Newark, NJ: A city where the school administration has church leaders who serve as PTO presidents arrested on the basis of... what, exactly? Reports from school security officers that don't mention assault?
At some point, we'll get to Dr. Hardrick's rather -- interesting, shall we say? -- past*. For, now, however, let's do a little comparing and contrasting. Because I read this story and I got to thinking...
Out here in the white, leafy suburbs, parent interaction with schools administration usually involves a pleasant chat over a warm beverage. Administration goes out of its way to solicit parent opinion and advice. Why? Because administration answers to its school board, and that school board answers to the voters, many of whom are parents.
Now, there's no denying that there are times when the system breaks down. Corruption can rear its ugly head anywhere and at any time. That was allegedly the case back in 1995, when the state took over NPS:
I'm not going to re-litigate the failings of the previous school board; let's agree, for the sake of argument, that the board wasn't doing its job and the state had to intervene. But that was nearly 19 years ago; have any other New Jersey school districts seen, since that time, large-scale failures of governance? (all emphases mine)The takeover comes almost exactly a year after the state released a 1,100-page report chronicling the failings of the local district, where only one quarter of the students who took the 1993 high school proficiency test were able to pass on the first try.The report said the nine-member elected Board of Education, which was also dissolved today, appeared more interested in the spoils of office, like cars, junkets and flowers, than in focusing on falling test scores, poor attendance and crumbling schools where sometimes even toilet paper was in short supply.City officials wanted a chance to rebut those charges during formal hearings, but the takeover was accelerated by an administrative law judge, Stephen G. Weiss, who ruled last April that conditions were so bad that they warranted immediate action.
Michael Ritacco, the once-powerful superintendent of the fourth-largest school district in New Jersey, will spend most of the next decade in a prison cell.
Calling it the worst case of public corruption he’s seen, U.S. District Court Judge Joel A. Pisano today sentenced Ritacco to 11 years and three months in federal prison and fined him $100,000 for bilking Toms River schools, setting up inflated insurance contracts and extorting up to $2 million from the brokers as kickbacks.
"It takes the cake," said Pisano, who in 2001 sentenced former Camden Mayor Milton Milan to seven years in prison for corruption. "Milton Milan was like nickels and dimes compared with this."
"I’m glad it’s over," said Alex Pavliv, a member of the Toms River school board who won election last year on an anti-Ritacco slate. "I think there clearly was a lack of oversight and hopefully this era is (behind) us and we can set about rebuilding this district for the children and taxpayers of the township instead of the crooks."Hamilton:
Seeking to recover losses from an insurance contract scam, the school board tonight unanimously voted to consider suing former insurance broker Marliese Ljuba; Allen Associates, which was the company she represented; and current health insurance provider AmeriHealth.
According to the motion brought forward by board Vice President Joseph Malagrino, board attorney Joseph Betley will “investigate any probable cause for further legal action in connection with any wrongdoings in regards to school district health insurance matters,” between 2011 and 2012.
School officials believe they may have paid millions of dollars more than necessary owing to a wide ranging bribery scam that allowed Allen Associates to consistently win the district’s business without proper bidding procedures.
The state Department of Education withdrew $25,000 of state aid last September as a penalty for awarding negligent contracts to Allen Associates without a proper open process.
During her testimony at Bencivengo’s trial, Ljuba testified to having a cozy relationship with district officials, and current and former board members to ensure she maintained her lucrative contract with the district.Elizabeth:
The latest sorry twist in the Elizabeth school board’s streak of outrageous misdeeds, authorities announced last week, is a scheme to cover up fraud in the school lunch program.
That is, more fraud in the school lunch program. Because the last time this board made headlines, it was when its president, Marie L. Munn, got caught getting free lunch for her children at school that she was not entitled to — and lying about it.
Now, authorities say the wife of another board member, John Donoso, did the exact same thing. Donoso told two attorneys associated with the school board, Kirk Nelson and Frank Capece, that he wanted to fix this so he wouldn’t end up like Munn, according to the state Attorney General’s Office. All four are now charged in a cover-up of the fraudulent applications after the board’s records got subpoenaed by the state.
It’s yet another example of the corruption festering in this district, one of the state’s largest and poorest. Starting in May 2011, The Star-Ledger detailed a host of allegations against the Elizabeth school system: fraud, nepotism, conflicts of interest, questionable fundraising, political shakedowns.
