Freehold: Districts try to put brakes on spending

FROZEN: Schools chiefs must veto the nonessential

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By Joshua Riley and Jennifer Bradshaw

As of 4 p.m. today, the Freehold Township School District’s budget will be frozen.

All purchase orders — typically filed electronically for the business administrator’s review — now have to be approved by Superintendent William J. Setaro. He will now ask the budget managers to justify the requested purchase.

The new practice is the district’s way of answering the state’s call to freeze non-essential spending for the rest of the school year during the tough national economic climate.

But defining nonessential spending may be difficult for districts, which have complete control over reducing costs.

“What’s essential in the eyes of the state is not always what’s essential in the eyes of parents,” said Middletown schools’ business administrator Bill Doering.

State Education department spokesman Rich Vespucci defined “nonessential” as any expenditures outside of instruction or contracted payments.

Every school district has discretionary spending that can be cut during this “unprecedented hard time,” Vespucci said. The school board should meet the questions and concerns of the public on these spending cuts and how they are to be applied, he said.

At Freehold Township schools, not every item will be on the chopping block. A class trip already booked but not paid for, for example, will still be allowed, Setaro said. He also hopes to go forward with air conditioning projects at the Clifton T. Barkalow Middle School and the Joseph J. Catena Elementary School.

“We’ll certainly be reviewing to see if anything can be cut, (but) we feel that anything we do is essential,” Freehold Regional High School District spokeswoman Ilse Whisner said.

Any cuts would be up to the district’s board of education, she said.

In Middletown, Doering will review the district’s budget along with Superintendent Karen Bilbao for possible areas of a spending freeze.

Some districts, however, had already scaled back their spending.

Toms River Regional School District Superintendent Michael Ritacco said gasoline prices had caused the district to tighten spending earlier this school year. The district plans to cut back by postponing some equipment purchases, copier machines for example, that were recommended but not immediately necessary, Ritacco said.

“We tried to limit our spending to absolute necessity,” he said. “This year’s budget process is going to be extremely difficult.”

In Holmdel, schools have already been implementing spending freezes in certain areas of the budget, such as general supplies, business administrator Michael Petrizzo said.

While the Jan. 16 letter from the state Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy does not come as a surprise to the district, it is a “telling sign” of the times, he said.

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Staff writer Kim Predham contributed to this article.
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Trzeszkowski contract on hold; NJ to look at contracts of other school superintendents

By Gregory J. VolpeGANNETT STATE BUREAU

As part of the fallout over the nearly $741,000 buyout package for one outgoing schools superintendent, the state Department of Education will review contracts for schools chiefs in the 31 Abbott districts and has rejected one recently signed in Plainfield, Gov. Corzine announced Wednesday.

Corzine requested a review of superintendents’ contracts after it was reported that outgoing Keansburg Schools Superintendent Barbara A. Trzeszkowski was to receive nearly $741,000 in severance and unused sick and vacation time.

Keansburg Board of Education members said at their meeting Tuesday that her contract is on hold until a compromise deal can be reached. The state is seeking a court injunction to stop the payments that Corzine has called “an outrageous abuse.” The injunction was not filed Wednesday.

Trzeszkowski is set to collect $556,290 in severance pay — calculated by multiplying her monthly salary by the number of years she has worked for the district — and another $184,586 for unused sick and vacation days.

Those payments do not include Trzeszkowski’s state pension pay of $115,600 a year that she earned in 38 years in Keansburg.

Corzine had authorized seeking the court injunction because, he said, the deal seemed inappropriate when dollars for schools are scarce.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Corzine said state Education Commissioner Lucille Davy will review superintendent contracts for the state’s 31 poorest districts, which include Keansburg.

One of those contracts, set to begin July 1, has already been rejected after Union County Superintendent Carmen M. Centuolo learned that Plainfield signed a four-year pact with a new superintendent, Steven Gallon III, without submitting it for review.

“They did not follow the proper procedure in terms of the contract process,” Department of Education spokeswoman Kathryn Forsyth said. “It wasn’t sent to the county superintendent. There was no review.”

State Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, on Wednesday accused Corzine of sleeping at the fiscal switch in overseeing the state’s Abbott districts.

