PATERSON, NJ – City schools superintendent Donnie Evans has been offered a three-year contract extension and a raise that would put his salary at $215,000, a state education department spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
Evans’ current contract with the New Jersey Department of Education expires in August and until now officials in Trenton had made no public comment on his fate.
[Editor's note: This updated version of the story includes new material from Board Member Errol Kerr, Paterson Education Fund President Irene Sterling, teachers union president Peter Tirri.]
Tired of the revolving door of superintendents in the past decade that they say has stymied attempts to fix Paterson’s troubled school system, Paterson Board of Education members twice in the past 15 months passed resolutions calling for Evans’ renewal. The City Council also has called for Evans to be rehired.
“This is good for stability for the district,’’ said Board of Education President Christopher Irving. “But until I see the terms and conditions, it’s hard to say what reassurance this is.’’
"Dr. Evans has given us increased numbers in terms of our state test scores,'' said veteran school board member Errol Kerr. "He has worked very hard to bring academic achievement to the district.''
"Evans understands and is interested in building community,'' said Paterson Education Fund President Irene Sterling. "He understands that broken communities produce broken schools.''
"We're glad to see that the drama over his reappointment has been eliminated,'' said Peter Tirri, president of the Paterson Education Association, the union that represents the districts teachers and other employees.
Under Evans’ direction, the district recently has embarked on a sweeping reform plan that includes the end of the district’s controversial practice of social promotion for students not making the grade, the reconfiguration of some of the city’s worst schools, new evaluation systems for teachers and administrators, the reorganization of the district’s administration and the creation of several magnet schools.
Several board members said they were glad Evans would be in place to guide his plan through implementation.
“Right now, with everything that’s going on, we don’t need somebody else coming in who doesn’t know what’s going on,’’ said Paterson Schools Commissioner Corey Teague. “To replace him now would cause a lot of disarray.’’
“That’s welcome news,’’ said Paterson Schools Commissioner Manuel Martinez. “I feel Dr. Evans is doing a really good job in the district and we need the stability of having him back. We’ve been put behind the eight ball in terms of having so many different superintendents over the last 10 years.’’
Evans, who previously had been superintendent in Providence, R.I., came to Paterson in May 2009. He is the fourth different person to hold the position in the past decade. One of them, Dennis Clancy, served as interim superintendent for two separate one-year stints, officials said.
Under the system of state control of Paterson schools, the New Jersey education department hires and fires the district’s superintendent. When asked for comment from Evans on his renewal offer, Paterson Public Schools spokeswoman Terry Corallo said she would defer to acting state education commissioner Christopher Cerf. “Once he makes a formal announcement then we will comment,’’ said Corallo.
Cerf did not issue any statement yesterday morning on Evans’ renewal. Education department spokeswoman Barbara Morgan disclosed the decision in an email in response to queries from PatersonPress.com.
Evans’ reliance on Cerf’s approval for a contract renewal has placed him in a difficult position, caught between the Christie administration’s education policies and Paterson education advocates who disapprove of them. In several instances in the past year, school board members and advocates have argued that Evans implemented programs that Cerf wanted that they said were not in the best interests of city students.
For example, Evans’ initial reform plan included the possibility that the district would lease space at School 28 to a charter school, something fiercely opposed by several board members, the teachers union and School 28 parents. Also, the Innovation Zone reform program that Evans launched a year ago was voted down by the school board because members saw it as being imposed by Cerf. Evans used his powers under state control to implement the Innovation Zone despite the school board’s disapproval.
Paterson Schools Commissioner Jonathan Hodges called Evans’ renewal a “mixed blessing.’’
“We’re obviously very interested in the continuity,’’ Hodges said. “But on the other hand, the State of New Jersey has shown a propensity to interfere with his administration of the school district and made it difficult for him to follow his own program.’’
Evans repeatedly has asserted that the programs instituted in Paterson were his own choices and not mandated by Trenton.
"I don't believe that,'' Kerr said. "I think a lot of things that were done in the past six months were induced by state pressure."
Kerr said he thought the state has been meddling in Paterson and has pushed for decisions based "on the financial side of the ledge.''
"They're not seeing the the education side,'' Kerr added. "They want to cut costs and use it for electioneering propaganda.''
Sterling agreed with the board members' assessment. "There's been entirely too much interference from Trenton for the last year and a half,'' she said. Sterling said she expected the new contract would curtail the state's role in dictating policies for Paterson.
Tirri took a similar position. "It's our hope that now he will have the opportunity to get out from under the thumb of the state so he can do the things that are necessary to improve the district,'' said the union president.
Board members said it was important for the state to give Evans three years on the new contract. “If it’s an extension for a year or two, I don’t know that means very much,’’ said Hodges. “You want to send a clear message that this is the person who you want to run your schools.’’
Sterling pointed out that the new contract would extend one year beyond Gov. Chris Christie's current term in office. That factor, she said, would alter Trenton's position regarding Paterson schools towards the end of Evans' contract.
"It's be the first year of a new governor or the first year of a lame duck,'' Sterling said. "Either way, it's a very different situation.''