Apparently, the feuds and intimidation even extend into the classroom. Last month, 15 students who work as canvassers for state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a long-standing rival of board President Tony Monteiro, were yanked out of class by the vice principal, one by one, to be interrogated about their political activity.
But laughably, the Elizabeth school board has concluded there is no such culture of corruption — after paying a half-million dollars to a law firm to investigate it.Here's the latest on what's happening in Elizabeth. Keep in mind that the Elizabeth BOE was pretty much a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Christie administration.
West New York:
West New York Board Of Education members sat on a darkened stage tonight as Superintendent of Schools John Fauta read a blistering state report claiming Mayor Felix Roque and his allies in the school district controlled hirings, firings and demotions.
"So help me God, no outside influence is going to penetrate this district,” Fauta said before reading highlights of the report with stoic disgust.
The report was compiled by the state Department of Education with the FBI. The report also alleges the mayor strong-armed employees to buy $2,000 tickets to his political fundraiser.
The state DOE's Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance (OFAC) began its investigation in July 2012 after being alerted by the FBI -- which was investigating Roque on a separate matter -- to concerns of inappropriate political involvement in the hiring practices in the school district.
Roque and his son, Joseph, were charged with computer hacking as a result of the FBI investigation and are scheduled to go on trial in July.
Among the DOE's claims is political involvement in the school district led to the hiring of town Commissioner Ruben Vargas in December 2011.
Vargas was hired as an assistant to the supervisor of transportation at $40,000 per year, but when asked by DOE investigators, Vargas could not describe his job responsibilities or his hours of employment, according to the report. Vargas met few, if any, of the qualifications for the job.
The report said Vargas told investigators he does not have a high school diploma or GED, is not computer literate, has no prior experience needed for the position and could not identify any skill or experience that would support his hiring.
Fauta told investigators he hired Vargas because he felt it would be difficult to properly manage the district if he didn't, according to the report.
The report says Roque manipulated the hirings, firings, demotions and promotions through intermediaries like Clara Brito-Herrera, the assistant superintendent for educational and personnel services, and Allan Roth, the assistant to the director of special education.
According to the report, former Memorial High principal Scott Cannao was demoted to assistant principal after he declined to buy a $2,000 ticket to a fund-raising event for the mayor.
The report also states that teachers and district staff complained to Fauta that they were being solicited to buy tickets during school hours and on school grounds, which is not allowed.Lakewood:
The Lakewood Board of Education’s dealings with some of its largest vendors have been plagued by lax oversight and questionable contracts over the years, an Asbury Park Press investigation has found.
In one case, the school board paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for grounds-keeping and school custodial services — before work was done.
In another instance, the district paid $10,000 to Michael I. Inzelbuch, the school board attorney, for an unspecified reason as part of the sale of a former public school building used for the district’s administrative offices to Beth Medrash Govoha, a prestigious rabbinical college in Lakewood, according to the settlement statement.
In addition, it appears that the school board paid tens of millions of dollars to an educational company that provides nonpublic students with a wide variety of services without anyone in the district verifying the accuracy of the company’s bills, according to the current school board attorney, Stephen J. Edelstein.
Edelstein, whose Whippany-based law firm replaced Inzelbuch as board attorney in April after the election of two newcomers swung the board’s balance of power, said some of the terms of the district’s contracts with vendors may conflict with state statutes.
Edelstein said he has referred some of his concerns to the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance, an investigative and auditing arm of the state Department of Education.
“I am not saying there was mischief, but undocumented payments open the door to mischief,” Edelstein said.
Such lax oversight is not unusual for the Lakewood School District, which has a long history of running up budget deficits and other instances of fiscal mismanagement.
In a 2010 report, State Auditor Stephen M. Eells found numerous instances in which bills were paid without proper documentation, and sometimes even without the school board’s approval. Eells even informed law enforcement officials about $5,000 he said was improperly used to pay for purchases at JC Penney and other businesses. Eells said he has not been notified that any action has been taken in that matter. When Eells followed up his audit in 2011, he found that most of his recommendations for tightening fiscal controls had not been implemented.Garfield:
In Garfield, the president of the Board of Education has seven relatives working for the schools, including the superintendent. Half of the district’s 30 administrators have a relative working for the district, with many having multiple family members on the payroll. In the school year that just ended, relatives of trustees and administrators earned a combined $2 million in salaries.
