Thursday, January 29, 2009

Will Aberdeen End Pay-to-Play?

The title is a rhetorical question. Nobody expects the all-Democratic Aberdeen Town Council to forfeit their patronage game whereby they exchange contracts for campaign cash. However, the town council’s draft pay-to-play ordinance would be a large step in the right direction and I support it.

The ordinance is quite simple – any campaign contribution above the threshold limits (currently $300 for an individual and $2500 for a business entity) during the preceding 12 months would prevent that contributor from receiving a no-bid contract.

CME Associates would still be the town engineer and the council’s largest contributor. They would still receive over half a million dollars a year in engineering fees from local residents, businessmen, and developers. They would still get virtually every engineering contract from the township. But, for the first time in over a decade, they would need to bid on a contract, at least during an election year.

Even though professional service contracts don’t need to be given to the lowest bidder, my guess is CME would underbid the competition and then seek additional compensation for those “unforeseen” circumstances that seem to crop into every project.

Why, then, not support a total ban on political contributors from receiving municipal contracts? Two reasons.

First, we can’t discriminate between serial pay-to-players like CME and the Average Joe. Should any businessman be forced to choose between supporting a political campaign and his livelihood? Aren’t campaign contributions an expression of political speech?

Secondly, if we create a total ban, we’ll simply be shifting the campaign contributions from mainstream political organizations to shadowy groups that have no accountability, like the Educators for a Quality Education who supported Rubino and Ruprecht during last year’s school board elections.

Yet, I support the draft pay-to-play ordinance because at least we will have some request for quotes (RFQs) and, for the first time in the 21st century, finally see what these engineering projects truly cost.

If the townsfolk want to end pay-to-play, they can elect people who don’t play and punish those who do. Until then, with or without a new pay-to-play ordinance, expect CME and their ilk to continue dining at the town council’s table.
>>> Read more!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ms. Demarest’s Theory of (Zero) Accountability

Last night, the Board of Education finally acknowledged that Ms. Rappaport had been a director of special education services during the 2007-08 school year and had been paid as such. Nor did the board attempt to explain why she held a position for which she lacked certification. The kicker, however, was when Ms. Demarest stated that, as a board member, she was only accountable for her board votes and nothing else. By her logic, she never voted for out-of-control spending, poor academic performance, or to retain unqualified personnel. No, she’s not the slightest bit accountable for any of that. How pathetic.

Let’s review some of the things for which Ms. Demarest, President of the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District Board of Education is not accountable.

How reassuring that Ms. Demarest isn’t accountable for any of that.

During the meeting, Ms. Demarest said she’d make herself available for any questions I had regarding her voting record. So, following the meeting I took advantage of her offer. She patiently listened to my questions, declared she wouldn’t answer any of them, and then launched into personal attacks against me. (Though the attacks were made publicly, they were not intended to be part of the public record.)

Using the “Demarest Method” of accountability, let’s review her voting record.Oh, let’s not forget the thousands she spent (including program fees) to attend the annual NJ School Board Association conferences in Atlantic City. Undoubtedly, the benefits to the district have been well worth the expense. Next time a student’s extra curricular activity lacks funding, just remember that Ms. Demarest considers it more important for her to attend “enrichment” programs in AC.

This coming April, don’t forget Ms. Demarest’s motto – High taxes, poor academics, I didn’t vote for any of those things. I’m not accountable. >>> Read more!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The School Board’s Political Wings

Technically, school board elections are non-partisan. The reality is quite different. The Matawan-Aberdeen school board has two wings that are quite distinct in their voting records, their philosophies, and their management styles. It’s my understanding that both wings will promote candidates for this April’s school board election. Before people cast their votes, they should take the time to not only learn about the candidates but learn about their “political leanings” as well.

The majority wing includes BOE President Patricia Demarest, BOE Vice President Jan Rubino, Catherine Zavorskas, John Barbato, and Martin Ruprecht. Though the wing lacks any formal name, common nicknames include Left, Progressive, Quinn, and Barza. Left refers to where they sit from the audience perspective. Progressive because they believe much of education can’t be measured and therefore rely upon informal feedback to evaluate programs. Quinn because of their allegiance to former Superintendent Bruce Quinn. Barza because the wing is most strongly associated with the board’s two longest serving members, Barbato and Zavorskas.

The minority wing is Larry O’Connell, Gerald Donaghue, Charles Kenny, and Thomas Gambino. Common nicknames are Right, Standards, and O’Malley wing. They sit on the right, believe in setting measurable goals and standards, and appointed Dr. O’Malley as the new superintendent.

The differences between the two sides are stark.

