Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End-Year Review

My four-year old son has a new trick. He asks you to close your eyes and then sucker punches you in the tummy. The “trick” reminded me of what our elected representatives have been doing to us for years. Over the past year, we’ve witnessed both positive changes and more business-as-usual. I can’t claim the blog has done any good but I am sure of one thing – The next time an official socks us in the gut, our eyes will be wide open and the public won’t tolerate such abuse for long.

As the year’s stats show, traffic peaked in April, sharply dipped in June after I forbade anonymous comments, and then matched April’s peak in December.

Among the top ten articles, school related articles outnumber township articles by 2 to 1. Only three of the top ten were written in the later half of the year.

The issue of school directors lacking a “director’s certification” was easily the biggest story in the past six months and is not about to die anytime soon. New information will be released in January and we still have to see whether any lawsuits or regulatory actions will be forthcoming.

Once again, the least regarded story is that involving affordable housing. The town has granted zoning variances to a politically connected local developer to build unwanted and unnecessary housing despite the adverse impacts upon the community. Yet, my readership appears more interested in who’s using the handicapped parking spaces in front of town hall.

By far, Dr. O’Malley represents the single biggest improvement to our district in the past year. For the first time in recent history, the school district has recognized its mission is academic performance and community service, not patronage.

On the flip side, the township has been a series of disappointments. First Town Manager Brown’s resignation and then Councilwoman Gallo’s resignation. Meanwhile, pay-to-play is rampant and the back-door dealings continue.

The biggest lesson of the year was the school board election. Jan Rubino, with the implicit endorsement and support of the teachers union, solicited campaign contributions from school staff. The scandal was largely ignored and she won in a landslide.

The biggest question mark is BOE President Pat Demarest. She has a commendable record supporting Dr. O’Malley. In everything else, she’s been a terrible disappointment. From ethics, to academic achievement, to staff qualifications, to teacher qualifications, she has steadfastly maintained her position that the minimum legal standards, in all cases, are sufficient for our students and community. Yet, despite her low standards, she publicly opposed Dr. O’Malley’s appointment. Go figure.

As for the blog itself, I am still well below my goal of reaching 5% of all households in Aberdeen. Excluding certain stories, Aberdeener.com often doesn’t pass the 3% threshold. I had assumed a natural organic growth through word of mouth. That hasn’t happened. In January, I plan to promote the site through a bulk mailing and provide a “Best of Aberdeener” page listing the choicest articles.

One thing’s for sure – it’s no longer business as usual. More and more, officials are considering their actions’ consequences. Whereas before they could act fearlessly in the shadows, now they must tread carefully in the light.

I believe the blog continues to do well and I thank my readers for their indulgence and support. I continue to hope the blog will become unnecessary.

May everyone have a blessed year.
>>> Read more!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Affordable Housing for the Rich

On November 11, 2007, I wrote the following:

This November 28th, Aberdeen’s Zoning Board will be hearing two variance requests from Centex Homes, LLC. The Zoning Board Engineer called both requests “intense” devlopments. The agency hired to review the submissions, characterized them as rezoning proposals under the guise of variance requests that would “substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance.” The public opposes the plans because of traffic congestion and adversely affecting our school system and property taxes. Yet, despite the universal opposition to these developments, everyone is afraid they might garner town approval. Why? Because Aberdeen has a history of choosing private money over the public interest.
Once again, the public was right. After several postponements, the planning board granted unanimous approval to both projects on December 9th, which were then approved by the town council on Dec. 16th. Did the “powers-that-be” forget what they said a year ago or do they assume we’re too stupid to remember?

Let’s compare what Aberdeen’s Town Planner, Richard Coppola, said in his September 24, 2007, review and the December 9th Planning Board meeting.

Now: “This is an opportunity.”
Then: “It is our opinion that the proposed condominium residential use is not in conformance with the current Zone Plan of Aberdeen Township and will ‘substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance.’” (Page 15)

Now: “A residential use is more compatible with what is already there in the neighborhood than commercial uses."
Then: The area “is zoned within the ‘HC’ Highway Commercial zoning district; clearly, it is illogical to conclude that the development of this land area for retail commercial uses as zoned will create ‘scattered commercial uses’”. (Page 12)

Now: When asked if the number of units has increased, Coppola answered “The number has actually decreased.”
Then: “The applicant proposes to construct 62 non age-restricted townhouse units . . .” (Page 4) Same as now.

Now: "I recommend that the town adopt this resolution”
Then: “The applicant is required to show an enhanced quality of proof so that the Zoning Board has clear and specific findings that the granting of the requested variance will not cause a ‘substantial detrimental to the public good’ and will not ‘substantially impair the intent and the purpose of the zone plan or zoning ordinance’. (Page 6) . . . “It is our opinion that the proposed condominium residential use is not in conformance with the current Zone Plan of Aberdeen Township and will ‘substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance.’” (Page 15)

Planning Board Attorney Michael Leckstein, the attorney who will spare no taxpayer expense to pursue a groundless suit against a cell tower, supported the plan as well.

According to Mayor Sobel, this is all to fulfill our COAH obligations.

Well, there’s a far easier way to satisfy our COAH obligation – stop using inflated projections that are nearly 70% above the state’s estimates.

According to Aberdeen's 3rd Round COAH Premediation Report, "Aberdeen was required to provide the most recent municipal population, household, and employment growth projections published by the municipality's MPO. The MPO for Aberdeen is the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA)."

Those numbers are 410 households and 310 jobs.

"Aberdeen has projected its residential growth to be 1,089 units and its non-residential growth to be 457 jobs. In accordance with N.J.A.C. 5:94-2.3, Aberdeen's household and employment projections are above the NJTPA projections and therefore have a presumption of validity in the petition for substantive certification." (Pages 10-11)

So, why the sudden change of heart? “The applicant has since changed to RCM Group LLC.”

RCM stands for Rick Cifelli Management.

Though I’ve not researched it, I’ve heard from multiple reliable sources that the property housing the old DMV office on Rt. 34 is owned by the Cifelli family. The DMV (now MVC) then moved to Airport Plaza, the property owned by Vic Scudiery (Monmouth’s Democratic Party Chairman).

The rumor is that the projects are a “backdoor restitution” for the Cifelli family. Personally, I think it’s a bunch of backroom scoundrels wetting their beaks in the punchbowl before the party’s over.
>>> Read more!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What's a School Director?

My apologies for the lateness of this posting. I had hoped to post soon after Monday night’s Matawan-Aberdeen School Board meeting, especially given the explosive nature of the prior article. Highlights from the meeting include the proposed academies, the 7% health insurance increase, and the ethics presentation reviewing the School Ethics Act.

But, to cut to the chase, Demarest pretended she was unaware of any of the issues surrounding the three directors (as if she doesn’t read this blog). When I asked why the board appointed a high school graduate to Director of Technology, Demarest suggested I have a chat with Cathy Zavorskas, as if the two of us were BFFs (best friends forever).

Dr. O’Malley gave assurance that if anyone was unhappy with his child study team, Dr. O’Malley would try to provide an acceptable alternative.

However, the key issues regarding the directors were discussed with Board Attorney Michael Gross. Following the meeting, Mr. Gross was very gracious with his time and provided three administrative cases supporting his contentions that supervisors are qualified to oversee child study teams and that a director’s certification is only necessary when the job description, not job title, demands it.

Out of professional courtesy, and with gratitude towards Mr. Gross, I am withholding final judgment until I have researched the cases. However, please note that I have already communicated, directly or indirectly, with a county certification officer and two special education attorneys. Having done so, I find no basis to retract anything from my prior posting. However, if I find Mr. Gross’s case history convincing, I will certainly retract any and all incorrect statements.

To save people the time of going through the entire video (or having to look at Zavorskas’s frozen scowl), I have transcribed my comments and the responses. Though not perfect, the below is near exact.

