Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fighting Over Crumbs at the School Board

Last night’s Board of Education meeting for the Matawan-Aberdeen School District was painstakingly long but chock full of interesting tidbits. Sadly, tidbits were all we got.

The single largest item was the audit. Though technically dense, there were some very disturbing findings. In a sampling of purchase orders, twenty-five percent were either blank or for non-earmarked items. The board and auditing firm did their best to assure the public that there was no evidence of fraud but, to the contrary, this is strong evidence that there is fraud. Someone looking to buy party supplies for his kid’s birthday could easily generate a purchase order and list stationery. As far as the auditor is concerned, there’s no sign of fraud because the money is accounted for. Slopping bookkeeping in the school system could easily lead to widespread pilfering that would be undetected by an ordinary audit. Normally, the school administration budgets more money than necessary to stay on the safe side. In this instance, due to “sloppy bookkeeping” there was a $134,000 shortfall.

The auditor also mentioned a $1.7 million shortfall in the listing of capital assets. Once again, the board tried to reassure the public that this was only an “accounting” item that didn’t affect revenue, expenses, or cash flow. Nonsense. Capital represents long-term assets that depreciate over time. If this capital depreciates at a 5% annual rate, then we’d be underestimating our cost projections by $85,000 per year.

Other little morsels included Ex-Superintendent Quinn shaking down the school for $5,000 in order to cooperate in some arbitration hearings. Then there was the $6,000 for five school administrators to attend an educational conference in New Orleans.

When asked why the schools were spending over a $100,000 a year on extra-curricular advisors rather than use community volunteers, Interim-Superintendent Glastein explained that the schools were contractually bound to pay teachers for these advisory positions even if qualified volunteers were willing to do the work for free.

The board also decided that, in addition to the $28,000 spent this year on the school's new website, the district would spend another $1,880 to instruct teachers how to best make use of the site.

Glastein’s new contract was also reviewed. Even though the new position is only temporary, the board felt he deserved a $7,000 raise rather than a one-time bonus to cover his expanded duties until a new superintendent is found.

As is customary for the board, none of the “objectionable” expenditures were rejected but rather tabled for reconsideration.

Dr. Gambino, the newest member on the board, asked why the school had not been reimbursed the $24,000 for an assessment exam that was never properly evaluated. The administration explained that the vendor was unresponsive and withheld needed textbooks until the bill was paid.

While interesting and often fun to watch, these sideshows don’t even add up to one percent of the school budget and have nothing to do with the school’s mission, namely to educate our children.

On this point, Dana Egreczky, Vice President of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and President of the Business Coalition for Educational Excellence (BCEE), promoted the BCEE’s new program, LearnDoEarn.org. She stressed the need for requiring students to take more demanding courses, to learn advanced math and science, as this will dramatically impact their likelihood to succeed in life. Egreczky presented an abundance of statistics showing that without more math and science, our students were more likely to fail in college than succeed.

Egreczky’s passionate call for higher standards seemed to be met with a giant yawn. Board Member Gerard Donaghue, in a remarkable display of ignorance, questioned why the school should train its students for high-tech positions when “they’re all being outsourced.” In fields requiring advanced science degrees, the United States is experiencing the largest labor shortage in its history. For an educator to be unaware of this simple fact is stunning. That nobody on the board responded was shameful.

Dana Egreczky was right. We need to raise our standards. We need to mandate that all students take advanced math, science, and language classes. And we need to do it now. This should have been the central topic of last night’s board meeting.

Imagine all the verbs you associate with educators: Teach, Educate, Instruct, Tutor, Train, Develop, Coach, Nurture, etc. You won’t find one of these verbs in the Board of Education’s mission statement. When the school board discovers that it’s their job to teach, instruct, tutor, train, develop, coach, and nurture our children, then we can hope for a better future.
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