Quinn was hired by the Progressive wing in 2002. In 2003, Demarest, an uncontested candidate for the board, said Superintendent Quinn was great for the district. Then, in 2007, an APP editorial (reproduced here without attribution) claimed Quinn resigned over disagreements with a divided board. In other words, the standards wing, which had a majority in 2007, made life difficult enough for Quinn to resign.

O’Malley was appointed by the standards wing. Despite his appointment being a sure thing, three board members took public stances against his appointment– Demarest, Barbato, and Zavorskas.

Education Standards:
During the 2008-09 school year, one third of seniors were taking remedial courses for failing to score 50% on a state assessment exam. The Progressive wing of the school board set a goal that more students should pass the 50% hurdle on state assessments but would not work towards pushing more students across the 75% line. Demarest, as board president, claimed that, in her opinion, scoring 75% on a state exam was “outstanding”.

Yet, Dr. O’Malley set a goal to increase test scores at all levels and introduced the three academies with rigorous standards.

Quinn appointed his former secretary, a high school graduate, to Director of Technology. He retained a Director of Testing and Director of Special Services despite knowing they lacked statutory qualifications for those positions.

Dr. O’Malley demoted two of those directors. (The third previously retired.)

Most of the Progressive members have admitted to using their positions to help acquaintances receive special consideration for jobs in the school district. Most Standards members have refused. (The deputy superintendent, as a matter of policy, gives special consideration to all “courtesy requests” by any board member or other public official.)

Fiscal Oversight:
During the 2007 audit, in a random sample of 60 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.

Ms. Irons, the district’s business administrator and another Standards hire, corrected all problems in a single year.

In 2006, the Progressive wing voted to fund a $1.45 million field through a lease-purchase agreement rather than submit the proposal to a public referendum.

Last June, the board awarded a work-study position to Zavorska’s daughter despite the state department of education requesting that such practices be banned.

Personal Expenditures:
Each year, all board members have the prerogative to attend the New Jersey School Board annual convention. This past year, Gambino recommended the members no longer attend as a gesture towards the taxpayers. The entire Standards wing agreed but the Progressive wing insisted upon attending. The following is a table of all travel reimbursements for this convention since 2003. (The average is based upon years of service since 2003 and does not include the cost of attendance. Click here to view their itemized expenses.)

Since 2003 Total Avg.
Zavorskas $786.69 $131.12
Barbato $678.74 $113.12
Demarest $639.30 $106.55
Rubino $599.97 $100.00
Donaghue $212.73 $35.46
Gambino $48.50 $24.25
O'Connell $0.00 $0.00
Kenny $0.00 $0.00
Ruprecht $0.00 $0.00

The three top spenders were Zavorskas, Barbato, and Demarest, the same three who voted against Dr. O’Malley’s appointment. Trailing close behind is Rubino. Among the Progressive wing, only newcomer Ruprecht is in the bottom half.

The coming election will likely see candidates from both political wings. Be sure to ask them with whom they stand. Elections matter. >>> Read more!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Property Tax Blame Game

There’s an old story of two beggars plotting to pilfer apples from the king’s orchard. However, one beggar was lame and the other was blind. So, the blind man carried the lame person on his shoulders and, together, they were able to snatch apples off the king’s trees. When they were caught and brought before the king, each beggar blamed the other. The lame person said he is guiltless because, without the blind man’s help, he could never have reached the apples. The blind man professed innocence because, without the lame person, he could never have known where to go. So, the king placed the lame person on the blind man’s shoulders and charged them together.

Aberdeen township has the third highest equalized tax rate in Monmouth County. The municipality blames the school district, which spends most of the tax revenue. The school district blames the township for not developing more ratables to spread the tax burden. As a community, we need to hold them jointly accountable.

In the past decade, Aberdeen Township has not broken ground on a single major development except for the Avalon condos by the train station. The development generates $950,000 in PILOT payments, minus the education costs for children in the development and the additional COAH housing. Since the COAH units haven’t been built, yet, the development likely saves the average household a little over a $100 a year. Nice but not enough.

As for all the other developments – Anchor Glass, Aberdeen Forge, Church St. Senior Housing, Transit Village, Cliffwood Beach – we’ve got nothing. The transit village is particularly disturbing considering the newfound opportunities to garner federal funding. The township is continuing to work with Silver Oaks, a developer convicted of attempting to bribe an IRS agent who uncovered possible tax evasion. The same developer also used his son to sue Matawan for choosing another developer – a lawsuit the borough won but could ill afford. The township also passed a “pay-to-play” ordinance designed to allow the town council to continue doling jobs to their political patrons but blocks Matawan’s developer from working in Aberdeen.