Warren: It was recently brought to light that there were three directors who were either appointed or maintained in their positions despite what it seems to be the board’s knowledge they were unqualified for those positions. And I was hoping you could comment on that.
Demarest: I think I would need more information on the directors and their positions.
Warren: In December 2003, Ms. Rappaport and Ms. Pond were both demoted to supervisory status from director and yet, during the last five years, I shouldn’t say that, after they were demoted to supervisor, they were both maintained in a director’s position.
Demarest: Both are the same case. December, 2003.
Warren: December 15, 2003, the board approved that their positions, their titles, their positions, would be changed from director status to supervisor status.
Demarest: Okay, and your question is?
Warren: The question is, can you explain why, after they were changed from a director to a supervisor, were they maintained as directors for the district?
Demarest: And do you know they were maintained as directors of the school district?
Warren: I have documents, sworn affidavits, from Ms. Rappaport that she was a director of special services. She was submitting these sworn affidavits to court hearing involving special ed cases. In the case of Ms. Pond, I have copies of the old website listing her as director. I have an old newspaper article that says when she retired she was a director. I mean, It’s very clear they were maintained as directors.
Demarest: That’s post the ’03 meeting.
Warren: Post the ’03 meeting.
Demarest: I’ll ask the attorney if he has the history of any of those positions.
Gross: The only thing I can respond to in regards to that, there are a couple of things that are not correct in what you said. I want to make sure that we’re correct in what we’re saying. First of all, you’re presuming that the change of title, the official title from director to supervisor was some kind of a demotion. And I’m not sure that there is a demotion necessarily from . . .
Warren: Change
Gross: But you used demotion three times.
Warren: One has a lower pay scale than the other.
Gross: Sorry?
Warren: Because one has a lower pay scale than the other.
Gross: No, it does not. That’s why I’m trying . . .
Warren: A supervisor under the MRAA contract has a different pay raise than a director.
Gross: Currently, but not in 2003, it did not.
Warren: The contract, I believe it was the 2003-2005 contract, I believe there was a difference. I could be wrong.
Gross: I think if you double check, to conclude . . .
Warren: The responsibilities are also different. The director’s considered a higher level of responsibility than a supervisor.
Gross: Not necessarily.
Warren: A supervisor cannot oversee child study teams.
Gross: That’s another misnomer and I know that was misspoken at the last board meeting. And that continues to be misspoken when you say it again and that’s why I want to set the record straight with regard to that. There is the regulations that due permit the supervisor of special education to supervise child study team members. There is clear case law in the state of New Jersey that provides for that. As a matter of fact, there are over one hundred and fifty supervisors of special education and special services in the State of New Jersey, and a number of them are even in districts very close to this locale including Marlboro, Colts Neck, Freehold Regional, Howell. All of those districts utilize the position, the title, supervisor of special services or special education and they do supervise the child study teams. So, again, there’s a lot of misinformation that has been spoken about this subject in the last meeting and now again tonight. So, I want to make sure that we’re correct in what we’re saying.
Warren: Alright, are you certain that those same supervisors only have a supervisor’s certificate? That they’re not also certified as a director?
Gross: Yes.
Warren: Why was Ms. Rappaport being, I would say, in all the documents that I could find, being represented as a director?
Gross: I can’t answer that. I don’t know why that is the case. Mr. Warren, I do not know.
Warren: Another case would be Ms. Cholewa. Ms. Cholewa is a high school graduate of Matawan. She clearly lacks all the legal qualifications to be a director of technology. Why was she appointed to that position?
Gross: There is no certification requirement for a position of director of technology. The term director is a working title, not necessarily an administrative title. And, therefore no different that what we call the director of the school play a director. They don’t need a director’s certification or endorsement to be a director of the school play. There’s a difference between a working title and a legal or an actual title.
Warren: I can’t argue with you on the legal points. I don’t know it but . . .
Gross: I’m sure you’ll look into it, though, Mr. Warren.
Warren: Oh, I certainly will, thank you for that. Alright, so let’s discuss the appropriateness of selecting a high school graduate to be a director of technology. Can you explain why, in your opinion a high school graduate was best qualified for a director of technology position?
Demarest: What was the date on that?
Warren: That was at the reorganization meeting of 2003. April 28th, 2003, she was appointed to become the director of technology.
Demarest: And I assume you know the vote. How many board members voted for that?
Warren: All of them. It was 9-0. Two-thirds, two-thirds . . .
Demarest: I really don’t remember that day but I’m going to say if 9 out of 9 board members vote for it in the affirmative for the superintendent’s recommendation.
Warren: Correct.
Demarest: So, that rationale would have come from the superintendent at the time, whoever that may have been. I believe at that time we were in a committee system, so that the rationale would not have been discussed in public but within a personnel committee meeting. I was not on personnel at that time but I’m sure you can get the records of who was on the personnel committee and they would have been privy to the rationale behind that appointment.
Warren: I, I know that, actually, I did see a portion of the personnel committee. I know that at the time, Ms. Zavorskas was both president of the board and president, not president, and on the personnel committee.
Demarest: Okay, but this wouldn’t be the forum for you to ask her one-on-one for what happened at that committee. You’re certainly welcome when this meeting is over to ask her what the rationale was behind that appointment.
Warren: It’s also my understanding that Ms. Rappaport’s salary would be frozen because she was not certified to be a director. Is that correct?
Demarest: Her salary was frozen. That is a correct fact. You want the rationale behind that, that was not a board vote. That was a superintendent’s decision. So you can ask . . .
Warren: I’m asking.
O’Malley: It was my decision that she did not hold the qualifications to be a director and she should be a supervisor.
Warren. Okay. According to Mr. Gross, he said there’s no difference between the two. Is that your understanding as well?
O’Malley: I don’t think that was his answer.
Warren: That wasn’t? Okay, can you please explain the difference between a supervisor and a director in terms of the qualifications.
Gross: Under the New Jersey Administrative Code, there is an administrative certificate. For example, Ms. Rappaport has an administrative certificate. There are three different kinds of endorsements that you can get under an administrative certificate. Actually, there are four. But, for the purposes of this discussion, there are an administrative certificate, that is what the chief administrator has, there is a principal’s endorsement, that is not even a term director, by the way, the term director is not even a recognized administrative title in the State of New Jersey. There is a principal’s endorsement under the administrative certificate. And the third, for the purposes of our discussion, is the supervisory endorsement. Under the administrative code, under the administrative certificate.
Warren: So, I guess my question stands, in terms of her responsibilities and functions, what’s the difference between a director and a supervisor?
Gross: It would depend on what the job description calls for. Certainly, some districts require as part of the job description for you to have a principal’s endorsement to qualify for the position. Other districts, as I mentioned before, who have supervisors, only require a supervisory endorsement as part of that certificate.
Warren: But we just eliminated the supervisory position.
Gross: That is correct. Dr. O’Malley had, I don’t mean to speak for him, but I’m sure that I can in this particular incidence, Dr. O’Malley has made the determination that he would want the person in charge of the child study team to have a principal’s endorsement. And, as a result of that, he eliminated the position of supervisor, the official position, a supervisor of special services, and replaced it with the director of special services, which will require a minimum, a principal or administrative endorsement on the administrator’s certificate.
Warren: So, your understanding is that, not in terms of the qualifications, but in terms of what Ms. Rappaport could have done as a supervisor is no different from what she could have done as a director.
Gross: That is correct. And, as a matter of fact, nothing that Ms. Rappaport did or, there’s nothing that a principal’s endorsement could have done to change Ms. Rappaport’s expertise in the area of special education. It would just be a different kind of administrative endorsement, not a special education endorsement. For example, I know that there was an accusation, I think already this evening, about her ability to sign these documents and testify in court on those documents as a director even though she may have only had a supervisory endorsement. There is nothing she would have testified to in court that a principal’s endorsement would have given her any more expertise in testifying on those issues. That’s an administrative issue, not a special services or special education issue.
Warren: Speaking of Ms. Rappaport, it’s my understanding that she’s now, that she will be assuming the position of school psychologist in the Matawan Avenue Middle School.
Gross: Pursuant to her rights as a tenured employee in the district following the reduction in force that took place at the last board meeting. She invoked her tenure right as a school psychologist.
Warren: I’m concerned for the parents who are afraid of retaliation. I want to know if this school board has considered any policy that would allow any family that does not want their child being reviewed by Ms. Rappaport an alternative.
O’Malley: You’re asking for a specific policy or are you asking . . .
Warren: No, I’m just saying if someone says “Hey, I don’t want my kid being reviewed by Ms. Rappaport” would you honor that?
O’Malley: I absolutely would do that for anyone and not just particularly in that case.
Warren: Great, thank you. Also, just for the record, when was the last time Ms. Rappaport had any one-on-one experience with a student?
O’Malley: Who would know that answer?
>>> Read more!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

School Crimes and Misdemeanors


The year is 2003. Bruce Quinn is a few months into his new job as Matawan-Aberdeen’s Superintendent. Cathy Zavorskas has been elected President of the Board of Education. The voters have defeated a proposed 10% school tax increase. And the dreaded redistricting plan is underway.

That same year, the school board approves three staff changes. The changes appear minor and pass unremarked. Yet, those three changes, five years later, may launch the school district into its greatest legal jeopardy in living memory.

On December 15th, 2003, Helen Rappaport was demoted from Director of Special Services to Supervisor of Special Services (page 11). Present at that board meeting were Bruce Quinn (Superintendent), Catherine Zavorskas (then BOE President), Patricia Demarest (current BOE President), Jan Rubino (current BOE Vice President), Joel Glastein (Deputy Superintendent, Director of Personnel), Michael Gross (School Board Attorney) and current BOE members, Lawrence O’Connell, Gerald Donaghue, and John Barbato.

Ms. Rappaport was demoted because, despite her credentials, she lacked a New Jersey Board of Examiners certificate to be a director. As a supervisor, she lacked the authority to oversee child study teams (CSTs).

Yet, despite a board vote to change her position, Superintendent Quinn maintained Ms. Rappaport as a Director of Special Services and the board looked the other way. The vote was a charade to bypass the numerous state safeguards against a school district employing a person in a position for which that person is unqualified.

The New Jersey Administrative Code (N.J.A.C.) § 6A:9-17.4 states “The chief school administrator of a district shall notify the Board of Examiners when . . . a certificate holder fails to maintain any license, certificate or authorization pursuant to N.J.A.C. 6A:9-4.1(b) that is mandated in order for the holder to serve in a position.”

