Union City: School district poster child for waste

Lawmakers under rare but strict orders to cut government spending fumed Thursday after an audit revealed a slew of wasteful spending at the Union City school district, including paying school bus drivers six hours of overtime a month to charge their cell phones.

Assemblywomen Marcia Karrow, R-Hunterdon, and Alison Littell McHose, R-Sussex, obtained the audit before Thursday’s Assembly Budget Committee hearing where state Education Commissioner Lucille Davy testified on the department’s budget.

The audit, which covered three school years ending in 2006, revealed the Abbott district paid $345 per month for each of 39 cell phones and paid bus drivers six hours of overtime a month to charge them. Five drivers were paid overtime ranging from $39,000 to $73,000 per year. Other spending showed $1,700 for a LCD television in the human resources office and $11,600 to advertise a new school opening.

Republicans used the audit to complain about the state’s school funding formula, which is slated to send $149.2 million to Union City this coming year, compared with a local tax levy of $15.4 million, and the power wielded by Union City Mayor and state Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson, who appoints the city’s school board. But it also drew bipartisan outrage.

“It was never once my intention with that formula to give a bus driver overtime to plug in a cell phone,” said Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, the budget committee chairman. “That is beyond the pale. It is outrageous. It is offensive. It is what everyone is frustrated with in government.”

Karrow asked what the Education Department was going to do about the situation.

“If these were my employees and I gave them cell phones and they didn’t charge them up and there was kid left behind on a bus or I needed some help or if there was a delayed opening, I’d fire them instead of giving them overtime to keep them charged,” Karrow said.

Davy said the arrangement was part of a contract between the district and drivers and that the schools superintendent, who came to the district after the contract was in place, was renegotiating it and implementing other reforms highlighted in the audit, which was given to the district last fall.

“We agree it is not appropriate, but there was a contract that was negotiated,” Davy said. “We’ll have to look at what we can do, if anything.”

The audit was one of 25 commissioned by the state at a cost of $370,000 a piece. Officials said the audits have led to greater scrutiny and oversight of districts as well as pointed out places to look for inefficiencies.

The tenor became partisan when Karrow questioned the whole setup in which Stack, a grandfathered dual office holder, appoints the school board and holds senatorial courtesy over the county superintendent empowered to oversee this type of spending.

“Who is watching the henhouse here?” Karrow said.

Stack couldn’t be reached at his Senate or mayoral offices Thursday afternoon.

Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, D-Union, the Democratic Party state chairman, tried to temper the partisanship by noting waste and corruption occurs throughout the state.

“None of us like it, but this isn’t unique to one school district, or one type of school district,” said Cryan, adding “what this really is, here, is a bad contract.”

Republicans on the Senate budget committee, which had a hearing with Davy Monday, asked for another meeting with the commissioner about the audit.

Gregory J. Volpe: gvolpe@gannett.com

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