Still, the township asks us for more time. Last week, Mayor Sobel told the Independent “I have found that over the years, that these kinds of projects have lives of their own. You learn to be patient.”

Amazing. Aberdeen Township has one of the most desirable locations in all of New Jersey – a major highway, the shore, close proximity to Manhattan, and a commuter train - yet we can’t attract any major developments? Not a single developer is interested in any commercial development? How about a healthcare complex that encompasses assorted medical offices and outpatient clinics? What happened to the retirement community in Freneau? Are people no longer getting older?

10 years and the mayor asks us to be patient. I think we’ve been patient enough. We need to attract developers and build projects that contribute to our community and ease our tax burden.

Last Monday, Dr. O’Malley made a presentation to the school board on the difficulties of restraining spending growth and tax hikes. The message was simple – we’ve made some progress but there’s very little to cut in a $63 million budget. Examples of progress were primarily reductions in transportation costs. Most of the budget growth is due to contractual obligations that our “capable” school board negotiated.

Well, let’s do some quick math. Assuming another 4% hike in the school budget, minus the haircut after it’s defeated for an eighth consecutive year at the polls, we’re looking at a $65 million school budget for 3,800 kids. Since we’re looking at short-term solutions, let’s lop off the approximately $7 million spent on out-placement and special services for special needs students. That still leaves a bit over $15,000 per student.

Some more math. The average class has about 20 students. That means we’re spending $300,000 per class. Lots of different subjects, so each class needs to share teachers and other resources, but $300,000 per class? And there’s no place to cut? Rather than ask the superintendent to cut costs, let’s first ask him to justify $300,000 per class. Would our school district self-destruct if we chose to only spend $275,000 per class?

At what point will our school board look at the budget and recognize it’s out of control? Who will be the first board member to reject any further tax increases?

Rather than allow each politico to point fingers at the other guys, we need to shackle them together and hold them jointly responsible for what they’ve done and failed to do. They are all responsible.
>>> Read more!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

MARSD, We Have a Problem

Legal issues often turn on a single question. I had asked Dr. Higgins, the Director of the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Licensure and Credentials, two questions - Does a Director of technology need to be certified? (No) Can a supervisor of special education oversee all child study teams throughout the district? (Yes) As several readers noted, the story was missing a critical piece – Why would former Superintendent Quinn go to all the trouble of fabricating a change in title for Ms. Rappaport if the two titles were virtually identical? I was prompted to ask Dr. Higgins one more question.

If the district was to change a person's title, but not his job description, from supervisor of special education to director of special education, would a supervisor's certificate still suffice?

Dr. Higgins answered “A director’s title, directly supervising certificated staff, requires that one hold a school administrator’s certificate, or a standard principal’s certificate.”

Though I’m still searching for supporting documentation, in the words of Adrian Monk, here’s what happened.

In 1999, the state issued a letter to the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District stating Ms. Rappaport lacked certification to be a Director of Special Education. Then, probably in the fall of 2003, the county issued a letter to Quinn demanding that both Rappaport and Pond be reassigned to positions for which they were certified since both of them lacked certification to be a director.

So began the charade. In December, 2003, the school board (two-thirds of whom are still board members) conspired with Quinn to “change” Rappaport’s and Pond’s positions to supervisors. Quinn promptly informed the county of the changes and updated the matrix report. Of course, as was previously demonstrated, their positions were never changed.

Quinn, whether out of laziness or arrogance, didn’t even bother to conceal what he did.

  • The former superintendent never demanded Rappaport and Pond obtain proper certification
  • He never updated the job descriptions for director of special education or director of testing. Both list a supervisor’s certificate as qualification and are therefore non-compliant with state law
  • He never wrote job descriptions for the newly titled positions
And the board played along. Nobody on the board objected to Rappaport and Pond retaining their director titles. Nobody objected to Rappaport testifying as a director of special education. Nobody objected to Quinn defying a board vote or maintaining people in positions for which they were not legally qualified. Nobody objected to Quinn submitting false statements to the state and county. Nobody objected to having job descriptions (special ed, testing) that were in non-compliance or assigning people to positions for which no job description existed. Nobody objected to a supervisor receiving a director’s salary.

Every current school board member who has ever been an officer of the board was at that December, 2003, board meeting and voted to reassign Rappaport and Pond. What are they going to say now? Oops, I forgot?

At last night’s school board meeting, I asked what Ms. Rappaport’s title was during the 07-08 academic year. Between the board members, the administration, and the attorney, there’s over 100 years of combined experience in Matawan-Aberdeen sitting at that table, yet not one person could tell me the title of the 4th highest salaried employee in the district.