New Jersey also mandates that all districts submit a matrix report, listing each staff member’s position. The state matches that information against its database to flag any person who is not properly qualified for his position.

The board vote allowed the district to inform the state and county that Ms. Rappaport was no longer a director of special services. The district’s matrix report lists Ms. Rappaport as a supervisor.

In addition to submitting fraudulent documentation to the state and county, our district also perjured itself in court. In numerous court hearings involving cases of special needs students, the district submitted sworn affidavits from Ms. Rappaport.

The affidavits attest to the facts that Ms. Rappaport was a Director of Special Services and oversaw the Child Study Teams. Her signature lies under the statement “I hereby certify that the foregoing statements made by me are true. I am aware that if any of the foregoing statements are willfully false, I am subject to punishment.”

Our board attorney will need to explain how, as an officer of the court, he allowed false statements to be submitted to the court. As a matter of conscience, our Board of Education will need to explain how they allowed an unqualified person to oversee our neediest students.

Imagine the following: Ms. Rappaport knows she is unqualified for her position. She knows the administration knows. She knows the board knows. She knows the state has multiple safeguards against her maintaining that position. Why did she feel so secure in her position that she never pursued certification for the director’s position?

We can only wonder but here are some possibilities –

  • As Director of Special Services, she supervised Susan Quinn, the superintendent’s wife, and there may have been a mutually beneficial relationship
  • Cathy Zavorskas, the 2003 BOE President, is widely rumored to have received special consideration for her learning disabled child and there may have been some tit-for-tat
  • The culture of corruption was so widespread in the school district that nobody thought anybody would get caught for anything save the most egregious offenses
One thing we know for sure, Ms. Rappaport’s case was not an isolated incident.

At the same December 15th, 2003, BOE meeting, Ms. Caroline Pond was also demoted from Director of Testing and Special Programs to Supervisor Planning/Research and Evaluation (Testing). Considering that performance is never used as a basis for demotion, we can surmise that she, too, lacked the qualifications to be a director. Sure enough, the district continued to use her as a director and, two years later, she retired as such.

But the prize for sheer outrageousness has to go to the case of Barbara Cholewa.

Ms. Cholewa never received any college degrees. Rather, she is a graduate of Matawan Regional High School, was active in the teachers union, and was once Bruce Quinn’s secretary (and reputedly the godmother of one of his children).

On April 28, 2003, the same day as the school board reorganization, Quinn cleverly concealed Ms. Cholewa’s appointment by including it in a staff array with hundreds of names. On that day, the board elevated Ms. Cholewa, a high school graduate, from secretary to Director of Technology.

By law (N.J.A.C. § 6A:9-5.1) “The district board of education that is considering employing the individual shall assure that the candidate holds all necessary licenses, certificates or authorizations.” Zavorskas wasn’t only the BOE President, she was also on the board’s personnel committee. Plus, like Cholewa, Zavorskas was a lifelong resident of the community, spent lots of time in the administrator’s office, and had a cozy relationship with the teachers union. It’s inconceivable that she was unaware that Cholewa was a secretary who never graduated from college.

Even if Zavorskas (like the other board members) hadn’t properly reviewed the staffing list, how long did it take her to realize the board promoted a secretary without a college degree to Director of Technology?

In this instance, Quinn never needed to fake the matrix report. Director of Technology wasn’t included on the certificated staff list. Rather, her name continued to appear on the non-certificated staff list along with the other secretaries.

This past June, following Dr. O’Malley’s recommendation, Cholewa was reduced to Manager of Information Systems (i.e. secretary), earning $87,000 plus benefits.

According to the grapevine, Cholewa has retained Frank Campbell to sue the district. Campbell is the former law partner of school board attorney, Michael Gross, who called Dr. O’Malley a misogynist at a recent board meeting and was urged by Susan Quinn to continue speaking.

What’s next?

There is ample evidence the district knowingly assigned people to positions for which they were unqualified. There is ample evidence of violations of the New Jersey Administrative Code. There are the fraudulent documents submitted to the state. False affidavits submitted to the courts. But worse of all is the civil rights violations against scores of families with special needs children.

In time, we will learn the legal consequences of our school district’s conduct but no amount of time will wash away our sins. The best we can do right now is to launch an independent investigation to find the truth so we can stop this from recurring in the future.

Note: Special thanks to Board Attorney Michael Gross for showing me NJSA 47:1A-10 that states "data contained in information which disclose conformity with specific experiential, educational or medical qualifications required for government employment or for receipt of a public pension, but not including any detailed medical or psychological information, shall be a government record." >>> Read more!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Neighbor in Need

This message will be updated as we receive additional information. Please spread the word.

Update: Some local contractors have generously contacted me to help and the family is overwhelmed with appreciation. We can be proud to live in such a warm and caring community. If you can help with rebuilding the home or would like to assist in any other way, please contact me at PTOParent@aol.com. As for those who have already given, on behalf of the family, words cannot express our thanks.
Kathy Gentile, Co-President

A group of neighbors has been making phone calls on behalf a local family that was left devastated by a fire to their home today. This wonderful family of five lives in the "F" section of Aberdeen and three children attend schools in our community (Strathmore and MAMS). Assistance and outreach have already begun, with the Red Cross providing shelter in a local hotel and Mr. Lalor, a neighbor and volunteer leader with St Vincent De Paul society offering his experience and contacts for immediate assistance.

This family has both short term and long term needs and this e-mail is being sent so that members of the community, that want to provide some type of assistance, can do so.

As one of the Co-president's of the MAMS PTSO, I will help coordinate donations, channeled through our school. The family has two twin boys in kindergarten in Strathmore and a daughter in sixth grade in MAMS. Warm clothing (jackets, jeans, shirts, pajamas, etc.) is needed; the boys wear a toddler 5/6 and the daughter wears a junior size small or medium.

Other thoughtful donations could be gift cards to local stores, including Kohls, Costco, grocery stores, drug stores, etc. I checked with Costco today, and the family will be able to use Costco gift cards (without the need for membership). I have asked Costco for a donation and need to follow up on Wednesday.

Via this email, I will ask Mrs. Olsen if we can send donations up to MAMS and I would like to collect all donations no later than Friday afternoon (12/12) and bring them to Mr. Lalor for his handling and distribution.

Although the fire to the home was devastating, the bright spot is that no one was hurt or injured in the fire. This is a blessing as we can replace possessions...the people we love, and care about, are not. At this holiday time of year, please remember to include this family in your thoughts and prayers and any assistance you can offer would be greatly appreciated. Please forward this message to other friends and neighbors (that may want to offer assistance) and thank you for your generous spirit.

Kathy Gentile, Co-President
>>> Read more!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Property Revaluations – What You Need to Know

This Tuesday, December 9th, at 7:30 PM, the Aberdeen Township will hold a Revaluation Information Session. It will explain why the township had a revaluation, why it was the right thing to do, how the process works, and what you can do if you believe your assessment was incorrect. Allow me to save you the trouble and give you the information you need to know.

The New Jersey State Constitution dictates “All real property assessed and taxed locally or by the State for allotment and payment to taxing districts shall be assessed according to the same standard of value . . .” (Article VIII, Section I) The state has set a target that all municipalities assess their properties at 100% of value. The last time Aberdeen had a revaluation was sixteen years ago in 1992. The county therefore informed Aberdeen we were long overdue and insisted we reassess all properties.

Rather than save some money and request a shared bid with Matawan – both municipalities used Realty Appraisal Company – Aberdeen chose to postpone the revaluations for a year so as not to coincide with township elections. Unfortunately for our solons, that meant the property tax changes would take effect during an election year and next year’s a big one – the mayoralty and control of the town council are up for grabs. So, Mayor Sobel has asked the county to delay imposing the new assessments for another year, a non-election year. Our dear Mayor Sobel also has the fine distinction of being the only mayor in all of Monmouth County to make such a request.

Well, good luck with that. For the taxpayers who need to deal in reality, here’s what you need to know.

The preliminary assessment roll is $2,090,000,000. That’s 2.47 times the old assessment roll of $847,374,000. In other words, the average property owner’s assessment is 2.47 times his previous assessment. That means, if your new assessment is 2.47 times your old assessment then your “fair share” remains the same.

As an example, a home’s prior assessment was $100,000. If the new assessment is over $247,000, taxes are rising. If less, taxes are dropping.

To properly calculate the tax rate, you divide total appropriations (local, county, school, trash, etc.) by the total assessment roll. Rather than calculate total appropriations, I’ll take the lazy man’s route and just divide last year’s tax rate of 5.617 (dollars per hundred dollars of assessed value) by 2.47 and add 4% (my guesstimate for next year’s tax increase). Rounding gives a 2009 tax rate of 2.365.

In order to approximate your 2009 tax bill, multiply your new assessment by 2.365%.

The new tax rate doesn’t take affect until the 3rd quarter of next year, meaning your first payment under the new rate will be due in August.

