzanne Olimpio. The rest of the team was in place. We worked with the new administrator and brought her up to speed, and it was seamless. Now, Suzanne's got a year of experience and then there's me. [Seitz has worked as a school superintendent since 1995.] Everyone else is new. It's going to be very challenging.
PATCH: Can you envision a positive in all of this?
SEITZ: I enjoy the mentoring part and the selection part. If we do that well, then we will be setting the district up for success down the road. But to lose those three positions at this time is just a challenge that I've never experienced before. Again, we'll get through it, but there will be some rough spots.
PATCH: How do you build the spirit for the new year with such huge challenges?
SEITZ: Well, it's actually going to be much worse than that one aspect. The challenges are: new senior administrative team, probably all three on an interim basis; we're entering negotiations with teachers and secretaries; there are new laws affecting teachers' employee compensation and pension changes. Any one of those is challenging. Now, we have all three.
PATCH: You'll need the patience of Job.
SEITZ: Indeed. And in this economy, no one knows how these things are going to play out. I think that's the challenge. The good thing is, what has made this district a great district are the teachers, the secretaries, the maintenance people, the custodians and bus drivers and administrators. They're still in place. So, we're going to rely on them heavily to do what they've done plus a little bit more until we get everybody else up to speed. The other thing that will affect us is our long-term planning. Facilities are fine; we've got a long-term plan in place and we'll follow it. But we had Dr. Kathleen Sleezer [former assistant superintendent of curriculum] leave us after a long career, and then had Connie Donvito [former director of curriculum] leave after two years in the position. I need someone to come in—and an interim is not necessarily the best person—to pull those leaders in the district together to say this is what we're currently doing, here's what works, here are opportunities for improvement, let's put together a 3- to 5-year plan to address those issues. I think we're going to lose some time there, and in education, you can't afford to lose time.
We're going to be fine at maintaining the status quo. That's never been something I'm satisfied with, and I don't think this community should be satisfied with that. That's going to be the push: How to continue to move the district forward with these interim people and then, a year or two from now, new people.
We're in great shape. We did very well with QSAC, the state monitoring program, and we have a stable core of administrators and teachers, and we'll continue because we are very stable in the area of technology, so we can continue to push that initiative. But my concern is, if we're looking at innovative programs for the high schools or middle schools, it's difficult to do in this time frame. Layer on top of that: Dr. Nancy Gigante [of Parsippany Hills High School] is entering her fourth year as a high school principal, Natalie Betz [of Parsippany High School] is entering her third year, and their teams are equally inexperienced. At Central Middle School, you have a new principal who was here before and who we love, but he's been on the job since May. His vice principal has been on the job for a year. Excluding Brooklawn Middle School, at the secondary level, we have very new, inexperienced people. That can be good and that can be bad, but the reality is it's something we have to face.
When you take a principalship, whether you've been a teacher or vice principal, it's still a new position with new challenges. Getting to the point where you will be making organizational changes takes a few years. [Seitz himself spent seven years as a teacher, nine years as an assistant principal and eight years as a high school principal before moving into the administrative ranks.]
The good thing is, transporation is solid, food services are solid, we have a good business office that will keep humming along and, thanks to [former Business Administrator] Marlene Wendolowski, our buildings are in the best shape they've been in 10 or 15 years. So, the fundamentals are there and the supervisors and teachers have done a great job with the technology and instruction, our staffing is good, so we're at a good point. I just hate losing time. You never get it back.
But we'll be ready to open and take it from there. It's challenging, but it's exciting. It's never boring around here. I've worked in a number of districts and have done this for a long time, and this staff—and I mean staff, not just teachers—they're wonderful. They are more than willing to go that extra step or two for whatever you need.
PATCH: Finally, what are your plans? Do you know yet?
SEITZ: No (laughs). At this point, we need some answers before the board or I can make some decisions. And that's the bottom line. Somebody may think it's simple--you either have a contract or you don't. But it's not that simple. There are various statutes, there is case law that must be looked at and decisions that have to be made.
PATCH: And I am sure there are still points to be negotiated.
SEITZ: Well, yes and no. There are, like, five different scenarios. Some of the scenarios may have negotiations in them and some of them may not. Until we get some answers clarified, and I don't want to specify the questions... well, we'll see. It will be soon. Once we get clarification, then the board and I have to decide what we're going to do.
But I can tell you one thing: I made a commitment to this board five years ago when I came here. I said I'd like a five-year contract, and if you give me a five-year contract, I'll complete that contract. I won't leave early. Then we drew up a new contract in June 2010 and I made the same commitment. The board offered a five-year contract and I said yes, and I will complete it. I would not let this town down by leaving with an interim business admiministrator, personnel director and curriculum director in place. I think that would be very unprofessional at the very least, and I think possibly immoral. So if something happens in terms of me leaving, there will be a transitional period. I'm not going to say to the board, 'Hey, in 60 days I'm outta here.' That would be unacceptable and it's certainly something I wouldn't do.
So, whatever happens, we'll get to that point and make some decisions and we'll go from there. The board and I made a commitment for another five years and I certainly expect to meet that commitment.
PATCH: How did it feel to have the governor of the state seemingly pick on you and Parsippany?
SEITZ: I'd have to disagree with the term 'seemingly.' There is no doubt that he targeted this town, he targeted this school board and he targeted me. There's no question about that. When the superintendent in his own town a month earlier gets the contract that on a per-pupil basis is much more costly than mine, and he says nothing, it's clear to me that he targeted this community, and I think that's unfortunate. This is a great community. The people love their town, they support their schools and they have wonderful people here. To tarnish this community over this contract, I think, is not something that should have been done.