But when does Garfield’s established reputation for operating like a family business cross the line into unethical behavior that violates state statutes? This week, an administrative law judge will weigh in on this question with a case that revolves around allegations of nepotism, political patronage and school board members who pushed administrators to hire certain people.
And ironically, the case was triggered by a scathing ethics complaint filed by one of the school board president’s own relatives — the superintendent, Nicholas Perrapato, whose wife is a $100-per-day substitute teacher and whose cousin is the medical director at $65,500. Perrapato, who believes some nepotism is not a bad thing, says he was compelled to file his complaint when the behavior became so egregious it was hurting the education of the district’s children.
“Our hands were tied with anything we wanted to do, and the kids were losing out totally,” Perrapato said as to why he filed a complaint against five of his own board members. “They were really putting a stop to the process of education.”
The hearing, scheduled to start Thursday, will examine Perrapato’s 2010 complaint against five board members: Dr. Donna Koch, Nickolce Milevski, Rosemarie Aloia, Edward Puzio and Anthony Damato. Perrapato alleged that these board members expected patients, relatives and campaign supporters to be hired by the district and pushed administrators to remove employees they did not like.
Only Milevski and Puzio remain on the board, and they could face censure, suspension or removal from their positions based on a judge’s ruling, said Patrick English, a Clifton-based attorney representing Perrapato.
“I’ve never seen a situation as egregious as this one,” English said. “What prompted this was the board members deliberately did not adhere to ethical guidelines, such that it was really negatively impacting the district. It was an enough-is-enough type of situation.”Let's be fair: the state did appoint a fiscal monitor for Garfield, who remains on the job for at least another year. But is anyone seriously talking about a full state takeover of Garfield? Not that I've seen.
In every one of the cases above, an ineffective school board either allowed malfeasance to occur under their watch, or allegedly participated in unethical behaviors themselves. Yet none of these school boards have been taken over by the state, and only one board has to report to a state fiscal monitor.
How can this be? Why is Newark under state control, but these other districts are not?
Well, how about that? Looks like Newark has many more black students as a percentage of their population than the other districts. Any other clues?
Yes, Lakewood, Elizabeth, and West NY all have comparable free lunch-eligible populations to Newark. But, as I noted above, Elizabeth has been run by a school board closely allied to the Christie administration. And Lakewood is a case unto itself. In any event, Newark's student population has significantly more poor children than Garfield, Hamilton, and Toms River; further, it has a far greater proportion of black students than any of these other districts, all of which have demonstrated questionable governance.
It's time to start speaking frankly about this state of affairs. The good people of Newark are being subjected to a school restructuring their elected officials say they do not want, implemented by an administration their elected officials do not support. At the same time, all over the state, school boards that have been inept at best and corrupt at worse retain the right to manage their own districts while Newark is denied this privilege. Is this because Newark is a district full of black, working-poor citizens?
You tell me.
"... I don’t care about the community criticism," Christie said. "We run the school district in Newark, not them."
ADDING: Look at the quote under Christie's picture again:
"We run the school district in Newark, not them."
Keep that in mind while we take a trip back in time to the heady days of Chris Christie's 2010 War on Teachers. Way back then, the governor would take state-paid helicopters to nakedly political events so he could make statements like this:
"And when one teacher was asked, "What are you doing here today? It's a Monday in the school year." She said, 'Oh, we got a substitute. I left a plan; it's not like they're watching videos or something.'
"'They.' Not like 'they're watching videos or something.' I thought that was a really interesting part of the quote. That contraction: 'they're.' They didn't say 'the kids' then, did they? No, they only use the words 'the kids' when they want to evoke an emotional response from you which will get you to open your wallet and pay them.
"When they're talking about protesting and fighting in Trenton, then it's 'they're.' 'They're watching videos or something.' I thought that was an interesting part of the quote. Language matters, ladies and gentlemen. Language is a window into attitude. And this isn't about the kids. So let's dispense with that portion of the argument."So, by Christie's own standards, the use of the pronoun "them" indicates his attitude toward the community that is protesting his hand-picked state superintendent's actions. In Christie's own words, his use of a pronoun tells us: "This isn't about the kids."
*ADDING MORE: Uh-oh -- looks like Bob's already looking into Tiffany Hardrick's past:
Oh, my. Well, if Newark doesn't work out, maybe there's a job available in Toms River. Or Hamilton. Or Elizabeth. Or West New York. Or Lakewood. Or Garfield...