The revaluations are revenue neutral so, applying the rule of thirds, one-third will see property taxes increase, one-third will see a decrease, and one-third will remain about the same.

Based upon what happened in Matawan and anecdotal information, homes on the lower end of the spectrum (apartments, condos, older homes, etc.) will get the biggest hit while homes on the higher end (houses built in the last twenty years) will see the biggest windfall.

(Full disclosure: I challenged my assessment early this year and received a 22% reduction prior to the revaluations.)

The question, now, is how to reduce your taxes.

The assessed value should be a close approximation of the sale price of your property. When the appraisal company visited your home, they matched what they saw against a data sheet provided by the municipality and made notations of any discrepancies.

The appraisal company then matched your home against recent sales as best they could. Given today’s housing market, their assumptions may have inadvertently inflated the assessment on your home but, because they used the same criteria across the board, everybody’s home was calculated the same way, your fair share remains the same, and your tax rate is unaffected.

In other words, the only way you can challenge your assessment is by demonstrating they made a mistake specific to your house.

Here are examples of common mistakes –

  • Unheated areas of the house - If you have an unheated storage room, laundry room, basement, etc. unless you told the appraiser, he may have listed the area as heated. Unheated areas are assessed a lower value
  • Structural, flooding damage – If your house has any structural defect or is subject to flooding, make sure the appraiser knows
  • Outdoor structures – If it’s not “connected” to the land, it’s not real estate. Sheds, hot tubs, above-ground pools, etc. are not taxable if they lack a true foundation connecting them to the land (Note: All sheds over 100 square feet and all decks, whether or not connected to the house, are taxable. Thanks to Holly Reycraft, Aberdeen Township's Tax Assessor, for the correction.)
  • Location – If your house is in a particularly bad location, that matters
If you think your assessment is too high, challenge it NOW! Once the assessments get submitted to the county they will be virtually impossible to challenge. The county allows a 15% error margin before they’ll consider revisions.

However, don’t expect any major reductions. The vast majority of reductions will be less than 2%. Still, for most residents, even getting a $50 reduction in annual property taxes is worth the time.

To recap, the average assessment is rising by a factor of 2.47. If your new assessment is more than 2.47 times your old assessment, your taxes are increasing.

The guesstimated tax rate for next year is 2.365% of your new assessed value.

To challenge the assessment, follow the directions on your letter and do so now. When challenging, you must demonstrate a material difference between their records and your property – either their records are lacking information or have something wrong.

As for relying upon the town council for assistance, like the Genie said to Aladdin, it’s time to “wake up and smell the humus.” >>> Read more!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Councilwoman Gallo’s Replacement

As required by law, the Aberdeen Democratic Executive Committee has submitted three candidates for Councilwoman Gallo’s seat on the town council – two old-timers who won’t feel slighted by not being selected and one ace. No surprise whom will be picked. Congratulations to Fred Tagliarini on his upcoming appointment to the Aberdeen Town Council.

The other two names, Henry Arnold and Irwin Katz, are respected members of the community but they lack the fresh face and name recognition that Fred Tagliarini has.

Fred and his wife, Donna, make an attractive couple – friendly, athletic, and long-time community volunteers. Fred was recently re-elected Vice President of the Matawan-Aberdeen Babe Ruth League, where he’s been involved for nearly 20 years, and he sits on Aberdeen’s Planning Board. Donna participates in Monmouth County’s annual Outdoor Adventure Expo and some charity runs.

The question is what kind of councilman will Fred Tagliarini become. I have high hopes. First, Tagliarini is well-respected in the community and nobody enjoys being bashed on these pages or in the town grapevine. Second, he never campaigned for the position; the party came to him, not the other way around. Third, the local Democratic Party is on a losing streak considering the resignations of Councilwoman Gallo and former Town Manager Stuart Brown. Fourth, anybody connected with town events has, at the least, a passing familiarity with the allegations on this blog and will be assuming the position with eyes wide open. Lastly, all good people want what’s best for our community and Tagliarini is a good man.

Still, as my newest representative, I respectfully submit to him the following requests:

  1. In the upcoming mailings regarding the property revaluations, please provide guidelines on how a property owner can determine how the new assessment will affect his property taxes
  2. In the upcoming budget, ask to review last year’s payments for professional services and see if they’re in line with neighboring municipalities
  3. Pursue alternative quotes for professional services and end the practice of pay-to-play
Best of luck, Fred Tagliarini. Make us proud. >>> Read more!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

O’Malley Leads, BOE Follows

“Goals – by the end of the 08-09 school year, 10% of the partial proficient students will achieve proficiency on the state assessments while maintaining our advanced proficient student percentages.”
- - - Matawan-Aberdeen BOE Special Board Meeting to discuss goals and objectives, June 12, 2008

Last Monday’s school board meeting marked many firsts for our district. The board, in the face of strong opposition from the school unions, supported the superintendent’s recommendation to remove from office a high-ranking, 30-year veteran. Then there was the district’s first frank assessment of student test scores with sufficient detail and background information to allow the community to evaluate the data. Lastly, we got our first acknowledgment that many of the online degree programs, so popular with our staff, are not the equivalent of traditional degrees from well-regarded universities. What do I call this? A great start!

To understand the power of the teachers union, consider this little factoid – from 1996-2005, exactly 47 tenured teachers (from over 100,000) were fired from their public schools. A tenured New Jersey teacher is more likely to die this year than be fired. Our local union, the Matawan Regional Teachers Association, is reputed to recruit the board member’s child’s teachers for picketing in front of the board member’s house. That the BOE voted 8-1 to terminate Ms. Rappaport’s position of Supervisor of Special Services is simply remarkable. (That her sterling performance reviews make no mention of a long history of parental complaints sadly is not.)

As for the student assessment scores, the faculty presentation marked the first time in history that our school district has publicized the fact that proficiency only means a score of 50% and that advanced proficiency only requires 75% (Slides 7, 66). Put simply, advanced proficiency is not “outstanding”.

The next sacred cow to be skewered was the school board’s vaunted goal of getting more students across the 50-yard line (proficiency) but not pushing beyond that (see above). The administration, however, took their cues from Dr. O’Malley and stressed the district’s need to improve performance at all levels – more students achieving advanced proficiency, higher SAT and AP (Advanced Placement) scores, and more AP enrollment. In fact, in sharp contrast to the board’s goal, the administration regarded any advanced proficiency rate below our District Factor Group (DFG) as an “area of concern”. Either the school board was too oblivious to notice or too ashamed to comment but nobody mentioned the discrepancy.

Our final break with the past was marked by Deputy Superintendent Glastein who acknowledged that degrees from online schools such as Walden and Marygrove were not equal to degrees from schools such as Rutgers and Seton Hall. Rather, the granting of equal pay raises to those degree recipients was “purely contractual”. At a prior board meeting, BOE President Demarest stated that the board did not distinguish between institutes of higher learning so long as they had regional accreditation. Once again, the administration has chosen to ignore such nonsense.

Although this signals a brighter future, we mustn’t forget the troubles we have today. SAT scores are below the state average (Slides 77-80). A third of our seniors failed a HSPA exam last year (Slides 71, 75). We have 6 AP courses that have fewer than five students taking the AP exams. Not a single student took AP Chemistry or AP Computer Science(Slide 63).

Even though 18% more students took 30% more AP exams in 2008 than 2007, the total number of 4 and 5 scores actually dropped to 89(Slide 64). (Though 3 is technically passing, many universities do not grant full credit to AP scores below 4.) The number of 4 and 5 AP scores was so low that, had my senior AP scores been added to the total, I would have personally accounted for over 4% of the total 4 and 5 AP scores for the entire district.

In short, we’ve got lots of work ahead of us but we’re definitely moving in the right direction. As for the three board members who took public stances against Dr. O’Malley’s appointment, I’m still waiting to hear an admission of error.
>>> Read more!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

For Dr. O’Malley, It’s Nothing Personal, Just Business

A crowded audience at a BOE meeting is often a sign of trouble and last night was no exception. Following an excellent presentation about our students’ scores on standardized exams, President Demarest opened the floor to public comment. On the agenda (page 16) was the creation of Director of Special Services and the subsequent elimination of Helen Rappaport’s position, Supervisor of Special Services, and her resulting demotion. Over half the audience consisted of her colleagues, supporters, and advocates and they were bucking for a fight.

First at the podium was a school psychologist who had served Matawan-Aberdeen for 30 years, 23 of them under Ms. Rappaport. She spoke angrily of how a woman who had served the district with such dedication and competence shouldn’t be treated this way.

Next was Ms. Rappaport’s attorney. (Yes, she intends to litigate and possibly sue the district. So much for putting children first.) The attorney brought with him Ms. Rappaport’s 23 years of sterling performance reviews and insisted there was no basis whatsoever for demoting her.

(Note: Reduction in Force means the elimination of Ms. Rappaport’s position but, because she has tenure, she is entitled to assume another school psychologist’s position following his scheduled resignation. Ms. Rappaport lacks the credentials to be a director. As Supervisor of Special Services, she was the third-highest paid person in the district. The demotion will likely cost her $15,000-$20,000 a year. She’ll also need another 3-4 years to lift her pension benefits back to current levels unless she walks away now.)

