Hurricane Pummels Hopatcong

Superintendent Ponders Aftermath

Students might think that  the closing of Hopatcong schools for two and a half weeks is an inconvenience on their summer schedule. They might even scowl at being asked to give up Martin Luther King Jr. Day or stay in school longer during June. If you asked me, however, I would take that deal in a heartbeat; we students have it easy! We have none of the headache that others are forced to deal with after Hurricane Sandy, such as Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Charles Maranzano.

Maranzano is faced with a setback in trying to figure out what to do with the school schedule. He is not without experience, however; when he worked in Virginia, he was confronted with a very similar situation when Hurricane Isabel hit in 2003, knocking out power and closing schools for two weeks. Knowing that the high school would be turned into a shelter, he assumed that school time would be severely disrupted, especially after the damage became apparent.

“It’s going to take a measured, careful approach,”  Maranzano said. He sent letters to high ranking government authorities, including the governor. New Jersey law mandates a minimum of 180 school days each year, with the year completing by June 30th. In his letter, Maranzano argued that days could be made up with hours, through overtime. One theoretical solution would be to add time to each school day, so that over a period of several weeks the district would  make up ten days of time. This is especially important when one considers the set dates for state testing and AP exams. “Those dates aren’t going to  float because we’ve had a storm, so I’ve got to make sure that you get instruction prior to those test days,”  said Maranzano.

The ideal approach would be a combination, by both extending the school day and “stealing” other holidays, to accelerate the time lost while still giving the school spare time that might be lost in the winter to come. This has to be approved by the governor, of course; but there needs to be an innovative and flexible answer because more than half of the districts in the state had their schedules disrupted by the storm. Another creative solution would be to start the year before Labor Day, which would give the school another week earlier on.

Dr. Maranzano also discussed his future plans to disaster-proof the schools. “We don’t have a structural problem in terms of trees and electric wires on campus,” he said. He reminds us that the schools’ electrical lines are buried, something which dramatically reduces the impact of hurricanes and other freak weather occurrences. In terms of infrastructural stability, he says that Hopatcong schools are well ahead of the curve. One example of this he gave me was the district’s cloud-based Google Mail system, which allowed him to communicate directly with the entire faculty when a local system would have stripped him of that capability. Maranzano also praised the parent alert system, installed four years ago, for giving him the same power to keep parents of students updated throughout the crisis. Referring to  the damage done to Lenape Valley’s roof, he pointed out that our schools are lucky enough to have had their roofs updated, and added that they are relatively isolated from tall trees.

The talk about infrastructure led to one about generators. We all know how costly–and sometimes dangerous–it can be to run one of these machines. But we also know how miraculous they can be. “That high school generator really was a lifeline for the community,” Maranzano reflected. Coincidentally–and luckily–it was installed a month before the storm. Moving into the future, he hopes to obtain a similar device for the administration building, which would allow him to take more control in communication and maintenance. Generators at each school, he said, would be an effective solution, but a costly one too. Budget caps and inflation, as well as a strain on educational resources, may hinder this development for the near future.

The solar panels installed last year unfortunately do not help much in crises like Sandy. “One would think, boy, you got solar panels; you should have electric, but it doesn’t quite work that way,” Maranzano said.  ” The power company processes excess electric generated by our solar field and when the power grid goes down, the power cannot back feed into the grid. The solar field shuts down by design in order to avoid a catastrophic event downstream from the power grid,” Maranzano added.

The shelter, Maranzano pointed out, was first established on the request of CERT, Hopatcong’s Community Emergency Response Team. In the beginning, the school used its own staff and resources, feeding residents with their own food and supplies shipped in from the other district schools. “We had to improvise for two days,” he said, pointing out that the school took on most of the responsibilities that the Red Cross would normally concern itself with. After that, however, the County asked to utilize the school as a regional shelter, and the Red Cross was brought in. CERT and Red Cross had to work together, with neither assuming total control, and school personnel completed the triangle. Americorps contributed their own young men and women to assist in the efforts.

But the running of the shelter, Maranzano said, was not as effective as it could have been. “Because you had these three agencies involved, there was a lot of tension at times about decision-making, and a lot of push and pull.” He explained that the Red Cross was uncomfortable with a number of the choices made, especially one to have animals in the building. “If [the Red Cross] ran the shelter, you wouldn’t have dogs here,” he said. There was also confusion about the food; the Red Cross was supposed to supply the provisions and manpower, but when they fell short a number of times, the school was forced to use its own stock and workers.

“The kitchen functions fell largely on our shoulders and that was not supposed to happen,” Maranzano  said. It was frustrating to not be completely in control of your own building and decisions, he suggested, and having to take orders from others.

“We’re a shining star for Hopatcong, and certainly for the area,” Maranzano said. He acknowledged the praise that Fox News gave, and admitted that in such difficult times there is no room for ego or traditional chains of command. You have to be flexible, and keep the greater good in mind. Recognizing all the effort that readily came forward, Maranzano offers his thanks and praise to members of the custodial and facilities staff, the Mayor and Council, the Red Cross, the CERT team, and the Hopatcong Police.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *