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School Board Members Disappointed in Evans' Performance at State Hearing

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PATERSON, NJ – State-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans came under criticism from Paterson Board of Education members who said he failed to convey the dire needs of city schools during a legislative hearing on Wednesday.

Board president Christopher Irving said Evans seemed to adhere to Gov. Chris Christie’s “party-line” and “didn’t want to ruffle any feathers” by painting a far rosier picture of Paterson’s school system than Irving said it deserves. “I left the meeting disheartened and disappointed,’’ said Irving.

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Board member Jonathan Hodges said Evans did a “profound disservice” to the district by not responding candidly to legislators’ inquires about the physical conditions of Paterson’s schools and the impact of state-funding cuts on the city’s education system. “Our needs weren’t served by some of those responses,’’ said Hodges. “By ‘our,’ I mean the students.’’

“I just think it was a missed opportunity,’’ said a third board member, Manuel Martinez. “These were the legislators who could go back to Christie and lobby on our behalf and we didn’t take advantage of it.’’

The board members made their comments during their workshop meeting on Wednesday night, hours after the legislative hearing. The criticism came from three of the five board members who attended the hearing. Irving asked Evans if he wanted to response to their comments. He chose silence.

The situation highlighted Evans’ precarious situation as the state-appointed superintendent in a city where many education advocates and school board members see state government – especially under Christie – as unresponsive to the needs of Paterson students.

Under state control of the city school district, the New Jersey education commissioner appoints Paterson’s superintendent and controls the terms of his contract. Hodges acknowledged that the situation was “awkward” and “unfavorable” for Evans. Irving said, “I understand who pays your bills and who signs your check.’’

Evans, whose salary is $215,000, was appointed as Paterson’s superintendent in 2009 when Jon Corzine was governor. Last year he received a new contract from the Christie administration. Twice in the past two years, the city school board had unanimously approved resolutions endorsing Evans’ reappointment.

At times, board members have disagreed with Evans’ initiatives, such as the Innovation Zone program, and they have asserted that he seemed to be following orders from Trenton in implementing some of his reforms. But usually they aim their criticism at Trenton. Wednesday night’s comments from the three board members represented a rare public display of displeasure with Evans.

The hearing in question was conducted by the state’s Joint Committee on Education, a panel of senators and assembly members. During the session, which was held at International High School, Evans delivered a 46-page Power Point presentation outlining the status of his efforts to improve city schools. The board members did not seem to have a problem with that part of Evans’ performance. In fact, Hodges called Evans’ presentation “extraordinary.’’

But board members clearly were upset with the way Evans responded to inquiries from legislators. Hodges referred to one series of questions from Sen. Nellie Pou in which the legislator from Paterson highlighted some of the problems in city school building. “She was there for five minutes trying to give you an opportunity to pain a clear picture of our facilities’ needs,’’ said Hodges.

At one point Pou asked Evans about numerous health and safety violations at School 4. Hodges said Evans should have told the legislators that funding constraints have prevented the district from resolving a severe backlog of school repair work orders. “They didn’t hear any of that,’’ Hodges said.

Hodges also targeted Evans’ comments during the hearing about the process for Paterson regaining local control of its schools. During the hearing, Evans said, “It’s been made crystal clear to me that in order for local control to occur we need to significantly improve student achievement.’’  But during the evening school board meeting, Hodges said that Evans’ comment was not fully accurate. Hodge asserted that test scores are just one component of the evaluation system that the state is supposed to use to determine whether the school board should regain control of city schools.

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