Next came a man, possibly deranged, claiming to be an education lawyer who was representing two teachers, neither present, who were considering suing the district. He claimed that Dr. O’Malley was a power hungry megalomaniac and a “misogynist” hell-bent on persecuting the wholesome, yet vulnerable, ladies that work in our schools. After ranting and raving for about 10 minutes, BOE President Demarest finally said his three minutes were up and asked if any other audience members wished to speak. Susan Quinn, the former superintendent’s wife, stepped forward and, after being recognized, asked to yield her time to the crazy guy. She wanted more.

The next speaker was a teacher who lives in our district and asked “as a taxpayer,” whether this move was worth the cost of impending litigation. The threat was hardly veiled – “Mess with us and we’ll sue the pants off you.”

But then the tide began to turn. First was the special education instructor who spoke of a “broken” system where staff members advised special-needs families under cloak of secrecy for fear of retribution. Then came the parents who shared their heart wrenching stories of battling the bureaucracy at great personal expense and suffering to get their children the help they needed and to which they were legally entitled. How they were doubly cursed for not only bearing their own legal fees but also supporting the opposing attorney through their taxes.

And yes, I spoke as well. I first thanked the Directors of Accountability for their presentation on the student scores and then launched into a vigorous defense of Dr. O’Malley. I didn’t understand the differences between supervisor and director, nor did I know Ms. Rappaport’s qualifications or lack thereof, but I, too, had heard the unending stories of families with special needs children battling the school system to get the help they so desperately needed and surely deserved. If Dr. O’Malley said this was the change we needed then I would defer to his judgment. And shame on anyone who suggests that Dr. O’Malley does not have the best interests of our community at heart.

Finally, the board spoke. Ms. Rappaport had waived her right to confidentiality so they were going to discuss her position in public. Board Member Zavorskas accused Dr. O’Malley of eliminating the position on personal grounds but she stood alone.

All the other board members, one after another, said Ms. Rappaport was not the issue. Rather, Dr. O’Malley had argued that he needed to change the structure of the special education department in order to implement needed changes. Unfortunately, Ms. Rappaport’s lack of credentials barred her from the director’s position. Dr. Gambino even cited the New Jersey Licensing Code that restricts supervisors to oversight of “instructional personnel”. Since child study teams and school psychologists aren’t “instructional personnel”, supervisors are precluded from managing them, hence the need for changing the position to a “director”.

In the end, to my happy surprise, the board voted 8-1 in favor of Dr. O’Malley. In that vote, the board had signaled its intent to support our superintendent as long as he continues to move our school district in the right direction.

There were other tidbits at the meeting which I’ll discuss at a later time. Suffice to say that I believe we are witnessing a turning point for the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District. Everywhere I look, I see change. Perhaps too small, too modest, or too slow, but change all the same. Change for the better. We have the first glimmers of hope on the horizon.
>>> Read more!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust

Councilwoman Gallo has officially submitted her resignation letter. Sametta Thompson, of the Asbury Park Press, said it best. “Gallo is [the] second township official this year to resign from office.”

Although Councilwoman Gallo technically resigned from the Aberdeen Township council on November 8th, she had disappeared from the political scene after her heated opposition to the town’s budget at the September 2nd meeting. According to the minutes, Mayor Sobel pointedly asked her, “Do you want to be a member of this council or not?” Councilwoman Gallo responded “I do but I am not.” At issue – the township’s massive level of pay-to-play.

Former Township Manager, Stuart Brown, was reputed to have been ousted earlier this year on the same grounds. During his tenure, at least two CME projects were denied funding and, soon after his departure, Aberdeen awarded CME $237,071.25 in new business. Sure enough, at the September 2nd meeting, Councilwoman Gallo objected to money being allocated for the road program, a.k.a. CME Associates. (For those new to the scene, CME Associates is the township engineer, receiving over a million dollars a year; they’re also the town council’s largest political contributor.)

In her letter, Councilwoman Gallo stated “recent developments have cause [sic] me to realize that my attempts to promote what I believe are the best interests of Aberdeen, are often at odds with my fellow council members. As a result of my strong commitment, my personal life and health have begun to suffer. I therefore, no longer feel that I can fulfill my duties and responsibilities as a council member.”

One can only wonder at the level of pressure to force from office a councilwoman only eight months into her first term. Councilwoman Gallo was no stranger to the hard knocks of local politics. She was a founding member of the Matawan-Aberdeen Educational Foundation and then served six years on our school district’s board of education. After resigning her seat to Pat Demarest (currently the BOE President), Gallo later served on the Aberdeen Township Planning Board. When Councilman Minutolo was dumped from last year’s Democratic ticket (and subsequently became chairman of the Aberdeen Republicans), Gallo was recruited to run for council and garnered the second highest vote tally after Councilman Vinci.

Yet, the moment she objected to the township’s pay-to-play, she was gone. Following the meeting, Mayor Sobel told the Independent “People get at pay-to-play with some of our hiring practices but we were one of the first municipalities to pass a pay-to-play ordinance.” Mayor Sobel’s statement was remarkable on two counts – First, the ordinance was passed just last year and only applies to developers, in particular Matawan’s chosen developer for the proposed transit village. Second, Mayor Sobel made the statement fully aware that virtually each of the township’s providers of professional services is also a financial contributor to the local Democratic party.

The question now is what will happen next. Will the all-Democratic council appoint someone completely oblivious to local politics or will they find a “team player” wholly subservient to the party’s interests?

Given the council’s record so far this year – the forced resignation of a popular town manager, a freshman councilwoman’s resignation while under fire, and the municipality’s largest ever tax increase – plus the upcoming shock from the property revaluations, the Democrats prospects for maintaining a monopoly in next year’s elections are looking dim indeed.

On a final note, I'd like to thank Councilwoman Gallo for her service to our community and wish her all the best.
>>> Read more!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Guesswork on Next Year's Property Taxes

Aberdeen’s taxpayers are naturally concerned about next year’s property tax rates. This year, the township had its largest ever tax increase. Next year, about a third of homeowners will see their property taxes readjusted upwards from the revaluations. And the township will need to, once again, raise its annual contribution to the state’s pension funds (sheet 20). Excluding those people who will be devastated by their property revaluations, we should be relatively okay. Property taxes will be going up again next year but probably not more than 5%.

There are several elements that contribute to tax hikes but the two items that differentiate this year from prior years are 1) the biggest stock market collapse since the great depression and 2) a parallel drop in commodities (i.e. oil). For local government, that means an increase in pension contributions (to offset the dramatic losses in pension funds), a drop in utility costs, and reduced state aid (because of lower tax revenue).

To do the math, we need to engage in a bit of fudging since we won’t begin seeing the numbers until February or March but I don’t believe we’ll be off by that much.

Two-thirds of property taxes are taken by the school district. In contrast to the township, the school district strives to remain within the 4% CAPs set by the state because they otherwise risk review by the county superintendent. The school district also has a tendency to work backwards – raise spending by the legal limit and then determine how to spend the money. Still, the proposed budget will grow 4% but given the township’s history of rejecting the school budget, which is then cut by the township council, the final budget should be slightly less than a 4% increase.

Since daily operations are growing faster than the 4% limit and the capital budget has nearly disappeared, expect reduced maintenance and growing class sizes but not much higher taxes. One wildcard – New York Governor Patterson today announced a plan to reduce spending growth in education. If Governor Corzine does the same, the school may be forced to break CAPs or borrow more money.

Monmouth County, about 11 percent of the property tax, will probably raise taxes due to pension liabilities and reduced state aid. The county had no tax increase this year and modest tax increases during the prior two years. Monmouth County will likely restrain any tax increase and look to service cuts to meet budget constraints.

Given the drop in utility and fuel costs, tax hikes for smaller budget items such as sanitation, sewer, and library, should also be modest.

Last on the list is Aberdeen Township. Before looking at 2009, let’s review 2008. Municipal taxes, this year, jumped 12%. Some of the big ticket items included an additional $279,000 in pension contributions, another $275,000 for health care, and a $210,000 cut in municipal aid from the state.

In 2007, the state pension fund lost 3%. So far, this fiscal year, the state pension fund has lost about 9%. We can expect at least another $250,000 increase in pension contributions.

In 2001, after the dot-com bust and 9/11, New Jersey income tax revenue dropped a billion dollars. If even a quarter of that is passed along to New Jersey’s 566 municipalities, we could be facing another cut of $400,000 in municipal aid.

Healthcare costs will jump again but should be partially offset by a $100,000 drop in utility expenses. (Sheet 15C)

I guesstimate that municipal taxes could increase by 10% next year except for one thing – elections. It’s highly unlikely, especially considering the blowback from the property revaluations, that the township will risk double digit tax increases during an election year. By simply scaling back some capital expenditures and postponing other purchases, they can roll back the tax increase to 6%.

