ROSELLE, NJ — James Baker was trained as a paratrooper in the Army in the 1970s. He knew something about jumping into hostile situations long before he accepted the job as the superintendent of the Roselle School District six months ago.
“I’ve worked in the field in urban areas for 25 years,” Baker said during a recent phone interview with LocalSource. “I’ve worked for the state, created institutions and agencies. I have a bit of a competitive personality. I like to take on challenges. This certainly was a challenge.”
Baker was the third person to have the job in less than a month, following the resignation at the end of June of Richard Corbett, who served as interim superintendent for about 18 months, and Richard Brockel, who had the job for four days before he stepped down for personal reasons in early July.
Baker came into a district where the school board for the first several weeks of the year couldn’t elect a president or vice president because one member had resigned and the remaining eight couldn’t agree on new hires. Additionally, the board couldn’t hold meetings at times because it lacked a quorum, and the business administrator and his assistant were “relieved of their responsibilities,” prompting a forensic audit that continues in a conference room next to Baker’s office. On top of that, the school board expelled one member because of five missed meetings.
Although he signed a two-year contract as interim superintendent, the 73-year-old Baker isn’t sure he’s destined for longevity.
“I waited three months to put my pictures on the wall,” he said. “I wasn’t sure, with the political issues obvious in town, that I was going to stay.”
His biggest challenge was getting the school board members to understand their role, and his.
“What I find, and it’s not unique to Roselle, is that people get on the board, and they have a misinterpretation of the position. They think they’re in charge, that they tell the superintendent and the staff what to do.
“I had a former mayor call in to the director of special services to influence what was going on with some of the schools. A couple of people were insisting they knew the laws, they knew proper operations or decision for programs and personnel. You can’t have that by law. The superintendent has purview for hiring staff. The board has to approve, but it’s really the superintendent’s call, as are operations.”
A Dec. 17 informational session for school board members with Gwen Thornton, a field service representative from the New Jersey School Boards Association, helped to serve that purpose. However, with three new members joining in January — a third of the board — there could be more work ahead.
With momentum on that issue established, Baker worked to get the basics in order. One of his first hires was in information technology, because the district email system wasn’t working.
“When you look at the hierarchy of needs, you need to have safe, viable environment,” Baker said. “We’re working on that aspect of the district, working on assuring that students in the schools live in Roselle, looking to maximize maintenance and custodial work. We’ve established formal reporting procedures. Every week I get a report, by school, what’s been addressed and what needs to be addressed. The needs are immense.”
Staff members found two new 3D printers in basement of the high school that were not being used. Elsewhere, three sets of fitness equipment and weight machines were located in the middle school, that had been in storage unused for four years.
“I’m not alone in the assessment. There’s lot of work to do. I’m working with a great staff that’s willing to do what’s necessary to make some major changes for the children,” he said. “And the children are responding.”
Baker’s staff now has a schedule so that an IT representative is at every school several times a week.
“It’s not typical now to call in a complaint and have it takes weeks or forever to address,” he said. “We’re looking at smartboards and computers, getting a full inventory. Other people couldn’t find anything.”
The IT hire was typical of a systematic dysfunction in the district, he said, adding that board members or other influencers had their preferred candidates.
“Some of the people they had were not certified,” said Baker, who used his own contacts around the state to find experienced personnel.
Longer-term projects include the budget and enrollment.
“We were late getting in auditors, who are going through all of the records, and they are finding some extraordinary things,” Baker said. “I meet almost daily with auditors, who are in the in conference room next to my office.”
This summer, Baker plans to have all students re-enroll with the purpose of assuring that every student attending Roselle schools actually lives in the borough. He said he believes some students come from as far away as Newark, impacting matters from the budget to class size.
Another issue to address was the lack of after-school programs, like sports, at the junior high school.
Baker does not shy away from the work ahead, but is willing to tackle it as long as he’s wanted.
“The determination as to whether I stay today or tomorrow … I was an airborne officer, a cavalry officer, I can leave at the drop of a hat. That’s one of the positives of my status. If the community wants me here, and supports me, and wants to see more of the things we’re doing, and if the board also supports me, then I’ll stay for the duration of two years.”