As for Cholewa, it was perfectly legal for the board to appoint Quinn’s former secretary, a high school graduate, to director of technology. Ethical or responsible? No. But certainly legal.

By the way, I only quoted the first half of Dr. Higgins’s email. The second half reads as follows – “As I do not want to get into a dispute in this indirect fashion, I will forward our emails to the Executive County superintendent of Monmouth County for her consideration.”

Before the authorities begin knocking on doors, I have one final question for Quinn and Co. - Do you regret what you did or do you only regret getting caught? >>> Read more!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Questions for Quinn and Co.


I have to give Matawan-Aberdeen school board attorney, Michael Gross, his dues. After receiving conflicting information from the county, state, and special education attorneys, I finally contacted Dr. Robert Higgins, the Director of the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Licensure and Credentials. His response confirmed Gross’s positions regarding a Supervisor of Special Services (Education) and Director of Technology. Does that mean everyone else is guilt-free? Hardly. But at least the district’s attorney is proving his mettle. As for the rest of the school board and former Superintendent Quinn, in particular, there are still many unanswered questions.

Regarding the question of having a Director of Technology who was previously a secretary that only completed high school, Dr. Higgins said the position only required certification if it managed people who were certificated, exactly the answer Gross provided in private discussion; the DoT’s job description specifically excludes certificated personnel from oversight.

At the last board meeting, Gross claimed that changing Ms. Rappaport’s position from a director to supervisor was not a demotion because, at the time, they had the same salary guidelines and responsibilities. That is true as well.

As for whether a supervisor can oversee all child study teams throughout the district, Dr. Higgins has stated the law is unclear on this point but that his office would not oppose such an appointment unless the courts rule otherwise. (It also explains why Ms. Rappaport never pursued a director’s certification. The job description only requires a supervisor’s certification.)

Unfortunately, there are still a number of unanswered questions.

Was Ms. Rappaport’s position ever changed from director to supervisor?
In December 2003, the school board voted to change Ms. Rappaport’s position from a director to supervisor. By law, Superintendent Quinn was required to implement the board’s directive yet the only evidence that he did so is the matrix report listing her as a supervisor and submitted to the state. All other evidence points to the fact her position was never changed. Ms. Rappaport retained the title of director, signed a sworn affidavit attesting to her being a director, and was paid a director’s salary (even when subsequent salary guidelines differentiated between the two positions).

Plus, the school district doesn’t have a job description for a Supervisor of Special Services. Ms. Rappaport always worked under the job description for a director, even after the board vote. (At the same December 15th, 2003, BOE meeting, Ms. Caroline Pond was reassigned from Director of Testing and Special Programs to Supervisor Planning/Research and Evaluation (Testing). The school district does not have a job description of that supervisor position either.)

Why did Quinn recommend changing Rappaport’s title?
If Ms. Rappaport was going to perform the same duties for the same pay, why bother changing her title? Why was it so important to change her title on the matrix report?

Was there collusion between Quinn and Rappaport?
Surely, Ms. Rappaport, one of the most senior and longest serving members of the school administration knew her position was being changed yet she happily retained the same title and benefits.

One curious point is the MRAA contract. Why were supervisors and directors on the same pay scale? Ms. Rappaport’s signature is on the contract which was ratified only five months before the board voted to change her position. Did she have foreknowledge of the position change?

Also, Rappaport’s relationship with Quinn is well known. Quinn’s wife worked under Rappaport and is one of her biggest supporters.

What was the school board’s role?
The board voted to change Ms. Rappaport’s position. As one of the most prominent members of the administration, it was no secret that her position was never changed. Why did the board acquiesce? Was the board also aware that Quinn never intended to change Ms. Rappaport’s position? What was the board’s rationale behind the vote?

Were funds misappropriated?
From 2005-2008, Ms. Rappaport was paid at the higher salary of a director. Since she should have been paid a supervisor’s salary, who’s responsible for the overpayment? Why was her salary not commensurate with her title as reported to the state in the matrix report?

Regarding other positions –

Why did the school board believe that Ms. Cholewa, Quinn’s former secretary and a high school graduate, was the best candidate to become Director of Technology?
Some of the qualifications for a DoT include:

  • Successful experience with the development, deployment and daily maintenance of large Local/Wide Area Networks
  • Successful experience with contractors, architects, electrical engineers in the modifications of existing facilities for technology
  • Successful experience with the purchase, implementation, successful deployment and daily maintenance of payroll, accounting, personnel, automated calling systems, automated library services, and photo identification cards systems, and other types of services/systems
Ms. Cholewa undoubtedly had experience with computers, as does every reader of this blog, but that alone isn’t qualification to become a Director of Technology.

