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Revised version: Meeting About Changes at School 6 Stirs Concerns Over Political Interference

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PATERSON, NJ – As city education officials attempt to reform one of Paterson’s worst-performing schools, a Board of Education member on Wednesday night warned of the appearance of political influence on the process.

Paterson Schools Commissioner Jonathan Hodges said legislators and politicians recently held a meeting with state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans about a school where "a personnel decision"  was being planned. Speaking during Wednesday’s workshop meeting of the school board, Hodges called the meeting involving political figures and Evans inappropriate if they had discussed details of the personnel issue.

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[Editor's note: This story has been revised in response to complaints by Hodges, who asserted that his comments were not accurately depicted in the original version.]

Hodges would not discuss specifics of the situation, but just about everyone at Wednesday’s board meeting knew he was discussing School 6.

Students at School 6, on Carroll Street in the heart of Paterson’s 4th Ward, have some of the lowest scores on standardized tests in New Jersey. The school this spring was the target of a scathing report by state education department assessment team. The New Jersey Department of Education has warned that the school may be shut down or taken over by a private company if improvement is not made in the next three years.

Word spread through the 4th Ward last month that Evans planned to appoint a new principal at School 6 and that he was considering terminating the old one, Clifton Thompson. But Thompson had only been at the school for less than a year and community leaders and activists thought firing him was too harsh a step, officials said. Thompson came from the neighborhood and had won praise for his ability to relate to students from the area, officials said.

Evans last month agreed to discuss the situation at School 6 with community representatives, including Assembly members Benjie Wimberly and Shavonda Sumter, former school administrator Joseph Fulmore, president of Paterson’s NAACP chapter Kenneth Clayton and Board of Education President Christopher Irving.

“It wasn’t political leaders, it was community leaders,’’ said Irving.

 Evans declined to discuss details of the meeting, but he said the session did not change his plans for the school. Evans said Wednesday night that he is still finalizing his strategy to improve the school and he acknowledged that changes would be made in the staffing at the school.

Other school officials said a new principal likely would be appointed. But, they also said, Thompson would remain on the district’s payroll in another job.

Thompson once had been a teacher at the school and later was appointed athletic director at Eastside High School. Thompson left Paterson to take an administrative position at a high school in Newark, officials said. He returned to School 6 last fall as principal, more than a month after the academic year had started.

Without discussing specifics, Hodges said he agreed with the position taken by the people who intervened on the School 6 issue. But he warned that Paterson has suffered from bad decisions made in the past because of political interference. He also pointed out that Evans, as a state-appointed school chief, was more susceptible to political interference than superintendents would be in other districts.

“If this is allowed to happen once, it will happen again by other people,’’ Hodges said.

Hodges said he was upset that school board members involved in the meeting did not go through other channels to get information about the personnel decision, such as attending a meeting of the board's personnel committee. Hodges pointed that in the past, he has filed ethics complaints with the state Attorney General's office when he felt officials improperly responded to a personnel decision. In this instance, Hodges said, he would not file a complaint because he believed the involvement by officials did not impact the personnel decision made by Evans. 

None of the other board member made public comments in reaction to Hodges’ statements.

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