di Battista: District 'Made Me Who I Am'
Superintendent ends career with West Morris Regional on Feb. 29 after 34 years.
The next time a decision needs to be made at 4 a.m. about delaying or closing school because of inclement weather, Superintendent Dr. Anthony di Battista will be fast asleep, not having to worry about making the call.
After 34 years of service to the West Morris Regional High School district, di Battista will enter retirement when the workday ends on Wednesday, Feb. 29.
di Battista, who announced his retirement on Dec. 2, 2011–halfway through a three-year contract–has spent the last six and-a-half years as the district’s top administrator. He held the position of Director of Curriculum for seven years prior to that, and as a history teacher at Mendham High school for his first 20 years in the district.
The administrator’s ascension to the top spot in the district has humble beginnings, though, as di Battista credits the education system for not only teaching him, but saving his life.
The son of a hard-working mason father and Italian immigrant mother, English is di Battista’s second language, as Italian was the native tongue in his Garwood, NJ household growing up.
“Public education was vital for me,” di Battista said. “It was important in my home, and it’s what allowed me to survive in the world. It literally saved my life.”
di Battista knew at an early age his calling would be to give back to the industry that intrigued him so much.
“I gave a book report on the "Lord of the Rings" during my junior year in high school,” di Battista said, smiling. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”
The lifelong educator said that beside his picture in his yearbook from senior year is a statement that reads, “In 10 years I want to teach high school history.”
Onward and Upward
di Battista achieved his dream and went on to surpass it. He received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Rutgers University, where he has been teaching history part time for the past 15 years.
The Mendham High School teacher seized an opportunity when the district’s director of curriculum position opened up, bypassing administrative positions within the building.
“The position gave me the chance to speak to different audiences,” di Battista said. “I missed classroom teaching, but it opened me to a different type of instruction in the district, and I’m so grateful to the board and (then superintendent) Dr. Henry Kiernan for the opportunity.”
Just seven years later, di Battista was again presented an opportunity, this time to take over as the district’s leader and superintendent. But for whomever was hired, the job wasn’t going to start off easy.
di Battista, when hired as the schools’ chief, inherited a $34 million construction project in the form of an addition at West Morris Central High School. The addition was the single largest building project in the district’s history.
“We had a solid board and building committee,” he said. “We had great help from the administration and for the most part had no problems during the process. And the best part–there was no litigation involved at all.”
As the top administrator, however, the buck stops at di Battista’s desk, and his tenure wasn’t all bright spots.
After a failed budget vote and massive cuts to state aid prior to the 2010-11 school year, the district was forced to eliminate 33 positions between the two schools.
di Battista says it was the worst moment during his 34 year career in the district.
“When it was decided what we were doing, I asked (administrative assistant) Debbie McGrath if we had a copy of a RIF (reduction in force) letter,” di Battista said. “We didn’t have one on file. The district never had to do this before.”
di Battista believes, though, the district has gotten through the worst of the problems with budget cuts.
“We have to stay within the 2-percent (tax levy cap), and the aid allows us to grow,” he said. “Class size was struck with the cuts and that’s what we’re working on.”
The regional district is slowly working its way back from that unprecedented cut, receiving an increase in state aid for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, and allocating money toward class size relief and restoring teaching positions.
Under di Battista’s leadership, the district has implemented the International Baccalaureate program, and has worked with the current administration–including his successor, former director of staff development Mackey Pendergrast–about expanding the program to all students in the district.
'Assault on Education'
Over the past few years, a small contingent of residents from the district’s municipalities has raised concerns about the funding formula used to operate the high schools.
It’s a valid concern, di Battista says, but one that is cyclical, and likely based on economic conditions.
“These are the same questions raised today that were raised in 1958, ’66, ’73, and so on,” he said. “People have become exasperated by the economy, and recently there seems to have been a political assault on education.
“Before, people didn’t really begrudge the cost of education,” di Battista continued. “But when the cost of your home and your finances are affected, the complaints are more concerted.”
Pendergrast, also a former Mendham High School history teacher, will be working closely with di Battista in the days leading up to the superintendent’s retirement.
“I’ll be speaking with Mackey a lot, especially about snow days,” di Battista said, smiling.
The teaching won’t end here, though, as the Rutgers professor will continue his part-time instruction at the college on Thursday.
“My entire career has been incomprehensible,” di Battista said. “I’m so lucky. I love this district and I’m loyal to it. It’s helped make me who I am.”
And as colleagues and former students have attested, it’s di Battista who has helped make the district what it is today.