This is obviously all guesswork but it’s nice to know that, unless you’re hit by the revaluations (mostly older homes and condos), you won’t have to worry about monster property tax hikes for next year. Anytime taxes rise faster than wages, we’re heading for big trouble but, in the meantime, it’ll just be the slow bleed that’s endemic to New Jersey.
>>> Read more!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Setting the Goalposts for Graduation

Everyone agrees that school board members should not be micro-managing the daily operation of the school district but it is their obligation to set graduation requirements. Rather than arguing on how best to educate our children, we should be setting academic goals for seniors and then work backwards all the way to first grade to ensure that, by the time our students reach their senior year, they’re capable of reaching those goals.

The current graduation requirements are set to the statutory minimum – pass the HSPA (or the Student Review Assessment), complete 130 credits, and comply with all attendance and curriculum requirements.

The curriculum requirements are:

  • English (Language Arts Literacy)- 20 credits
  • United States History - 10 credits (Class of 2011 – 12.5 Credits)
  • World Cultures (World History) - 5 credits
  • Mathematics - 15 credits
  • Science - 15-18 credits
  • Visual Arts or Performing Arts - 5 credits
  • Practical Arts - 5 credits
  • Computer Education - 5 credits
  • World Languages - 10 credits
  • Physical Education/Health - 4-5 credits per year
For all grade levels, the minimum number of attempted credits per year is thirty-five (35). Credits are based upon the number of periods per week and per year that courses meet. Chorus/Lunch and Band/Lunch does not apply credits toward this minimum.

Special Education students may be exempt from the above by virtue of the Individual Educational Plan (IEP).

The standards are too low.

We should increase the credit requirements and then weight honors classes to create an incentive for students to enroll in challenging courses.

Of the 140 credits taken by graduation, 20 are for gym, 90 fulfill course requirements, and the remaining 30 are at the student’s discretion. Once again, considering the low percentage of students pursuing a competitive college, there’s too much incentive to reach for the easiest classes. We should require mastery in at least one subject area.

Two years of a foreign language is woefully insufficient. Instead of setting a credit requirement, we should require students pass a language proficiency exam just as they need to pass the HSPA exam. Also, in-depth foreign language instruction should begin at an earlier age when children are more susceptible.

However, all this is for naught so long as teachers are allowed to set the bar for what constitutes an education. It is the board’s job, not the teachers’, to determine minimum requirements.

I have written previously of grade inflation (how else to explain roughly a third of seniors failed a HSPA exam) but now I have seen firsthand evidence.

Recently, the school administration allowed me to review the final exam questions for 2007-08 twelfth grade English. The last time I had seen such exams was in the eighth grade.

Let’s take the English IV Honors Final Exam. It consists of 124 multiple choice questions, 11 match-this-to-that questions, 2 short answer questions, and ONE essay.

What the heck? One essay? When I was in high school, all we did was write essays. In my four years, I never saw a single multiple choice question in any English class. I wasn’t tested on whether I read the Cliff Notes. I was tested on my ability to write about great works of literature and other persuasive essays.

I had essay topics like “Religious Symbolism in Moby Dick” or “Macbeth’s Battle against Fate” and had to identify underlying themes, conflict, symbolism, character development, and the watershed moments. I remember writing a paper in the tenth grade opposing euthanasia. In high school English, we had to write and write and write.

English isn’t about memorizing Orwellian terms. It’s about the ability to appreciate great works of literature and the ability to express yourself through writing. If the senior honors class is only testing for reading comprehension, it’s no wonder so many of our students can’t pass the HSPA Language Arts Literacy exam.

I wasn’t allowed to review final exams for any of the other classes but I believe they’re on a similar level. Teachers are dumbing down the exams to fit their preconceived notions of what the students are capable of achieving. Our academic standards will never rise above our testing standards. Final exams need to reflect our community's high expectations.

Our varsity baseball team plays hardball, not softball. Our varsity football team plays tackle, not two-hand touch. Our students will never achieve academic excellence unless they’re challenged to do so and we, as a community, need to stop pretending otherwise. >>> Read more!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Is Change Afoot?

Congratulations to President-Elect Barack Obama. Across the country, America voted for the candidates of change and our neighborhood was no exception. In neighboring Matawan, Republicans Fitzsimmons and Urbano defeated the incumbent Democrats Malley and Bunyon on a promise to work with Mayor Buccellato. As for Aberdeen, the rumors are rampant that 2009 will represent a change of governance for our town as well.

According to the grapevine, none of the township council members whose terms expire next year, Mayor Sobel and Councilmen Perry and Raymond, will be seeking re-election. These rumors have been ongoing for the past year but they appear to be gaining steam as the local Democratic Party readies a slate for next year.

As for the school board, John Barbato (who tells me he won’t decide till early next year), is considered unlikely to seek another term as his youngest son graduates from high school this year. Under the recently approved, and state mandated, nepotism policy (page 32) there also won’t be any new district positions offered to close relatives of board members.

Although Board President Pat Demarest is officially aligned with Barbato, in actual voting, she is more likely to support the superintendent’s recommendations than Barbato’s. (For the record, despite our differences, John Barbato is the only board member from that side of the fence with whom I still have friendly conversations.)

Meanwhile, the Aberdeen Democratic Executive Committee may be polishing its image under Bill Shenton’s leadership. According to the committee’s latest filings, there have been zero contributions and zero disbursements in the last quarter. That means no pay-to-play contributions and no payouts to council members.

Unfortunately, Councilwoman Gallo appears likely to resign her seat. During the last township meeting, Mayor Sobel made it crystal clear that she had been absent for three consecutive council meetings, the last two without prior notification.

As for me, I will soon be announcing plans to publicize the blog and begin a grassroots campaign to organize like-minded folk. I will not be creating a new party but rather try to establish a large enough base to force the existing parties to seek our support.

Our best days lie ahead and I’m eager to move forward. May God bless our country and give our leaders the wisdom and strength to lead us into a brighter future.
>>> Read more!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Comment Guidelines

Aberdeener.com is dedicated to promoting dialogue about improving our community. Comments that are contrary to that goal run the risk of being deleted. Though I retain absolute discretion to retain or remove any comment, I will generally follow the below guidelines. Sometimes, a comment may fall in a gray area and I will need to consider other factors such as context. However, any comment that doesn’t run afoul of the following guidelines should be permitted.

The following are examples of unwanted comments:

  • Offensive Language – I realize that many people use this blog as a venue to vent their anger, so I’ve been extremely lenient regarding vulgarity but I don’t like it. I won’t extend that same courtesy to other language that would be inappropriate in polite company.
  • Incendiary Language – Any language inciting violence will not be tolerated and may instigate police action.
  • Intimidation – My goal isn’t to be right but to find the right answer. I don’t attack people posting comments and I discourage others from doing so. We don’t convince people of our viewpoints through name calling or demonstrate our position’s superiority by scaring others from voicing their opinions. If we’re ever going to improve our community, we need to engage as many people as we can and work together towards our mutual benefit. I will therefore begin removing those comments that are intended to intimidate and silence others. (However, anonymous comments may not warrant the same protection since anonymity already shields the speaker to a certain extent.)
  • Attacks on Non-Public Individuals – All public persons are fair game. Personal attacks on private people are not.
  • Graffiti – Irrelevant comments intended to diminish this blog or interrupt the dialogue will be deleted.
  • Denigration - Denigrating someone's religion is unacceptable in any civil discussion and will not be tolerated.
One additional caveat – I am no longer the only person monitoring this blog. Therefore, inappropriate comments are more likely to disappear sooner rather than later.

Thanks to everyone who strives to make our community better for everyone else. >>> Read more!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

MARSD Gets an "A" on Latest Financial Audit

Click here for a copy of the 2007-08 audit.

For those wondering if elections matter, here’s more evidence they do. Following Dr. Gambino’s election to the Matawan-Aberdeen school board in 2007, the standards wing had a one-vote majority that disappeared the following year with Ken Aitken’s defeat. But, during that one year, they appointed two senior administration officials – Dr. Richard O’Malley as superintendent and Ms. Susan Irons as business administrator. Dr. O’Malley and Ms. Irons were both outsiders with no connection to the community or any senior member of the school district, a precondition for their consideration. Though we won’t know the impact on test scores for another year, the recent financial audit was startling – the Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District has cleaned its books.

As Dr. O’Malley states in his introduction, “The 2007-2008 auditors' management report reflects the successful implementation of the corrective actions, as the number of auditor recommendations decreased from eighteen to six.” (Page 11) More importantly, every finding from last year’s audit was rectified.

To capture the full scope, compare this year’s audit to the prior year’s findings. (Page 158) Last year, in a sample test of 60 purchase orders/vouchers, 7 had blanket orders, 9 vouchers were not encumbered, 2 lacked supporting documentation, 2 were from the year before, and 1 lacked a date of receipt. All this from a sample of just 60 PO’s and vouchers.

Other findings included late payments, inaccurate financial reports, missing documents, non-current records, accounting discrepancies, and a failure to follow state guidelines.

This year’s six findings are –

  1. $22,600 of grant money wasn’t spent
  2. A line item was mislabeled by last year’s auditor
  3. The high school store is not tracking inventory
  4. Athletic events are not properly tracking ticket sales
  5. The athletic fund had numerous outstanding checks that were never cashed
  6. No written contract with the Bayshore Jointure regarding the space rental
(Interestingly, someone leaked a false story to the media that Dr. O’Malley was trying to close the Bayshore Jointure when he began contract negotiations to satisfy the last audit finding.)