Citing the State Commission of Investigation’s 2006 report “Questionable and Hidden Compensation for Public School Administrators,” Beck said Corzine had failed to take any corrective action since then, adopting, she says, a “hands off” policy.

“Governor Corzine’s shameless posturing in regards to the Keansburg School Superintendent severance package is outrageous,” Beck said in a prepared statement.

Corzine said he was “troubled” by the Plainfield contract, although it remained unclear Wednesday night what exactly was wrong with the contract. A statement from the governor’s office mentioned “questionable provisions” that included travel, meals and lodging, relocation expenses, life insurance and sick leave.

The only specific examples that Forsyth could provide were that the contract didn’t include a recently enacted $15,000 cap on sick leave and included a provision for the board to pay for Gallon’s medical exam even if he chose his own doctor.

Gallon, an educator from Miami whose contract will pay him $198,000 in the first year, said he was reworking the contract so it complies with state law. He said he wasn’t notified that it was rejected Wednesday.

“I’m working with the board to make sure that we’re in compliance with all the provisions of state statute,” Gallon said. “We want to do that so we can get about the business of educating and uplifting the children of Plainfield.”

Corzine Orders School Chief Contract Review (yeah right)

From our friends at NJ101.5

The state has begun reviewing superintendent contracts in the state’s poorest school districts.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine says he has asked the state education commissioner to ensure the contracts comply with state law and efficiently spend taxpayer money.

The state’s 31 poorest districts receive heavy state funding (like 80% – shouldn’t that come with state oversight?)

Corzine’s move on Wednesday comes after outcry surrounding a $740,000 severance package for the Keansburg superintendent. Corzine has asked the state attorney general to seek an injunction preventing the money from being paid.

But the administration says it began reviewing some contracts in April as a result of new state fiscal regulations, even rejecting a new Plainfield superintendent contract for provisions that provided payments for travel, meals, lodging, life insurance and sick leave reimbursement.

Gov. Corzine pushes Legislation to borrow yet more… $2.5B for school construction. (I guess losing $6B is not enough)

NJ101.5 Radio – Millenium Radio

Governor Jon Corzine insists that requiring voter approval prior to State borrowing is crucial if New Jersey wants to right its fiscal ship. The concept was even one part of Corzine’s doomed four-part toll hike plan, but the Governor is still adamant about the borrowing aspect. This has some wondering why Corzine wants to borrow $2.5 billion for school construction without first asking the voters.

Yesterday in Newark, Corzine pushed legislation to let the state borrow $2.5 billion to restart school construction (the reason that the $6 billion School Construction Corp was created). The move is being questioned by Democrats and Republicans. The program stems from a state Supreme Court order directing that new schools be built in some of the state’s poorest districts. The Governor has informed the high court he would push lawmakers to approve an additional $2.5 billion by June 30 to restart the program, but legislators have yet to schedule action on any bills.

“The program sets aside funding from the (State) income tax to support the bonds,” says Corzine. “Not to just issue bonds with no means of paying for them.” He warns the voters could turn down the borrowing plan, “and then it will either be a choice of whether you raise taxes or crowd out something else in the budget.”

In a March budget hearing, State Senator Gerry Cardinale asked acting State Treasurer Dave Rousseau, “How do you justify what seems to be a split personality with respect to this issue in that it’s bad, but we’re going to do it once more?”

“We were under a court mandate to go back to the court in January with a plan to come up with $2.5 billion worth of money for school construction,” answered Rousseau. “What the Governor has said is for that $2.5 billion that he has talked about that he will pledge to dedicate a portion of the (State) income tax which is already used for property tax relief, to help pay those bonds.”

Cardinale says, “I think it might be wise in this instance to ignore the court throwing us into a position where we are either going to bankrupt the State or we’re going to bankrupt our residents.”

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee has already unanimously approved legislation that would expand State voter approval requirements for issuing public debt. The resolution would place a question on this November’s ballot that would amend the State Constitution to prohibit the State Legislature from enacting any law that authorizes any State agency or independent authority to borrow money that will be paid back with an annual appropriation unless that borrowing is approved by the voters. The full Senate has yet to act on the proposal.

State Senator Leonard Lance is one of the sponsors. He says, “The reason we’re in the fiscal mess we’re in in New Jersey is that for the last ten years we have borrowed unconscionably billions and billions of dollars without voter approval and we have to cut it out……We have dug a tremendous hole in New Jersey by borrowing without voter approval and the way to get out of that hole is to stop digging.”

