PATERSON, NJ- With the Board of Education expected to make what Commissioner Nakima Redmon called “the most major decision that has been made in Paterson in a long time” on Wednesday, more than 100 parents, students, educators, union members, community leaders and others turned out to JFK Educational Complex Tuesday evening to hear from the three final candidates to fill the position of Superintendent on a permanent basis. 

The three-hour, and much anticipated, forum, hosted by the Superintendent Search Committee and Rey and Associates, the firm hired by the Board of Education to conduct the nationwide search for candidates, was held, according to Robert Guaraci, Founder and CEO of New Jersey Development Corporation (NJCDC), and also a member of the search committee, because they believed it was “important for the Board to get the input of Paterson residents prior to making such a hugely important decision.”

While all three candidates expressed their passion for education, and desire to be a part of the hoped for turn-around of Paterson’s schools, each brought their experiences and ideas to the audience in unique ways.

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Currently serving as Deputy Superintendent of Achievement and Administration for the East Saint Louis School District, Devon Horton was the first candidate to take the stage. Moving away from the podium immediately, Horton spoke of his upbringing in Chicago, which he likened to the environment of 70’s sitcom “Good Times”, attending Jackson State University to study elementary education, and deciding against taking up positions in places like California and Florida because he “had to go back home.”

Running through a litany of successes he has achieved throughout his career Horton told the crowd “I know what it takes to get it done in the classroom.” Saying that in his first 100 days he would deliver plans on “attacking pitfalls and holes” Horton would close by sharing his belief that “students do not fail, it’s the adults tasked with the responsibility” that are to blame for educational shortcomings.

Taking a much shorter trip for his opportunity to address the community, despite revealing his feelings that, as some have indicated, the selection process is “rigged” and the eventual successful candidate has already been selected, Rich O’Malley, the current Superintendent of the 17,000 student Edison School District, served as the second act of the evening.

Calling himself a “strong instructional leader, passionate about technology,” O’Malley, pacing far up and down the aisles in an apparent attempt to better connect with audience members, elicited some response when he told those gathered that they should “expect more and demand more,” a line he would repeat more than once during his appearance.

O’Malley went on to warn that Paterson Schools are “bleeding good talent” and profess his belief that because he was likely the only candidate to read the District’s full financial audit he knows “where the money is.”

“The work I do is the work needed in Paterson,” O’Malley told the audience.

If Horton and O’Malley were the warm up acts, it was the third candidate that successfully played the role of headliner at the Tuesday forum.

Acting Superintendent Eileen Shafer entered the auditorium to sustained applause, and, after offering gratitude for the manner in which she was “embraced” by Paterson 26 years ago when she started in the District, urged the audience to “look no further.”

Following the same format as the first two candidates Shafer fielded a series of questions on a wide range of relevant issues, offering answers that showed her unique knowledge of the Paterson School District, while interspersing various components of the 127-page plan that she said was developed by “listening and hearing” from students, parents and staff.

Calling herself a “servant leader,” and one that is more prone to action than talking or “puffery”, Shafer said that for her being Superintendent “isn’t a job, it’s a calling.”

Shafer would exit the stage to more applause and was greeted by a line of well wishers, but not before drawing a bold line in the sand and declaring that she would not “give away” Paterson’s 28,000 students and 4,000 staff to “a stranger.”

Saying that “there are so many challenges in Paterson’s school district, and the new superintendent will be critical to our future,” Inge Spungen, executive director of the Paterson Alliance thanked Rosie Grant and the superintendent search committee for bringing the community “three qualified candidates.”  

“Each brings different experiences, but all want to bring positive changes for the benefit of our children,” Spungen said. “I wish the Board of Education wisdom as they make this important decision.”

Among those in the audience on Tuesday was local education activist Corey L. Teague who told TAPinto Paterson that Shafer “asserted herself” and had a “passion” he didn’t feel from the others. She proved, Teague said, that she is ready to “hit the ground running.”

Paterson Education Association (PEA) President John McEntee, whom Shafer referred to numerous times throughout her time with the microphone echoed Teague’s sentiments saying that she brought “energy” back to the room and showed that she is best equipped to “user her experiences to attack problems that come up on a daily basis.”

“Anyone watching,” McEntee said, saw that Shafer has the “real world experience to be successful in a very demanding job.”

The Board of Education is expected to select one of the three candidates at their meeting to be held on Wednesday at the Board of Education Headquarters on Delaware Avenue. The meeting is scheduled to being at 6:00 p.m.