Without any prior warning, Principal Dr. Lorraine Cella came into Hoboken High School on Friday, Feb. 12 to find her flash drive taken from her computer. Within hours, she was asked to vacate her office.
Over the two previous days, during which school was closed for a blizzard, someone from the district had removed the drive, she explained last week.
After spending over two years in the district and receiving statewide recognition for improving the high school, Cella was leaving to become an assistant superintendent in Plainfield, delving into curriculum issues that are right in her wheelhouse.
“Some of them may have been used to favored treatment and may not be getting that treatment anymore.”
– Theresa Minutillo
She was not forced out of Hoboken, contrary to what some sources had claimed. She said she decided to start a job search last summer, the day former Superintendent Jack Raslowsky resigned his position.
However, she did not expect Friday to be her last day, and she was surprised by how she was treated.
Shown the door
The job in Plainfield is a significant promotion and Cella is excited for the opportunity.
She said she is proud of her two and a half years in Hoboken – “It’s the staff and students that made me look good” – but she is also disappointed in the “not particularly professional” manner in which she says she was dismissed.
She said she had agreed with Plainfield that she would start her job there shortly after Hoboken High got its new principal. The board hired an interim principal, Albert Joy, on Tuesday, Feb. 9, and then it snowed for two days.
Cella did not expect to be dismissed so quickly upon her return.
She said that administrators paid little attention to how such an abrupt transition would affect the school’s operation, not to mention morale.
“It was shocking to people,” she said. “I don’t feel that they really had a handle on things that were going on in the building.”
She isn’t alone; several district employees spoke to the Reporter anonymously, saying that some members of the school board and the current interim superintendent are creating an uncomfortable work environment. They said the tone and manner of Cella’s dismissal were unnecessary, especially for an educator with such a solid record. Cella obtained her doctorate at Columbia University.
However, others say that the faculty are used to being treated with kid gloves, rather than in a businesslike manner.
Faculty members spoke anonymously about Cella’s removal.
“It was a lot of overreaction,” one district administrator said last week. “If the kids didn’t see it, that’s one thing. But the kids saw it.”
“The teachers weren’t happy with the whole thing,” said another district employee. “They were disgusted and discouraged by the way it was handled. The whole staff was taken aback by the way it was done.”
The source added, “I think she did a lot of good things. I’m not saying she was perfect, but I’ve never seen anyone escorted out of the building like that.”
After she left the building, Cella walked north to Interim Superintendent Peter Carter’s office behind the Wallace School to retrieve her flash drive.
She asked him why she was being relieved of her duties in this way. She said that Carter told her, “That’s what they do in business.”
Was the abrupt transition to a new principal a concern for the district? Cella said, “They weren’t interested in that.”
One teacher said the morale of the school was so bad in the week after Cella’s departure that “You could scrape people off of the floor.”
In October, just after he took over as interim superintendent, Carter sent out advertisements for several school positions that people were already holding, including principals, administrators, and other specific positions.
“When he ran the administrative ads,” a source said, “it sent a panic through everybody.”
Cella and other school heads were berated at an early staff meeting, sources said. They complained that the new administration was not taking the time to find out who was performing and who wasn’t; rather, they just assumed everyone was part of the problem.
However, the district had serious problems to deal with following Raslowsky’s resignation, including dismal test scores and some questionable audit findings.
Carter was brought in to change the old-time culture in the district, according to board members, as was new superintendent Dr. Frank Romano, who will take over July 1.
“Some [district employees] have been doing things their way since they came to the district,” complained board member Theresa Minutillo, an ally of Carter. “That may not have been the proper way. Mr. Carter established that all staff follow the same rules. Some of the [staff] may have been used to favored treatment and may not be getting that treatment anymore.”
Carter said changing the culture is difficult, but insists that instilling accountability is his first priority.
The job advertisements were not meant to send any message, Carter said, but rather for him to be prepared should openings arise and to “see what the landscape has.”
Minutillo disagrees with employees who think the administration is using fear as a motivator.
“I don’t think its fear,” she said. “I think he’s holding people accountable. I think what destroys the morale of the district is when some people don’t have to follow the rules.”
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at email@example.com.