“Unchecked state borrowing is what has gotten us into our financial crisis in the first place,” says co-sponsor, State Senator Ray Lesniak. “We’ve relied far too much on budget gimmicks and pushed off our financial obligations to future generations. Loopholes that allow State agencies to borrow without voter approval need to be closed if we are going to move forward.”

State Senator Barbara Buono, a Democrat like Corzine is another co-sponsor. She says, “This is an essential step in restoring New Jersey’s long-term financial health……It’s time to cut up the credit cards and borrow only for those projects that have broad public support.” Bouno says she’s “bewildered” by Corzine’s Wednesday event, “It seems violative of the spirit and the intent of the
proposed change.”

Under the resolution, voter approval would not be required if the debt is undertaken by an independent non-State agency and repaid by a third party or if the source of revenue used to repay the debt is required to be appropriated by the State Constitution.

The State Supreme Court has ruled the State must fund the building of schools in the so-called Abbott districts. The Governor says, “I think that we potentially have a constitutional conflict coming that could delay this process an extraordinarily long period of time.”

“The Supreme Court has permitted in the past borrowing without voter approval for school construction, but it certainly has never required that we fund new schools that way,” says Lance. He adds, “We could have a pay-as-you-go system, several hundred million dollars a year for a decade or so. That is preferable to me than borrowing and certainly borrowing without voter approval.”

More than 25 cents out of every $1. …

That’s how much spending auditors said was “unnecessary, excessive or lacking documentation” by Abbott school districts.

From our friends at inthelobby.net

Actually, that’s more than 25 cents out of every tax dollar.

Now, under normal circumstances, learning that the Plainfield school district tried to justify spending $504 on the private rental of a skating park for 144 students by saying students are learning math because they “will have to judge speed, radius of the ring,” would make us laugh out loud.

But these are not normal circumstances.

These are circumstances where Trenton is all but urging the Turnpike Authority to go ahead and raise the tolls.

These are circumstances where as soon as the governor gets done with the state budget, he’s going to unveil “Son of Toll Hike” and try to ram it through the Legislature.

And these are circumstances that despite almost daily pleading for lawmakers to do something to attack the waste in the state budget, to ferret out abuse, and to reform the pension system, there’s more talk about how they have to raises tolls or the gas tax, then there is to recoup tax dollars.

So reading in the Star Ledger that auditors uncovered $83 million in questionable expenditures in the Abbott school districts was nothing to laugh about.

Not when school districts can be so cavalier with our tax dollars that:
  • The Orange Board of Education spent $3,100 in tax dollars for a Christmas party for teachers and support staff;
  • Irvington spent  $6,421 for a school board retreat in Atlantic City; while another 250 purchase orders in Irvington totaling more than $15.5 million were not supported with invoices;
  • In East Orange, the district spent $10,836 for a superintendent’s convocation; $23,834 for 14 Dell laptop computers for board members, and $753 to cover the cost of 34 cakes — with no explanation as to why the cakes were purchased; and
  • Gloucester City spent $6,000 for meals for teachers and administrators.
Now, individually, these might not be large expenditures.

But taken together, what they add up to is the New Jersey taxpayer’s lament. They add up to the fact that our state suffers from a careless disregard of tax dollars.  New Jersey’s government, on all levels, has either forgotten who is paying the bills – or, worse yet, they simply don’t care.

Not every taxpayer or the company they work for can afford Christmas parties.  Not every taxpayer can afford laptop computers.  Not every taxpayer can afford a retreat in Atlantic City.

And one of the reasons they can’t is because the residents of New Jersey are paying too much in taxes.

And we are paying too much because some school districts and municipalities and counties and state agencies and departments forget that every dollar they spend, is a dollar that comes from a family – they forget that every dollar they spend is a dollar less that their neighbor can spend on themselves.

Instead, we hear how the Pleasantville School District is under investigation by the federal government. The Asbury Park School District is under investigation by the state.

