This week, after months of drama and controversy, Dr. Marcia Lyles, Jersey City’s new superintendent of schools, will finally take the helm of the school district on Tuesday, Sept. 4, starting the school year just one day ahead of students, who begin classes on Wednesday, Sept. 5.
Lyles, whose four-year contract with the district was only approved by the Board of Education last week by a vote of six to two, is unlikely to get much of a honeymoon period in her new post. Parents, teachers, school board members, school administrators, and her allies in Trenton will all expect Lyles to quickly chart a new course for the school district that will increase graduation rates and improve student achievement.
But with all of the recent attention focused on the school board’s search for a new superintendent, little attention has been paid to the current status of the district that Lyles will this week inherit.
During the 2011-2012 school year, the Jersey City Public School District had an interim superintendent, Franklin Walker, who guided the district with assistance from longtime educator Cathy Coyle, a state appointed monitor.
Coyle was appointed in January by New Jersey’s then-Acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf to serve as a “highly skilled professional” to monitor school operations, personnel matters, and instruction in the district. Her appointment was somewhat controversial since some parents and board members took the appointment to mean the state was increasing its oversight of the district at a time when many believed the city was regaining local control.
Since January, parents and teachers have questioned Coyle’s role in the district, although in recent months the debate around the selection of Lyles as the new superintendent has overshadowed discussion about Coyle’s function.
Coyle was initially given a six month appointment that ended June 30. Her appointment has since been extended through Nov. 30 and she herself admits she does not know whether she will still have a role in the district after that date.
But Coyle said she is leaving the district in better shape than she found it nine months ago.
Support systems in place
The state took over the Jersey City schools in 1989 due to low test scores. Over the last few years the district was transitioning from state control back to local control, with some district matters under the jurisdiction of the locally-elected school board, and other matters – personnel, curriculum/instruction, and operations – still under the jurisdiction of the state.
“What I’ve tried to do from the time I came on board is give support to our principals,” Coyle said. “Personally, everyone was welcoming to me when I came on board, no matter what they may have felt about my being here. For a long time they didn’t have someone who would stand behind them and say, ‘Is that how you want to do it? If that is what you want to do, okay, go and do it. I will support you. But make certain you are doing it the correct way. Make certain that it makes sense. Make certain it’s for the children.’”
Before her appointment, Coyle said, principals rarely received support from the superintendent’s office under former Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Charles Epps.
“I put back support systems for them so that they can move ahead and do what they need to do,” she said. “Principals can now do what they need to do to run their buildings. Deputy Superintendent Franklin Walker and the assistant superintendents were all working with them, but the superintendent was not.”
Coyle said she also placed special emphasis on the city’s alternative high school, which was set up under Epps to focus on the district’s most difficult students. In her estimation, the school, which has about 40 students, was underperforming. The school now has a new principal and, she said, “We’re hiring people who we feel will support the students. It’s an alternative program. We’ve revamped it by strengthening the vocational training component. We’d like to see this program grow to about 80 students.”
With the help of the school board and the associate superintendents, Coyle also said the district is now “able to hold people accountable for the cleanliness and condition of school buildings.”
In her interview with the Reporter, Coyle spoke often of holding school district staff members “accountable” for their work. While this accountability has not won her many friends, it is clear she believes this tough, no-nonsense approach to education and running the district has put local schools in better shape than they were in a year ago.
When she was appointed, Cole said there were 173 people on medical leave.
“We had legitimate illnesses,” she conceded. “We would never deny a leave for people with legitimate illnesses. But what I did take a look at were people who were trying to use up their sick days and then retire. It costs the district a lot of money to continue to pay a salary for, let’s say, a teacher that is out on leave, and also pay for a substitute, or ‘leave replacement’ teachers. That was costing the district more money than it should have.”
Coyle instituted a policy of reviewing medical leaves every two weeks and a number of people who had been out were forced to return to work. There are now 53 people on medical leave, not including people on parental leave. Coyle estimates the district saved about $30,000 a month in replacement teacher costs alone.
She said she also streamlined staffing levels at the Board of Education’s central office on Claremont Avenue.
In a controversial move, Coyle eliminated 33 positions that were currently vacant and has asked the school board to approve the termination of six to seven current employees who, she said, were earning full-time salaries but were really only doing a small portion of a job description.
Ten additional central office employees were, Coyle said, “bumped back” to their last tenured position before they were promoted to the administration.
“Everybody keeps saying, ‘How can you do this?’ But when you look at eliminating, bumping back, and [layoffs], we saved the district $3.5 million,” Colye said, in defense of the steps she has taken. “You have people who were hired over the last couple of years. But job responsibilities were divided between two or three individuals. So, what we had were individuals that really did not have enough in their positions to do.”
District employee: ‘Not true’
At the Aug. 30 Board of Education meeting, however, people who were affected by these layoffs disputed Coyle’s claims.
“My situation is the opposite of what she’s saying,” said David Lopez, a communications staffer slated to be laid off. “I’m being let go. The person who is being kept is a teacher. She should be in the classroom. She gets paid $28,000 more than I do and she’s on a 10-month contract. I work 12 months for less money. They have to pay her a $10,000 stipend to work summers.”
Lopez has worked for the school district for nine years.
But Coyle countered: “It comes down to efficiency and monetarily we need to put our money into the schools.”
Coyle’s proposed layoffs will save about $500,000 in salaries and benefits.
She also maintains that she has forced several teachers who were doing administrative tasks in various schools back into the classrooms, and has reallocated staff “so that we are using our staff more efficiently.”
This, Coyle said, includes “equalizing” human resources so that schools of similar sizes are given comparable staffs to run their classes and operations.
Representatives from the teachers’ union declined to comment on Coyle’s comments or work for the district since January.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.