Education

Office Renovations for School District's Legal Department Come Under Fire

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PATERSON, NJ – Renovations that would create new offices for Paterson Public Schools’ legal department have drawn fire from several Board of Education members who say the work was being done without their knowledge.

Board members said their facilities committee should have been notified about the project, but was not. Moreover, they say the district’s administration has not told them how much the work would cost.

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“It’s kind of amazing with all the repairs we need done in the schools that they would accommodate the legal department,’’ said board member Corey Teague. “I’d really like to know what’s going on.’’

“I was very surprised,’’ said Jonathan Hodges, a member of the board’s facilities committee. “I was not aware this was going on. I’m looking for an explanation.’’

“I have no idea how much it’s going to cost,’’ said Board President Christopher Irving. “They blew out a whole wing in one area of the building.’’

Board members said they believed part of the work involved the creation of an office for a deputy counsel in the district’s legal department, a proposed new position that has sparked discord between state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans and school board members.

District spokeswoman Terry Corallo said Facilities Director Chris Sapara-Grant said “the district continues to make minor renovations to the 90 Delaware offices as we move some staff/departments around for efficiency purposes.  The area in question was development of space to put the legal team together (currently they are not).”

“The work for this began in the early summer and will likely be completed by April or May,’’ continued the response provided by Corallo. “It is not an urgent project, but something we are striving to do (bringing departments together).  The work is being done with in-house staff.”

Corallo said the costs for the reorganizing of departments are part of the facilities approved budget.  She said the furniture costs are not yet finalized.

When asked late Monday morning whether the district could provide a cost estimate on the renovations for this story, Corallo later responded, “No – because this is not just about the Legal Department.  Several departments have been moved – so if you want a breakdown of this particular one, yes, we need more than five hours’ notice as our Facilities director is a busy man with many priorities and he is not waiting for non-urgent requests from the media.’’

Evans and the school board have been at odds in recent weeks over his plans to reorganize the district’s legal department, especially his plans to create a new deputy counsel position with a salary of up to $150,000.

For more than two years, the district had been operating without a general counsel on its payroll. Instead, those duties had been handled by an outside law firm. Last summer, the district hired Lisa Pollak to be general counsel at a salary of $170,000.

Evans has said that hiring a deputy counsel would save the district money on fees paid to outside firms, which totaled more than $800,000 during the 2011-12 school year. But board members insisted that Evans had not provided sufficient proof that creating the new job would result in savings.

After a heated discussion about the issue on February 6, the board asked Evans to put the position on hold. But on February 8, the district posted on its website an announcement that it would begin taking applicants for the deputy counsel job.

“That tells me that he does not afford much respect to the concerns of the board regarding issues like this,’’ said school board member Errol Kerr. “Where is the urgency? This is not a situation where you have a classroom of kids and they need a teacher.’’

When asked about Evans’ decision to go ahead and begin taking applicants for the deputy counsel job, Corallo declined to comment.

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