Thursday, July 29, 2021

Former Jackson schools leader will be Toms River’s new interim superintendent

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Former Toms River Regional board member criticizes decision to halt ethics probe

Former Toms River Regional school board member Robert Onofrietti Jr. has harsh words for the Toms River Regional board.

Jean Mikle, Asbury Park Press

TOMS RIVER — Former Jackson Superintendent Stephen Genco was named Toms River Regional’s new interim leader Wednesday night, and a short time later, a school board majority chose to halt an ethics probe into possible political interference in the ongoing search for a permanent superintendent.

Board members voted 7 to 0 to hire Genco, 56, who retired from his position as Jackson superintendent in June 2020, after 34 years in education. Board member Kathy Eagan and Board President Joseph Nardini did not vote because both have relatives who work in the school district.

Genco, a Brick native, he previously served as superintendent in South Plainfield, assistant superintendent in Jackson, and a principal in Wall. He began his career teaching physics and chemistry.

Genco will be paid $800 a day,  and his contract calls for him to remain as interim superintendent through June 2022, or until the board hires a permanent replacement.

Genco will take over Aug. 1 from Thomas Gialanella, who has led the district since former Superintendent David M. Healy retired Dec. 31.

“I am frustrated we don’t have a permanent superintendent,” board member Alex Miszenko said. “This is where we are at. Dr. Genco is well-qualified for the job.” 

Gialanella said he thinks Genco “will do a fine job and we are fortunate to have him.”

Board ethics probe halted

The unanimous support for Genco was in contrast to the dispute over the ethics investigation, which again revealed divisions on the nine-member board. The vote to halt the investigation, which began at the beginning of the month, was 5 to 4. 

Jennifer Howe, Lisa Contessa, Kevin Kidney, Ashley Palmiere and Eagan voted to stop the investigation, while Nardini, Anna Polozzo, Michele Williams and Alex Miszenko wanted it to continue.

Last month, the vote was 8 to 1 in favor, with only Howe in opposition, saying she was concerned about the expense of an investigation, which would be conducted by the school board attorney’s office. 

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Some members of the public chastised the board for stopping the ethics probe, which was being conducted by the board attorney’s office. Board members would have decided at the conclusion of the probe whether the matter should be turned over to the School Ethics Commission.

“The vote to stop the ethics investigation, I am completely disgusted by,” said Toms River resident John Becker. “..Throughout the last couple of weeks, there have been a lot of rumors and lies about board members. We, the public, deserve to know the truth.”

Howe  made the motion to halt the investigation, saying it was time for the board “to move on,” and work together. She said the penalties for being found guilty of an ethics violation were likely to be minor anyway.

“We need to grow up, get along, move on,” Howe said. “We have better things to worry about. We need to stop talking about ourselves on the board and think about the students.”

Palmiere said she was concerned about the cost the probe, and suggested that a resident could file an ethics complaint if they are concerned about any board members’ conduct.

“If for some reason somebody wanted to file an ethics complaint, they could easily do that and take that burden off our taxpayers,” she said.

Williams, Polozzo and Nardini were clearly angered that the ethics probe was stopped.

“I made the motion last month on the basis that members of the community think we have misbehaved,” Polozzo said. “They think we are crooked and that we have done something wrong…We owe the public an answer.”

“Truth shouldn’t have a price,” Williams said. “We need to know the truth.”

The superintendent search has been mired in controversy since April, when Eagan accused township Councilman Daniel Rodrick of urging her to pressure another board member to change their vote for the next school leader. 

Rodrick has denied that he did anything wrong or attempted to influence Eagan or any other board member. 

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In an email sent in April to Toms River Mayor Maurice B. “Mo” Hill Jr., township council members and Polozzo, school board members Ashley Palmiere and Lisa Contessa accused Eagan of ethics violations.

The email sent by Palmiere included text messages from Eagan to Contessa in which Eagan urged Contessa to reconsider Toms River High School South Principal Mike Citta for the superintendent’s post.

Eagan defended her actions and said “this is not, was not and is not a political statement. … That is why I brought it to be board, because I felt it was becoming too political.”

Speaking at a recent council meeting, Contessa said she and Palmiere and their runningmate, Ken Londegan purchased campaign signs from Rodrick’s firm, Cornerstone Communications, during the 2020 election campaign. According to the Election Law Enforcement Commission, the campaign paid Cornerstone $3,850 for signs.

Contessa claimed she and her runningmates then “parted ways” with Rodrick.

“We owe no one for getting ourselves elected; no one can control how we think or how we vote,” Contessa said.

Jean Mikle covers Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, and has been writing about local government and politics at the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. She’s also passionate about the Shore’s storied music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle,  [email protected]

Source: Asbury Park


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