Former superintendent returns to Orange’s school district

Photo by Chris Sykes
Orange Board of Education special attorney Stephen J. Edelstein addresses the Orange City Council members at the reorganization meeting on Thursday, July 6, in the City Hall’s council chamber, while those in attendance listen, including former Superintendent of Schools and current interim Superintendent of Schools Ron Lee, seated left in the second row of seats, and West Ward District Leader William Hathaway, seated first row.

ORANGE, NJ — Former Orange Superintendent of Schools Ron Lee has stepped into the role of interim superintendent of Orange’s schools, giving a presentation at City Council’s reorganization meeting on Thursday, July 6, about the new Science Technology Engineering and Math Academy the school district is planning to open in the old Mary Lawn School building, on the border of Orange and South Orange, which had been purchased through the Orange Education Association, using money the city raised by floating bonds.

Lee had filed his retirement papers with the Orange Board of Education at one of its regular meetings on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, in response to the board pulling his employment contract for review and reconsideration for possible termination, although he still had a year remaining.

This decision by the Orange Board of Education to terminate Lee’s employment was met with a great deal of criticism by the public, and Lee was rehired, but that didn’t stop him from retiring at a special meeting on Monday, Jan. 23, before BOE President Cristina Mateo.

“He publicly retired. His last day was Dec. 31, 2016,” said Mateo at the special meeting on Monday, Jan. 23. “Right now, because we’re in the process of changing from Type 1 to Type 2 (school district), it has taken a lot of time from the board, but eventually we will start advertising and we’re going to go through training with the entire board in regard to a superintendent search and the process of searching for a superintendent and then we will do whatever needs to be done. Right now, Dr. Howard is in charge of the school system.”

Superior Court Judge Tom Vena, however, used the state of disrepair the school district had fallen into during Lee’s tenure to justify his decision to overturn the results of the 2016 vote on Public Question No. 1 that voided the Orange Board of Education special election on Tuesday, March 28, to elect school board members for the first time in Orange.

In ruling against the City Council in favor of the Orange Board of Education, Vena said the list of outstanding facilities problems; deficiencies and inadequacies throughout the Orange School District, including broken boilers, dangerous school playgrounds and more, met the standard of “imminent harm” to students so it was justifiable to void the special election and overturn the results of Public Question No. 1.

Attempts to obtain a copy of the resolution approving the bonds to fund the Orange public schools capital improvement project and the purchase the old Mary Lawn School by press time this week were unsuccessful. According to deputy city clerk Madeline Smith, the Record-Transcript will have to file an Open Public Records Act request for this information.

According to at large Councilwoman Donna K. Williams, the council majority voted to approve that resolution in June.

“We voted to approve the resolution to pay for the capital improvements in the school district that the Orange Board of Education said they needed, the same way that we voted to approve the funding the first time around, after a majority of city voters went to the polls last year and voted in favor of having an elected school board, by switching from a Type 1 district to a Type 2 district,” said Williams on Friday, July 7.

“But the school board and Mayor Dwayne Warren’s administration said that first resolution was no good, because the voters had voted to change to an elected board so the city couldn’t issue bonds to raise money for public schools anymore and the kids were going to be hurt because of that but that wasn’t true.

“The board could have put a question asking voters to approve, issuing bonds to pay for the capital improvements on the ballot for the March 28 special election, but they chose not to do that and instead paid a lawyer to come in and go to court, to have the will of the people and the majority of voters that came out in November 2016 and voted to approve Public Question No. 1 overturned, which also voided the March 28 special election, and that meant that the city was once again able to issue bonds to pay for things for the school district, so we did that at our June meeting and we also added in money to pay for the purchase of Mary Lawn School.”

New Orange Board of Education President E. Lydell Carter said he was glad to have Lee back working in the district.

“It absolutely is an interesting time, but I think that, with the efforts and the cooperation of the members of the board, who all have a desire to see improvements happen, to make the necessary changes where that needs to happen, but also support the things that are working out well, that we’ll have an opportunity to take Orange to new heights,” said Carter on Thursday, July 6.

“I have a belief in the idea of continuity. I think, with so much transition and challenges that were happening to the composition of the board and whether it was going to be an elected or an appointed board, that having more upheaval in terms of bringing on someone new who needed to learn the nuances of the Orange school system, make their way around the administration and get connected to all the players in town would be an effort that we didn’t need to take on, at this time.

“Mr. Lee stepped back because he had some personal issues and medical issues to deal with his family and that was the reason why he stepped back. He’s back now with us. He’s always kind of stayed connected and I think, in order for us to really move on these projects that are critically time-sensitive, that we need someone who knows the layout, who knows all of the players so to speak and hopefully will allow us to reach our goals as quickly as possible. I think it’s really important that we strike the iron while it’s hot, so that we can make the necessary steps to continually make improvements throughout the education system, both K-12.”

Former Orange BOE President Pat Arthur agreed with this sentiment.

“I’m happy Mr. Lee is back,” said Arthur on Thursday, July 6. “He came to this district six years ago with a vision. He brought the school district from down to up. His work was not completed. He introduced us about the S.T.E.M. program and the S.T.E.M. school. I’m happy he’s back to complete the work he started.”