GEHR welcomes new Superintendent

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John Keenan HAMILTON TOWNSHIP – John Keenan barely unpacked his things before beginning another new adventure.

Not only did he move from the northern end of the state to the southern end, he also left the top post in one school district to lead another that is triple the size, with one day in between.

For Keenan, the new Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District superintendent, the whirlwind of change is a little stressful and a bit invigorating.

“It’s very difficult to leave a place. It can be overwhelming, but exciting, too,” Keenan told The Current during an interview Monday, July 14, at the district office in Mays Landing. “I’m looking forward to working in a new district and aspiring to new goals.”

Keenan worked in the Northern Highlands Regional High School District in Bergen County from 1998 until June 30, choosing to leave his post with two years remaining on his contract. He said the state salary cap was the main reason he chose to move on.

A state-imposed salary cap, which went into effect prior to the renewal of his three-year contract last year, brought his salary down from $210,000 to $145,000. The cap is based on district size. Northern Highlands has approximately 1,350 students in grades nine-12. GEHR, a mid-size district with 3,550 students, has a salary cap of $167,000.

Keenan’s first day in GEHR was July 1 at a salary of $165,000. His predecessor, Steven Ciccariello retired last month at a salary of $186,559.

“I hope the state revisits the cap. I don’t believe it really creates a savings,” Keenan said, emphasizing that districts lose continuity and stability when they have to go out and hire interim superintendents until they can find replacements.

“Everyone should be evaluated based on their contributions to their job and school district,” he said.
Keenan may have joined GEHR in part for more pay, but the married father of two teenage boys said he is ready to work for it. Students are and always will be his top priority.

“I’ve jumped in with both feet and I have a real desire to learn,” he said.

Comprised of Oakcrest, Absegami and Cedar Creek high schools, GEHR is larger than Northern Highlands, but Keenan said he is up for the challenge.

He has the experience. He began his career in 1994 as a social studies teacher at Bergen Catholic High School and went on to become the assistant principal at Glen Ridge Junior High School, in Glen Ridge, Essex County from ’96 to ’98.

From there he joined the Northern Highlands Regional High School District where he worked his way up from assistant principal in ’98 to principal, and in 2009 led the district as superintendent until leaving last month.

During a recent visit, Keenan’s office was sparsely decorated. A cluster of photos of his sons was arranged next to his computer.

Stacked on the table were binders filled with descriptions of all three high school operations. The volume of papers tells of the research he has begun and still has ahead of him. So far Keenan has learned that the high schools, Oakcrest in Hamilton Township, Absegami in Galloway and Cedar Creek, in Egg Harbor City, are all different.

“Every school does something different,” Keenan said. “That is a good thing.”

Keenan’s current focus is building maintenance, which includes getting air conditioning throughout Oakcrest. Only portions of the district’s oldest high school are air-conditioned.

“I am coming in at a time when all three buildings are a focus for the district,” Keenan said.

Cedar Creek and Absegami have instructional and elective needs, he said. And all three have renovation and maintenance projects that should be completed for the beginning of the school year.

“Opportunities in all of the high schools are tremendous.”

Keenan said the district focus should not only be on college prep, but also maintaining and expanding electives, such as the fine arts, dance, music and culinary classes and other programs to help students become well-rounded and give them the most possible opportunities upon graduation.

“At a time when districts are cutting back, this district has made a conscious effort to keep electives. It is important to be involved.”

Known for his enthusiasm and positive attitude toward reaching school goals, Keenan promised to be accessible and always have an “open door policy.”

He has met with the administrators, teachers and office staff, principals and will meet with other superintendents.

“I believe collaboration is the key to success. We have an outstanding team,” Keenan said. “Our central office, principals, teachers and Board of Education have really been so welcoming.”

One of his major plans for the district is to keep the programs that are working, maintain and repair buildings, grounds and fields, and scrutinize the budget to make sure electives remain and even grow.

The Eagle Scout, assistant scoutmaster and former track and soccer coach is a big proponent of students being active in sports, clubs and organizations.

“The more we can expose them to extracurricular activity, the better. I think when students are involved in activities they are more motivated,” he said. “I want to continue to expand curriculum and expose students to all sorts of careers and possibilities.”

So far, the transition has gone smoothly.

He looked around his office and surveyed the wall space. He joked that he has to put some more pictures up in his “spare time.”

But for someone who has started a new journey, moved across the state and tripled his responsibility at work, he seems to take it all in stride.

“We’ll just have to find out,” Keenan said when asked how well he will settle into his new district. “It’s early on.”

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