Superintendent reflects on 5 decades of service
The word interim may be attached to Melindo A. Persi's job title, but the Brick Township public schools superintendent doesn't approach his work that way.
"People say to me, 'Why are you working so hard? You're only an interim,'" Persi said last week. "But everybody's interim. That's why they don't bolt down the nameplate on your desk. I'm just a little less interim than you are."
Persi, who has more than 50 years of experience in public education in New Jersey, has been Brick's interim superintendent since July, after Thomas L. Seidenberger resigned.
"My only regret has been that I came here at the end of my career," Persi said. "The people here have a real investment in the district and the Board of Education and central administration are really working well together. I'm having a wonderful time."
To that end, he's already assisted the Board of Education in commissioning a strategic planning study and a demographic study, along with hiring an architect to evaluate the district's buildings.
"Our buildings are in need of remodeling and renovation," Persi said. "The buildings are not equipped for modern programs and they inhibit program expansion."
Persi said he was pleased with the response from the Board of Education and the community in preparing a plan for the district's future.
"The whole board really got behind it," Persi said. "And we had 350 people turn out to volunteer for the strategic planning committee. That says a lot about this town."
The development of a strategic plan for the district is only the first part of Persi's vision. Finding his replacement is the second step, he said.
"In order to ensure longevity of a superintendent, you have to have a plan otherwise you have conflict between the board and the superintendent," he said.
But school districts often do the opposite and hire a superintendent who has his own agenda that may not mesh with the Board of Education's direction.
That's why the average superintendent's tenure in New Jersey is 2.5 years and why 55 out of the 600 school districts in the state currently have interim superintendents, Persi said.
A successful superintendent needs to be able to find the right balance between the Board of Education and the school district, Persi said.
"I'm right in the middle," Persi said. "I often say I have a day job and a night job. My day job is working with the administration, teachers and students and my night job is working with the Board of Education."
Career spans five decades,
The painting that hangs on the wall of Mel Persi's office in Brick's central administration office has followed him through 12 New Jersey counties during his long career.
"That painting has been with me through thick and thin," Persi said of the Paul Detlefsen painting titled "School's Out." "I bought it at a furniture store in Seaside Heights in 1963 when I first became superintendent in Washington Township. It's my security blanket."
The painting's a bit tattered and even stained, after the roof leaked on it in his office in Edison. But Persi said the painting still reminds him of his first teaching position.
Persi began his professional career as a teacher in Franklin Township, Warren County, teaching seventh and eighth grades in a one-room schoolhouse that had an outhouse in the back.
"Kids would tell me, 'I have to go out back' and I had no idea what they meant," Persi recalled.
He then moved on to Washington Township in Mercer County for a teaching and assistant principal position. It was there Persi first realized he was suited more for another job in education.
His first superintendent position came at age 26, when he was hired by Washington Township, a K-8 school district with about 600 students at the time.
"I like being a leader and I give 250 percent to making things better," he said. "The superintendent job is more challenging because you can affect more people's lives every year."
During his tenure in Washington Township, Persi oversaw the closing of the one of the district's two schools and the construction of a new building.
After Washington Township, he spent the next 11 years as the assistant superintendent of schools in Madison in Morris County, where he also served as the Board of Education secretary and coordinator of
the child study team.
From Madison, Persi went to work for the state at the New Jersey Department of Education.
For the next 15 years, Persi worked in a variety of positions, including the county school business administrator in Morris and Warren counties.
Persi turned a budget with an $8 million deficit into a balanced budget in just one year by securing a $4 million loan and implementing good business practices as the
fiscal monitor for the
East Orange school district.
While he was the Passaic County superintendent, Persi was the fiscal officer for the Jersey City school district state takeover. He led the state takeover of the Paterson school district as the acting assistant state commissioner of education.
"That was a very difficult time," Persi said. "Our house was bombed with eggs. People threatened us."
Elmwood Park was Persi's next stop, where he was superintendent in the Bergen County K-12 district for 2.5 years. There he implemented a strategic planning process, established a middle school and laid the groundwork for an ambitious building plan.
"Edison was a challenge," said Persi of the state's sixth largest school district, with 17 schools and 13,500 students. It was his last permanent job.
Persi established an education center and implemented a staff development program during his four-year tenure in Edison that is still in place today.
"We would still be in the 1980s if it weren't for Mel Persi," said Gloria Dittman, a former Edison Board of Education member. "He truly is a visionary. He brought in dynamic programs, the best personnel and was truly dedicated to the kids."
Although Persi officially retired from the Edison school district in 1998, he hasn't exactly been idle.
"When you rest, you rust," Persi, 70, likes to say.
He has been an educational consultant for a number of different firms and has started his own consulting firm, MAP Associates LLC. He has also spent a year working as an interim superintendent in both Plainfield (2002-03) and Willingboro (2005-06).
Persi first came to Brick in November 2006 as the district's interim business administrator. He filled in for Nicholas C. Puleio, who left to become the state's financial monitor for the Camden school district.
And when Seidenberger left in July, Persi performed double duty as interim business administrator/interim superintendent for a brief period, until the district's permanent business administrator, James W. Edwards, was hired.
By law, Persi's stay in Brick can last no longer than two years. But he's appealing to the state Legislature to change the law as long as there is a need for him in the district.
"I'd like to finish what I've started here," he said.
Persi is also a member of numerous professional and service associations and is currently the executive director of the New Jersey Association of Former County Superintendents - known as the "21 Club," for the number of counties in the state.
"You've got a good man there," said William Suriano, a former president of the Edison Board of Education and the current assistant director for Education Leadership at Seton Hall University. "He always does what's right for the kids, despite political people who would want to do something else."
Stock car racing is his hobby
"If you do this job well, you're never home," said Persi, who can often be found in the district offices on the weekend catching up on paperwork. "The job really is 24/7."
When Persi does manage to step away, he divides his time between his homes in Ortley Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he enjoys reading and boating.
He also enjoys stock-car racing, something he inherited from his father, who was a car owner when Persi was a child growing up in Trenton.
"I didn't play sports," Persi said of his childhood. "I learned to drive when I was 10. We spent the weekends traveling to races all over the East Coast."
Persi had the chance to get back into a stock car again and drive at Lowe's Motor Speedway on a recent trip to Charlotte.
"I really let that thing out," said Persi, whose speed topped 140 mph.
If he developed a love of racing from his father, it was his mother who inspired his love of education.
"My mother graduated from Trenton State College in 1929," Persi said proudly.
Persi, who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Trenton State College and a master's degree in education from Rutgers University, said that there are 13 people in his family who are teachers.
Persi and his wife, Dr. Maureen J. Persi, a retired elementary principal, have two grown children and four grandchildren.
"When I look back, I'm pleased of what I see behind me," Persi said of his career. "I'm pleased that people are still doing what I implemented during my time in their district."