Outgoing West Orange Superintendent Discusses PARCC, Common Core and More

West Orange Interim Superintendent James O'Neill is taking over in Livingston as their Interim Superintendent. Credits: Cynthia Cumming

WEST ORANGE, NJ - (Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part interview with outgoing West Orange Interim Superintendent James O'Neill.)

Education is a passionate subject for James O'Neill, whose career spans forty years. Prior to O'Neill's arrival in West Orange, in 2010, he locked very public horns with none other than Gov. Chris Christie, who capped public school Superintendents' salaries at $165,000 (an additional $2,500 for districts with larger high schools). At the time, Christie claimed he was "restoring fiscal discipline and ending abuse of property tax dollars, while keeping money in the classroom where it belongs."

O'Neill, long-time Superintendent of the Chatham Public Schools, retired despite the objections of his school district, noting: "While superintendents of districts like Chatham, with 4,000 students, are capped at $165,000 plus $2500 for having a high school; superintendents of vocational/technical schools, Education Commission schools, Charter schools and Special Education schools that are all financed with public funds have no cap. There are superintendents of those schools who make more than the $210,00 that I currently earn for 300 students. If the Governor's goal is really saving public dollars, why are these other institutions exempt from the cap?" 

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O'Neill was also part of an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging Christie's cap. In 2012, he agreed to become Interim Superintendent of West Orange Public Schools on a per diem rate equalling the $177,500 cap for the West Orange school district. 

New Jersey is the only state in the country that has a Superintendent's salary cap in place, and legislators are considering abolishing it. Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, Assemblyman Joseph Lagana and Assemblyman John McKeon have introduced Bill A2930 to "prohibit the DOE from regulating the maximum salary amount a school district may pay its superintendent of schools." 

O'Neill, who has just begun work as the new Interim Superintendent in Livingston, will be paid in accordance with the current Livingston salary cap on the same per diem basis as West Orange.

The dispute between New Jersey legislators and Gov. Christie has continued as the Common Core standards were put on hold in a bill introduced by District 27 Assemblywoman Mila Jasey. Assembly Bill A3081, which "would allow for the formation of the Education Reform Review Task Force," was passed in the State Assembly with a vote of seventy-two in favor, four against, and two abstentions. The Bill delays the implementation of Common Core standards; instead opting to first study the effects it may have on children, teachers, and administrators in schools across the state.

As of July 1, Senate Bill 2154, already passed 72-8, was expected to be vetoed by Christie. Senate Bill 2154 "creates an Education Reform Review Task Force; and delays certain uses of certain assessments and certain changes to the teacher evaluation system." This Bill would slow the progress of the implementation of Christie's push for online PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College Careers) testing and revised teacher evaluation models that incorporated students' test scores into a teacher's evaluation. PARCC testing is set to replace NJAsk testing in grades 3-8 and high school profiency testing in grades 9-11.

Legislators especially want Christie to reduce the impact of students' test scores in teacher evaluations. 

Since the inception of the New Jersey State Department of Education's move from NJAsk testing to PARCC testing in accordance with Common Core requirements and the requirement for school districts to implement new teacher evaluation systems, O'Neill has been an outspoken critic of several components of the process.

Calling the implementation of online PARCC testing the "most expensive unfunded mandate in public school history," O'Neill recapped the process over the past two years to prepare for Gov. Christie and the NJ State Department of Education's 2015 PARCC launch. After a series of pilot testings in West Orange and in other PARCC states, O'Neill said that for PARCC to really be successful, "there needs to be multiple pilots and testings over multiple years." Several flaws and issues were identified this spring during the pilot testing.

"West Orange has purchased 500 chrome books and spent another $50,000 in wiring at West Orange High School alone," said O'Neill. "But over the past several years, the move has been to put more computers in classrooms, and spread computers all over schools. The logistics of figuring out how to test students in multiple subjects, with guaranteed higher test scores, harder content, and harder to take and administer, need time."

"Several parents will undoubtedly boycott the testing for their children," O'Neill noted.

"This is why the legislature is getting involved--to correct the law as it relates to PARCC and teacher evaluations," he continued.

As for the implementation of the new teacher evaluations, O'Neill said, "On the positive side, the Marzano (the evaluation used by the West Orange school district) raised the bar because there were more evaluations." 

"Personnel drives school districts," he went on to explain. "There are teachers that are good people with good ethics. They can teach a lot and it might not make them an engaging personality...teachers need to not only be able to love but to engage the kids they teach."

The downside of the new evaluation model was the need to create more supervisory positions to handle the 3,600 and more evaluations required over the course of a school year for the district's approximate 1,200 teachers.

O'Neill said he remains positive about West Orange, lauding not only the diversity of the students and their ability to interact, but the diversity of activities as well. He said that music, the arts, clubs, athletics, and even the Jr. Air Force ROTC program at the high school, "are important because kids should find areas where they can be successful."

As O'Neill departs West Orange, turning the reins over to newly-appointed Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky, Tap into West Orange asked him what areas the new Superintendent and school district need to consider.

"The first priority is considering redistricting," he began. "Schools like Redwood and Gregory are overcrowded. This forces the district to have to pay for special busing to send them to other schools. School population is growing at a rate of about 25-40 kids per year. Redistricting would save money because money would be saved in busing."

He added, "The district should also look at the idea of taking the IEP Preschool at Pleasantdale and relocating it with the lottery-driven preschool."

Lastly, O'Neill noted, "It has been obvious to me that our teachers love the kids. But I believe they should also push the kids more academically."

To read Part One of Tap into West Orange's interview, go here.

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