The audit was performed by Robert A. Hulstart and Company, a firm with no known relationship to anyone on the school board or administration except that Ms. Irons had worked with them once before. By contrast, Aberdeen Township has a decade-long relationship with its auditor who’s also closely tied to the Monmouth Democratic Party and maintains an office in Vic Scudiery’s Airport Plaza down the hall from Norman Kauff.

Another difference in board leadership can be found in staff hiring. During the 2006-07 school year, when the board was led by President Williams and Vice President Demarest, the district hired an extra 29 regular teachers and 8 special education teachers, expanding those departments by 9% and 25%, respectively. The following year, under President O’Connell and Vice President Aitken, the staff size shrunk. (Page 130)

Still, the report wasn’t all roses and sunshine.

“Total spending for all programs excluding capital projects fund was $66,772,692 including a charge of $531,091 for depreciation. General revenues (primarily local tax levy and state aid) were adequate to provide for the balance of these programs, exclusive of the charge for depreciation.” (Page 24)

Net Capital Assets fell from $47,336,880 to 47,066,592. (Page 51)

Simply put, we don’t have the money to cover both operating expenses and building maintenance and the problem will get worse unless we restrain spending.

Another sore spot is the $36.8 million dollar debt service that was approved by referendum in late 2002. A substantial portion of the money went to the construction of 17 new classrooms. As can be seen on the capacity/enrollment chart (Page 132), from the day the extra classrooms were built, they were never needed – not one. The high school also has surplus capacity of 31% but all of the elementary schools, save Lloyd Road, are at or above capacity.

Considering the student population has been remarkably stable for the last several years, it seems these construction projects to add extra capacity had something other than the students’ needs in mind.

As for this year’s financial audit, congratulations to Dr. O’Malley and Ms. Irons on a job well done. Let’s hope the district does as well on the educational side of the scorecard. >>> Read more!

Friday, October 24, 2008

In Councilwoman Gumbs' Defense

By Wendell Gumbs

I am proud of a country that gives you the right to speak out on issues that affect you. I will, however, call you on the facts regarding the comments you made about Councilwoman Gumbs’ family. From your tone, you must be a transplanted citizen or just very bitter. Here are some actual facts: Wilhelmina Gumbs has been married to George Gumbs for 50 years next week. George Gumbs was the Director of Labor for the state and employed some 39 years there (with a master’s degree). He is a member of the Matawan Aberdeen Hall of Fame. She only has 2 children – Wanda, who has been married for 20 years and also works for the dept of labor, and me, her son, Wendell Gumbs. I was a member of the council from 96-99 before moving to south jersey with my wife and 3 girls. Not to mention my late uncle Phillip Gumbs, a former Freeholder Director of Monmouth County and supervising judge. His daughter, Robina Shaw Esq., was just inducted into the same Hall of fame last week-end. The only reason I am taking time out to write this response, is because I don't know who you are to confront you face to face. If you have issues you disagree with, that's fair game. My issue is your blatant disrespect and the straight out lies you are now posting about my family. I would ask that you at least get your facts straight before posting things that are just not the case. If you would like to discuss this matter in person, please let me know.

Wendell Gumbs served on the Aberdeen Town Council from 1996-99 >>> Read more!

Safe Schools

Are our schools safe? The answer is “Compared to what?” Although crime statistics in schools are notoriously unreliable (not every incidence is reported), New Jersey does track the number of criminal occurrences within each school, whether or not a police report is filed. On average, our schools are a bit safer when compared to New Jersey or Monmouth County as a whole. However, when compared on a district by district basis, Matawan-Aberdeen doesn’t fare as well.

As the table below demonstrates, even including last year’s blip, our district’s rate of criminal conduct is below the county rate. Yet, out of 56 school districts, we rank just below the halfway mark.

Year Rank Enrolment Violence vandalism Weapons Subtances Total
2003-04 25 3,864 14 7 5 5 31
2004-05 28 3,839 31 8 3 2 43
2005-06 29 3,809 23 9 6 5 41
2006-07 32 3,901 33 9 1 8 51
2007-08 3,733 26 6 7 3 42

Year Incident per
Capita (district)
Incident per
Capita (county)
Incident per
Capita (state)
2003-04 0.80% 1.41% 1.46%
2004-05 1.12% 1.50% 1.32%
2005-06 1.08% 1.41% 1.35%
2006-07 1.31% 1.31% 1.34%
2007-08 1.13%

Obviously, any level of criminal conduct is too high but I don’t have an answer to reducing it. Many parents feel that kids should be allowed to rebel a little bit, from outlandish dress and hairstyles to the “harmless” joint. Coupled with the fact that some students come from unhealthy home environments, there’s sure to be some level of misconduct.

Still, I have to believe we can do a better of creating a safe environment for our children. >>> Read more!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Matawan’s End of Days?

Are we witnessing Matawan Borough’s final days? Despite (or perhaps because of) having the highest tax rate in Monmouth County, Matawan is on course for financial ruin. After raising the budget by 13%, the borough still had a $160,000 shortfall that may yet increase before the year has ended. Mayor Buccellato called for across-the-board cuts but got nothing. Instead, he was left crowing about the two hundred bucks Matawan saves each week by closing borough hall on Fridays. Matawan is too small to survive as an independent municipality.

As the following table demonstrates, Matawan’s bigger sister is nearly double the borough’s size in every respect but one – Aberdeen’s tax levy is only 20% higher.

 AberdeenMatawanAberdeen / Matawan
Area (sq. miles)5.452.26241%
Residential Units70763780187%
2006 Net Valuation 847,374,000 430,170,000 197%
Municipal Tax Levy7,829,3376,376,999123%

According to Monmouth County’s published overview and economic statistics, Aberdeen isn’t only larger, but its per household income (based upon the 2000 census) is also 7% higher. Aberdeen’s outlook is brighter as well because it has far more undeveloped areas – the area around the train station, Anchor Glass, and Aberdeen Forge.

Matawan’s municipal tax rate is about 55% higher than Aberdeen’s. Yet, Matawan has a police station in disrepair, a dilapidated courtroom, a shuttered water plant, a history of late payments to municipal workers and the school district, and an inability to fully maintain its roads and sewer.

As for Main Street, it’s time to give up the ghost. The area needs a rehabilitated Main Street but the borough council clearly lacks the political will to make it a reality. Two years ago, Councilman Mullaney had pinned his hopes on C-Town. “"It will prove to be the best thing that has happened to downtown Matawan in I don't know how many years," Councilman Mullaney said. "It's phenomenal; it will certainly start the revitalization of downtown Matawan . . . The people of Matawan will be pleased. Not should be - will be." Well, we know how that turned out.

Meanwhile, Governor Corzine is determined to close all municipalities with a population below 10,000 by slashing their state aid and pushing them to save money through shared services; not a single municipality can survive without state financing.

As for merging Matawan and Aberdeen, Mayor Sobel has one question – What’s in it for us? However you define “us”, it’s a fair question. I believe the math and politics of a merger strongly favor both municipalities but Matawan has never tried to persuade Aberdeen of the benefits.

So, what now? I’d advise Matawan to seek a “government bailout”; pursue state incentives to entice Aberdeen to merge with Matawan and then sell, sell, sell. Bypass the town council and speak directly to the people - Matawan and Aberdeen can achieve far more as a single town. Do I believe that is about to happen? No. More likely, the borough will continue to decline, possibly skirt bankruptcy, and ultimately be forced by the state to merge with another municipality.

Now is the best time for Matawan and Aberdeen to merge. Any way you look at it, it’s a good deal for the people of Matawan and Aberdeen. >>> Read more!

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Crash of '08

The ten most dangerous words in the English language are "Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." - Ronald Reagan

Though I’m reluctant to write about any topic that does not directly pertain to our neighborhood, the market crash demands attention. Whereas greed has always been with us, the latest meltdown has been brought to us by the government. Now, the same bureaucracy that brought down Wall St. is promising to fix the mess they created with more oversight, more regulation, and more spending. Haven’t they done enough?

Though this recipe for disaster has many ingredients, the story begins in 1977 with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Banks had long been accused of redlining - refusing to conduct business or grant loans in certain neighborhoods. The CRA allowed the federal government to consider a bank’s involvement in minority and low-income neighborhoods when reviewing the bank’s application to expand through acquisition, merger, or branching.

Over the years, especially in the 1990’s, the CRA was strengthened to ensure that banks continued lending to low-income neighborhoods. The CRA became especially important after the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed in 1999; the Depression-Era statute had forbidden commercial banks from doing investment banking.

So far, no problem.

The next ingredient came in 2001. Following the dot-com bubble bursting, a minor recession at the end of 2000, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Federal Reserve, fearing deflation, adopted an easy money policy and dropped overnight rates to 1%. In 2002, Ben Bernanke (then a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve) earned the moniker “Helicopter Ben” by referencing a Milton Friedman idea that the government could fight deflation by dropping bags of money from helicopters.

