Part 1: After More Than 15 Years With District, O'Neill Closes Book on Chatham Career
Departing superintendent looks back on accomplishments, challenges over the years.
Jim O'Neill said when he wakes up on Friday, he has a plan.
"I'm going to take my son's car into the dealership," O'Neill said Monday. "Just so I have something to do."
The day would have been a holiday for him anyway, except for one thing. Friday will be the first day in more than 15 years that O'Neill will not be an employee of the School District of the Chathams.
Looking Back on the Memories
O'Neill came to Chatham in December 1996 as the new principal of Chatham High School. He became an assistant superintendent less than four years later and superintendent three years after that.
During his tenure in Chatham, O'Neill said he has seen the population grow while simultaneously the academic achievements of students improved.
"It’s almost invariable, as your pool becomes larger, that the norm decreases and goes down," O'Neill said.
Yet in the nearly 16 years that O'Neill has been in Chatham, while the student population grew from approximately 2,700 to more than 4,000, he said that the percentage of graduating seniors attending top universities has grown from about 66 percent to 75.
"I think that we would have been happy if the district stayed the same, and our performance has actually increased," he said. "I think that's something to be proud of."
Schools and State
At the start of the 2010-11 academic year, O'Neill said two of the biggest challenges the district had was the continued student enrollment growth and the new 2-percent tax levy cap, which Gov. Chris Christie lowered from the previous 4-percent cap. He did not anticipate then that Christie's cap on school administrator salaries, which was then only a proposal, would prompt his retirement.
With the school year closing, O'Neill has similar concerns.
"We're growing more than we expected," he said, referring to the fourth-grade class, which currently has 14 sections with 25 or 26 students in each class. In his last Board of Education meeting as superintendent, O'Neill recommended to the board that they create another section of fourth grade to help reduce the class sizes.
"Kindergarten and first grade are a little problematic also [for 2011-12 class]," O'Neill said. "It's not that the whole grade is full, but that in certain schools it's full."
For those younger grades, O'Neill believes a cost-effective solution would be to send some children to a different school other than the one they live closest to, instead of adding a section.
"When you create a section, it's at least $50,000 to $55,000 for a teacher, $12,000 to $15,000 for benefits," O'Neill said, and with the two percent cap, "We can't just keep creating positions that we can't fund."
The cap also makes it difficult to invest in the kind of technology that O'Neill thinks is essential to shaping intellectually curious and passionate students. A teacher's ability to adapt and utilize technology in the classroom has been a big factor in O'Neill's hiring. He said he had "never seen anything change the dynamic of a classroom the way that Smartboards have," and teachers should have the abilities to make the most of that technology.
"I would tell you that our standards are high enough for teachers now that I'm not sure I would hire me when I was a teacher," O'Neill said. "And I think I was a pretty good teacher, but I didn't do what we require of teachers nowadays. We didn't have the technology."
Part of O'Neill's legacy, he believes, is in the teachers he hired during his years as superintendent who remain with the district as he departs.
"There were other times in this [district]'s history where I would have come along and I would never have had a chance to hire people, and nobody could have come along at a time that had as many people to hire as I did," O'Neill said.
With the 2-percent cap on budgets, O'Neill thinks districts will have a difficult time investing in that kind of technology. Chatham has made large investments in the past, which O'Neill says have "paid dividends." He cites the fiber network system that the district installed. "Even though we spent $500,000 or $600,000 to install the phone and Internet, what happens now? We own that. We don't pay anything internally. ...
"We save money every month because we put that in. Over the course of time we'll have more than paid off what it cost us to put that in," he said. "With the two percent cap, I don't know how schools could invest in technology like we did."
Other changes made to the way school districts run, from salary caps to the health care and pension reform bill which Gov. Chris Christie signed into law on Tuesday, have O'Neill concerned about the future of New Jersey schools. "I'm not sure that New Jersey will continue to be as attractive a place to teach in as it has been in the past," he said.
Though he agrees some kind of reform was needed, O'Neill said he found the bill "much more anti-labor than I thought the Democrats would have supported. ... I don't know why the Democrats didn't put forth their own bill."
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series looking back on Superintendent Jim O'Neill's career with the School District of the Chathams. Click here for Part 2.