León appoints Newark school district veterans to oversee academics, facilities, and student support

A year after forcing out officials hired by his predecessor, Newark superintendent Roger León is staffing up again — promoting principals and other district veterans to fill leadership positions he says are crucial to moving the city’s schools forward.

The new top-level administrators are: Mary Ann Reilly, who will head up teaching and learning; Steve Morlino, the incoming executive director of facilities management; and Maria Ortiz, the new executive director of student life. They join Nicole T. Johnson, a principal who was recently promoted to deputy superintendent, and David Scutari, another principal who will now serve as León’s executive assistant.

All currently work in the district or previously have, a reflection of León’s preference for hiring administrators who are intimately familiar with Newark schools. His immediate predecessors, Christopher Cerf and Cami Anderson, were criticized for filling many top positions with consultants and others from outside the district.

León has also abolished some job titles that his predecessors gave their top lieutenants — including chief strategy officer, chief talent officer, and chief academic officer — and restored departments that were eliminated or renamed, such as human resource services, teaching and learning, and student life. In many ways, León is returning the district bureaucracy to how it looked before Anderson and Cerf arrived.

“Part of what we want to do is take advantage of the fact that I not only know this city, but I also know this organization,” León said at a budget presentation in March where he outlined some of his planned changes.

The school board approved León’s personnel decisions at its June meeting, though León and the board did not discuss the new appointments publicly. Typically, the district posts the agendas of board meetings online so the public can see what items were voted on, including staffing changes. Yet the district has still not posted the June agenda more than two weeks after the meeting.

The latest promotions mean that several more schools will be getting new leaders. Johnson was principal of Elliott Street School in Newark’s North Ward, Scutari was principal of Mount Vernon School in the West Ward, and Ortiz was principal of Luis Muñoz Marin School in the North Ward. And at least six other principals are retiring, resigning, or losing their jobs, according to board documents. No replacements have yet been named publicly.

As the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, Reilly will have a full plate. The role involves overseeing teacher recruitment, curriculum and textbooks, teaching strategies, school improvement plans, support for principals, and more, according to a district job posting.

“I don’t want to call it the brains of the operation, but it is the critical component of what occurs in classrooms in front of children,” León said about the teaching and learning department at a May board meeting.

The position was vacant last school year. That left the previous deputy superintendent, Gerald Fitzhugh II, who stepped down last month, to take on many of those duties.

Reilly was Newark’s literacy director from 1997 to 2001, which involved overseeing English and social studies across the district, according to her LinkedIn account. Since then, Reilly, who has a doctorate in English education from Columbia University, has worked as an administrator in other districts, a college professor, and an education consultant.

After the board approved her appointment at its June 25 meeting, Reilly said on Twitter that she was “joining a dynamic team dedicated to securing better outcomes for all learners.”

Ortiz’s role as executive director of student life makes her the district’s “leader and expert” in student support services, according to a job posting. The student support services department, which did not have a leader for most of the past year, will oversee school counselors, social workers, and attendance counselors, León said in May.

Ortiz will also write the student support curriculum, lead the committee that chooses textbooks, design staff trainings and parent workshops, and collaborate with the heads of the special education and bilingual departments, according to the posting.

After arriving in Newark from the Dominican Republic as a child, Ortiz graduated from the former Science High School and went on to become the city’s first Dominican principal, according to her biography on the district website. A resident of Newark, she is earning a doctorate from Seton Hall University to add to her two master’s degrees. “Her commitment to education is led by her passion for culturally relevant pedagogy, special education, social justice, and bilingual education,” her biography says.

León brought on Morlino as a consultant earlier this year to advise the district on managing its facilities and help write a five-year building plan to replace one that expired last month. He previously worked in the district for 15 years overseeing facilities and other departments. Most recently, he oversaw the facilities for Paterson Public Schools before he was fired in May; Paterson officials did not disclose the reason for his termination.

Now, he will have his hands full trying to rehabilitate Newark’s aging school buildings. Many are plagued by crumbling roofs and outdated electrical systems; and despite a court order saying New Jersey must repair or replace Newark’s schools, the state has mostly allowed them to deteriorate.

“The majority of our schools are requiring repairs that go from basics to major health and safety issues that are of great concern,” León told state lawmakers in March.