The Federal Reserve, however, made a mistake in focusing too much on core inflation, the rate of inflation excluding food and commodities. The rising global economy, coupled with increased trade, put downward pressure on prices despite the rise in commodity prices (gold, oil, construction materials, and agricultural products).

2001 was also the year of the Enron collapse. IRS regulations required the use of Mark to Market, evaluating marketable assets by the closing price on the last market day, but many of Enron’s assets were in illiquid markets so they used Mark to Model. Enron inflated profits by exaggerating asset values and hiding billions of dollars in losses through off-book accounting.

Enron’s senior executives were convicted of fraud and its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, though ultimately acquitted, was shut down. Still, Congress insisted on passing new legislation to prevent another “Enron”, hence the Sarbanes-Oxley law which strengthened accounting standards and imposed severe criminal liabilities for non-compliance. Mark to Market became the rule of the day regardless of market conditions.

The final ingredient for catastrophe was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) were created to establish a secondary market for home mortgages, thereby enabling banks to make more mortgages. Since the GSE’s had an implied government guarantee against default, they were able to borrow more money more cheaply than anybody else. And borrow they did, buying over $1.5 trillion in home mortgage securities.

However, following Enron, Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s auditors decided to review the books a second time and found them in non-compliance. In 2003, Freddie Mac was found hiding billions in profits to smooth earnings from year to year. In 2004, Fannie Mae was punished for hiding $9 billion in losses. The SEC’s chief accountant, Donald Nicolaisen, told Fannie Mae’s CEO, Franklin Raines, to imagine compliance as the four corners of a page with perfect compliance in the center. “You weren’t even on the page”, he told Raines.

In 2003, the White House, Alan Greenspan, and Congressional Republicans began sounding the alarm that the GSE’s had grown too large, had accumulated too much debt, and were posing a serious risk to the country’s financial system. The GSE’s fought back by championing affordable housing and flooding congressional allies with financial contributions. (During Senator Obama’s short tenure, he was Congress’s largest recipient, taking over $126,000 in campaign contributions. Chris Dodd, Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee that oversees the GSE’s was the all-time largest recipient at $165,000 over a 20-year period.) Fannie and Freddie weren’t allowed to purchase sub-prime loans but they were allowed to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into the securities backed by sup-prime loans. Any check on their purchases would have limited their ability to support affordable housing.

At the same time, Countrywide, the country’s larges originator of sub-prime loans and Fannie Mae’s poster boy who accounted for up to 30% of the loans purchased by Fannie Mae, began its “Friends of Angelo” program, named after the CEO, Angelo Mozilo. Senator Chris Dodd and other senior congressmen were offered a “V.I.P.” program that waved “points, lender fees, and borrowing rules”.

Facing strong democratic opposition and a tough election year, Republicans retreated.

Our cake is now complete. Banks, encouraged by the CRA, began making sub-prime loans. Fannie and Freddie, backed by an implied government guarantee and seeking to justify their government support, bought huge blocks of securities backed by sub-prime loans, thereby encouraging banks to issue even more risky loans. Low interest rates heats up the housing market, encouraging homeowners to use their newfound home equity like a checking account. And an inflexible mark to market rule that no one seems to notice. All we have to do is wait for something to go wrong.

As commodity prices kept rising, the fed began to slowly raise its rates. Despite prevailing wisdom on Wall St. that higher interest rates would end the housing boom, few analysts predicted a housing bust because of the low unemployment rate. Unfortunately, they discounted the types of home loans being taken. Many of the loans were non-amortizing low-deposit, adjustable rate mortgages with teaser rates. (The teaser rates had two purposes – to entice borrowers into larger mortgages and to meet Fannie/Freddie standards which only used six month projections.) In other words, not only would many homeowners be facing sharply higher mortgage payments but they would also be “underwater” since their homes were worth less than the mortgages. In fact, nearly one-third of Countrywide’s loans were negative-amortization loans, meaning the initial payments weren’t even covering the interest on the loan.

Sure enough, default rates shot upward but, even at today’s 6% default rate, the defaults should have been well within the financial industry’s capability, especially considering the mortgages are backed by homes and notes. The problem wasn’t in the default rate but in the industry’s inability to price the mortgage-backed securities.

Pools of home mortgages would be packaged into securities. Those securities would then be sliced a thousand ways. One security covered the interest payments. Another covered the principal. Then the securities were ranked according to who got paid first in the event of default. Then they were priced according to risk.

Bamm! The financial industry couldn’t price risk. First, FICO scores were no longer reliable predictors because default rates were more closely aligned to the equity in the house as even borrowers with good credit histories began to default. Then, certain areas such as Las Vegas and Miami saw housing prices plummet far faster than other areas, but the securities were bundled according to borrower’s credit risk, not the risk in falling housing prices. Then politicians jumped into the fray. Some sheriffs declared they wouldn’t foreclose on homes during the current crisis. Senator Hillary Clinton called for a rate freeze on adjustable rate mortgages.

Lastly, some banks were having difficulty foreclosing because mortgage filings with the county weren’t up to date. Securities are traded at the click of a button but only the recorded holder of a mortgage can foreclose on a house.

Suddenly, mortgage-backed securities, especially sub-prime mortgages, were “toxic”. Nobody wanted them and the market dried up.

Remember the Mark to Market rule? Well, how do you price a security in an illiquid market? Answer is same as you do for a liquid market – based on the price of the last sale.

To illustrate the problem, imagine a local homeowner has a gambling problem. One day, some large fellows with no necks explain to him that he only has a week to settle his debts or he may encounter complications. The homeowner is forced to sell his house at distressed prices, far below market value.

Unfortunately, under Mark to Market rules, the bank is forced to value all properties based upon the latest sale. They immediately contact a local developer and inform him that, based upon a recent sale, they’ve had to reappraise his property for far less and the developer needs to pay down his debt or they’ll foreclose. That developer becomes a distressed seller and the trend continues.

Same story in the mortgage backed securities market. Between the housing market crisis, unreliable risk predictors, and potential government intervention, the mortgage backed securities market dried up. But there’s always somebody in need of cash and they were forced to sell their securities at reduced prices. The moment they did, every company had to mark down the values of their own securities. Suddenly, they no longer had sufficient capital to support their leveraged investments and they were forced to liquidate more of their holdings at further reduced prices.

Once the dust began to settle, financial companies such as Merril Lynch and AIG had marked down their securities by nearly 80%. According to Fitch Ratings, as many as 45% of adjusted rate mortgages (ARMs) could default but the paper is backed by real property. Even assuming you only get back 50% of the mortgage value from foreclosing on the house, that still only translates into a 22.5% loss. Why then are companies being forced to writedown 80% of the value?

If these securities are such great bargains, why aren’t other companies taking advantage? Because most financial companies make their money by using highly leveraged positions. Imagine you buy these securities at a great buy and then some other company sells them for less, forcing you to mark down the securities. The paper loss could render you undercapitalized and force you to liquidate other holdings. Nobody wants to risk being placed in that position.

Mark to market accounting has resulted in the deaths or takeovers of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Sterns, Merril Lynch, Lehman Brothers, AIG, IndyMac, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Countrywide, and New Century Financial. Many of these companies deserved to die for creating outrageous mortgage instruments and not providing sufficient warning to borrowers but the massive wreckage across Wall St. is unwarranted.

In summary, we have an unbridled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac earning private profits by assuming public risk. They create a market for sub-prime loans by purchasing their securities. Financial companies begin offering unconventional and risky loans that many borrowers didn’t even understand, all in the name of affordable housing. When interest rates ultimately rise, housing prices drop and mortgage defaults increase to alarming levels. The securities market dries up and financial companies are forced to revalue their assets according to an accounting rule that has no rational basis in an illiquid market.

The result is a worldwide financial crisis, a trillion dollar bailout, and more unwanted government intervention. No matter how often government creates a crisis, the public turns to the government for the solution. The answer is less government, not more.
To end the crisis, I’d suggest the following steps:

  1. Shut down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The companies are no longer needed and the federal government can’t be trusted to run them.
  2. Establish triggers for declaring an illiquid market. During illiquid markets, companies can value their assets according to Mark to Maturity rather than Mark to Market.
  3. Grant securities backed by mortgages for primary residences the same tax exempt status as municipal bonds. Mortgage rates would drop, home prices would rise, and the refinancing spree would revitalize the banking industry.
  4. Restrain executive pay. All senior executives should have their compensation packages approved by a shareholder vote. If the owners want to overpay their CEO, that’s their business, but compensation packages shouldn’t be determined by a board handpicked by the CEO.
  5. Modify Regulation Z – Borrowers should be provided worst-case-scenarios over a 10 year period for all non-commercial loans.
Aside from the idea for tax-exempt securities, the above ideas have already been proposed by folk far more knowledgeable and influential than me. My goal is to simply refute the idea that our government is being run by uber-geniuses, that the market failed because there was insufficient government oversight, and that the answer is more government.

We don’t need monster bailouts, needless government interference, or market manipulation. Changing a few simple rules and protecting the integrity of the marketplace is all the government needs to do. >>> Read more!