Ms. Rappaport and Ms. Pond were reassigned to positions that lacked job descriptions. Is it common practice to assign staff to positions for which no job description exists?

As was evident at the last board meeting, BOE President Demarest, one of this blog’s most avid readers, has assumed the role of Sgt. Schultz in “Hogan’s Heroes” – “I know nothing!” Thank goodness for Dr. O’Malley. Plainly, none of these issues concern our board leadership. >>> Read more!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

To the Victor Go the Spoils

Fans of this blog are familiar with Vic Scudiery. As owner of Airport Plaza, he is landlord to Aberdeen Township’s former attorney (Norman Kauff), public defender (Marc Schram), auditor (Tom Fallon), and Councilman Joe Raymond’s employer, the MVC. As head of the Monmouth County Democratic Party, he is also kingmaker. Beginning today, for the first time in 23 years, Democrats have control of Monmouth County. For those among the longtime party faithful, payday has arrived.

For years, council members have been rumored to be dreaming of state/county jobs. Why? Aside from the cushy job and benefits, there’s the pension. Here’s how the math works.

Let’s take Mayor David Sobel as an example. At the completion of his mayoral term, he’ll have served this township as a government employee for 12 years. Let’s say he then works 3 years as a state or county employee in a management position for an average of $90,000 a year. Here’s the math –

Annual Pension = (Years of Service)/55 X Avg. Salary of 3 highest years
Annual Pension = (12 + 3)/55 X $90,000
Annual Pension = $24,454 a year for life

Let’s say Mayor Sobel doesn’t get that job and only has the pension based upon his mayoral salary.
Annual Pension = (Years of Service)/55 X Avg. Salary of 3 highest years
Annual Pension = (12)/55 X $7,830
Annual Pension = $1,708 a year for life

So, three years of work in a cushy state/county job will net the mayor over $22,500 a year, plus cost-of-living adjustments, for the rest of his life.

It’s all perfectly legal and emblematic of New Jersey politics.

Of course, this is purely speculative and no jobs have been offered, yet. Will Scudiery deliver? Only time will tell.
>>> Read more!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Beginning the Year with Gratitude

My deepest apologies for not thanking the firefighters who attend the Chanukah menorah lighting every year. The event could not happen without their supervision and I am most thankful for their service.

Before launching into more investigative and opinion pieces, I wish to thank numerous people who, over the past year, have been kind to me despite any personal reservations they may have.

After TD Bank purchased Commerce Bank, they discontinued Commerce’s long standing tradition of hosting large outdoor menorahs during Hanukkah. Despite the short notice, Aberdeen Township permitted the ceremonial lighting at Town Hall. Special thanks go to Town Manager Criscuolo, who attended, and the recreation department. Also in attendance were councilmen Drapkin and Tagliarini.

I’d also like to thank Mr. Criscuolo for including the Greater Aberdeen Garage Sale on the town calendar. I’ll be making a number of changes for the upcoming year to help everyone improve sales and I appreciate the added publicity through the town calendar. (One more request, though – Please bring back the old township website. The new design is honestly terrible.)

My thanks to Councilman Raymond. Though I disagree with his votes, I stand in admiration of his love for our community.

Though I’m sure Mayor Sobel would prefer my blog focus upon our neighborhood’s fine eating establishments, he has always been respectful, cordial, and responsive. My thanks go to him as well.

On the Board of Education, two members have been quite gracious towards me despite my attacks against them in this blog – John Barbato and Jan Rubino. To this day, Mr. Barbato greets me with a warm smile and freely answers any questions I may have. Though Jan Rubino and I have not been on speaking terms since I objected to awarding a work-study position to fellow BOE member Zavorskas’s daughter, I give Ms. Rubino great credit for reaching out to me following last April’s election. Nor do I hold it against her for taking umbrage at her friend’s treatment.

Michael Gross, the school district’s attorney, has my gratitude for taking the time to speak with me in private regarding certain legal positions the district has assumed. I now appreciate his role far more than I did previously. In private, Mr. Gross is a legal adviser to the district. In public, however, as the school district’s legal advocate, it is his responsibility to provide a vigorous legal defense of the district’s actions. This does not mean he necessarily agrees with his own positions nor that he supports the district’s policies. It only means he’s defending the district to the best of his ability.

I wish to extend thanks to the staff in Aberdeen Township and the school district administration that, almost without exception, have been consistently warm and helpful whenever I’ve turned to them for assistance.

Lastly, I’d like to thank my readership. Whether you agree with me or not, thank you for taking the time to read my articles. Thank you for your comments. And thank you for joining your voices with mine in seeking to improve our community.
>>> Read more!