And we learn that more than 25 cents out of every dollar that we send to Abbott school districts were  “unnecessary, excessive or lacking documentation.” That $83 million that the auditors cited could keep the state parks open.  It could keep the Department of Agriculture open.  It could go to bridge or road repair.
And when you add that $83 million to the all the other documented waste out there – like the $1.2 billion in MVC surcharges that the state hasn’t collected or the millions it spends unnecessarily in Medicaid or the millions it has spent on school construction – it is appalling that Trenton has the audacity to tell us they need more of our money, without lifting a finger to recoup all the other money that has been taken from us, that hasn’t been spent wisely or well.

We are not naïve. We know that we have to repair the roads and bridges.  We know that we have to pay down the debt, and pay for schools and hospitals and those who need our help. But we are also not fools.  Until they try to recoup what has been wasted, until they show more concern for the taxpayers who pay the bills than their political pals or the special interests they cater to, it makes no sense to give Trenton more of our money, because they don’t respect or honor what they already have.

Oroho: Abbott Audits Highlight Need to Revisit School Funding Formula

Senator Steve Oroho, a member of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, issued the following statement regarding published reports that waste, fraud and abuse are rampant in the 31 Special Needs districts:

“I am dismayed by the most-recent reports in the Star-Ledger and Trenton Times that draw attention to wasteful spending in Abbott districts. It is disturbing that some districts cited for waste and abuse will receive increases of as much as 16 percent increase in their state funding under the new formula that was rammed through a lame-duck session of the Legislature.

“These revelations make it clear the Legislature should revisit the school funding formula immediately. A proper formula would be equitable. State funding would always follow the child and be based on the individual child’s needs, not be assigned based on outdated analysis of which districts are most needy. That has only led to out-of-control spending and a lack of accountability that has produced predictably poor results.

“Schools must be held accountable. Aid must get to the classroom. Too often, it’s diverted to the wasteful uses highlighted in the auditor’s report. That will never be acceptable. It’s past time to adopt a fair school funding formula, with safeguards against waste and abuse.

“It is also imperative that we immediately revisit the way we fund our schools because education is a huge component of our state budget. If we are serious about getting our fiscal house in order, the Governor should put school funding back on the table as part of this year’s budget deliberations.”

RIBLE SHOCKED BY FINDINGS OF ADDITIONAL ABBOTT SCHOOL SPENDING AUDITS

CALL $4,280 FOR GOLF SHIRTS IN ASBURY PARK AN UNACCEPTABLE EXPENSE

“Something is clearly wrong here and it is time that the officials responsible for this spending be held accountable.”

By the way – The audits of all 31 Abbott districts can be found right here at
www.state.nj.us/education
in the finance section. Just for the heck of it, trenton1


Assemblyman David Rible today said earlier this week he was shocked by some of the findings revealed in additional audits of Abbott school districts that were released just one month after an audit of the Union City school district uncovered egregious examples of waste and abuse of tax dollars in that district.

“New Jersey taxpayers send a disproportionate amount of their tax dollars into the 31 Abbott Districts in order to provide a thorough and efficient education for students in those districts,” said Rible, R-Monmouth. “While it has never been demonstrated that the spending in these districts actually results in a better education for students, it has clearly been demonstrated that it results in poor spending decisions and rampant waste and abuse of tax dollars.”

A story in the Sunday edition of the Gloucester County Times reported the findings of a number of audits of Abbott school districts conducted by KPMG LLP in New York. Previously, only the results of the Union City school district audit had been released by the state Department of Education.

Among the findings were that Bridgeton school officials spent more than $10,000 to send staff to conferences, including some in Atlanta, Ohio, Orlando and San Diego, and paid $1,383 to send students to a Double Dutch jump rope competition in South Carolina.

The auditors also discovered that Asbury Park paid $4,280 for golf shirts and jackets for athletic coaches while Gloucester City paid $6,116 for rain jackets for the football team. The Phillipsburg School District used $15,085 to buy banners for their 100th anniversary football game and their 100th game with rival Easton.

Rible noted that in recent years 56 percent of state school aid has gone to the 31 Abbott school districts while the other 580 districts have had to share the remaining 44 percent of that aid.

“We should be doing everything we can to provide a quality education for children in every school district in this state,” Rible said. “But someone will need to explain why school kids in suburban and rural districts have been getting short-changed for the past six years while the Abbott districts can pay for fancy golf shirts and $15,000 football game banners.”

“Something is clearly wrong here and it is time that the officials responsible for this spending be held accountable.”