Schools Chief May Face Ouster Vote
Suzanne Russell | My Central Jersey
PERTH AMBOY — When Superintendent of Schools Janine Walker Caffrey was hired to lead the special-needs district of 10,000 students last year, it was with the understanding that she would bring change.
“They hired me to be a change agent. They hired me to improve achievement in this district. They hired me because I’m outspoken, because I want to make reform happen,” Caffrey said.
Caffrey said that during her job interview, they talked extensively that there would be a lot of heat, that when you start moving a district that has been untouched for years, it’s going to get tough.
“And I asked them, ‘Are you sure this is what you want? Because if you hire me, this is what you are going to get.’ They knew what they were getting,” she said.
But now, less than a year into her three-year contract, some Board of Education members apparently are looking to oust Caffrey.
A special meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, in the meeting room at the district Administration Building, 178 Barracks St.
Board President Samuel Lebreault said he couldn’t comment on the purpose of the special meeting.
“It’s a personnel matter,” he said.
Caffrey, who has been at odds with Lebreault for much of her time in the district, said she has been notified by her attorney from the New Jersey Association of School Administrators that the board has 11 allegations against her and is looking to enter into negotiations for a separation agreement.
“They want me to resign,” said Caffrey, whose contract runs through June 2014.
Caffrey makes about $175,000 a year. Her contract, with bonus incentives, health care and a car, is worth about $600,000 over the three years, according to school officials.
The allegations, which she characterized as “ridiculous and some of which are complete fabrications,” relate to not meeting with building principals until last week, giving board members late notice that she had a speaking engagement before a state Latino organization on teacher tenure and late notice to the board about the district’s debate team being honored by the City Council.
Caffrey said she met individually and in small groups with principals last summer and again as a group on Sept. 1. She since has had many meetings with principals, she said.
Caffrey said she’s not legally obligated to notify board members when she will appear at a speaking engagement but does so as a courtesy.
And Caffrey said she sent out a notice about the debate team’s appearance the night of the council meeting when she learned about it from a teacher. She said the city had arranged the team’s appearance, while she arranged for the team to appear before the school board.
Caffrey said the board wants to fire her because the notice went out late.
“Is that the most insane thing you ever heard?” she asked.
If she doesn’t agree to negotiate a separation agreement, Caffrey understands that the board has enough votes to put her on paid administrative leave immediately, hire a special counsel to investigate the charges, move to terminate her and hire a successor, she said.
Caffrey said she’s stunned by the planned actions.
“To say you are about kids and to do something like this is unconscionable,” she said.
Mayor Wilda Diaz, who faced an unsuccessful recall attempt months after taking office, wants the state to investigate.
“It’s a great injustice,” said Diaz, adding that Caffrey is trying to make tough decisions that don’t please everyone.
“They need reform and that’s what she’s doing. I’m supporting her. She’s trying to do the right thing. They are just trying to get rid of her because she is doing her job. Change doesn’t happen overnight. I believe in her heart she wants to do what’s right for the children of Perth Amboy.”
A message left with the state Department of Education was not returned.
Lebreault, said he voted last year to appoint Caffrey as the district’s superintendent but declined to comment about what changes might have led to the board’s reconsideration.
“I don’t do this in the media,” he said.
When the former superintendent retired last year, the district sought change to deal with the struggles related to the theft of $2.6 million in an insurance scheme and the low test scores, especially at the middle school level — issues that Caffrey said she’s trying to fix.
But she claims Lebreault has been fighting her since she took the job. She said he has pressured her to hire people at every level of the organization, which she considers illegal interference in the hiring process.
“I dug my heels in deep for every time he tried it. I established very quickly that I would not be compelled to hire anybody at the directive of the board president,” she said. “He’s more concerned about hiring his friends as bus drivers and food-service workers.”
Lebreault defended his position.
“The community where a school board operates should be looked at first for district employees as long as they are qualified and have a clean record. Our community should be looked at when hiring for any position. What better way to serve the community,” he said, adding that people who live in the district have a stake in its success.
He said Raritan Bay Medical Center and the school district are the two largest employers in the city. The district has about 1,400 to 1,500 employees and an additional 400 to 500 substitute teachers.
Caffrey also has cooperated with an investigation surrounding alleged abuses of the free school lunch program.
School administrators reported to Perth Amboy police in February that the original application for the free school lunch program filled out by Lebreault, who works in the engineering field, had been stolen from the districts files.
A copy of the lunch application was recovered and placed in police property. The Perth Amboy police report indicates that the investigation was turned over to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said he could not confirm or deny the existence of a school lunch investigation in Perth Amboy.
Lebreault said he’s a very competent person but declined to address the school lunch application issue in the media.
Shortly after the district began cooperating with the investigation, Caffrey said, Lebreault began compiling a list of complaints about her that she viewed as direct retaliation for her cooperation.
She said Lebreault also has taken issue with not being invited to participate in a meeting arranged by the mayor with the head of New Jersey School Development Authority, which is the body responsible for building schools in special-needs districts.
Diaz extended the invitation to board member Mark Carvajal, who serves on the building and grounds committee and has expressed an interest in the prospect of a new Perth Amboy High School.
Caffrey said Lebreault also has attacked her about errors discovered on a field trip form.
She thinks he is coming after her in an effort to make her go away “because he can’t control me.”
Caffrey said she’s at a point where she doesn’t think she can work effectively with Lebreault and is considering filing ethics charges against him for interference in the hiring process and retaliation for her participation in the school lunch probe and the School Development Authority meeting.
Board member Israel Varela doesn’t think the board has tried to bully the superintendent but suggested that her approach puts others in fear.
He said there is a “my way or the highway” approach that harkens to the days of former Mayor Joseph Vas, who is in a federal prison after a corruption conviction.
“We can fix the problems, but not with bullying — not the Joe Vas way,” Varela said.
Board member Kurt Rebovich Jr., who supports Caffrey, views the move to oust the superintendent as politically motivated during a year in which the mayoral and two City Council seats are up for election.
“It’s all nonsense,” Rebovich said. “The action being taken is a waste of taxpayer money. Nowhere else in our state are people buying out contracts, especially with our governor.”