Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Moment of Silence

At tonight's BOE meeting, Mayor Buccellato informed the school board that Matawan Councilman Joe Urbano's parents were killed in a horrific auto accident on Saturday.

Words cannot express our sorrow and pain for the Urbano family. >>> Read more!

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Budgets

Click Here for the 2008 Budget
Click Here for the 2009 Budget

They weren’t the best of times. They weren’t the worst of times. The times were just bad but possibly getting worse. The Matawan-Aberdeen school district responded by capping expenses to produce a no-increase tax levy. Aberdeen Township responded by raising taxes another 9.5% on top of the prior year’s 12% tax increase. The voters overwhelmingly supported the school budget by 60-40%. The town council has another six months to either explain themselves or pray the voters forget.

Dr. O’Malley is building quite a record. In his first year, he’s introduced several programs, removed senior personnel who lacked appropriate credentials, watched the three board members who voted against his appointment all retire their seats, and passed the first school budget in eight years.

To freeze the tax levy, O’Malley needed to cut $600,000 from the budget, despite contractual obligations that increased teacher salaries 4.25% and health insurance another 7%. One quick fix would have been to accept the pension deferment being offered by the state. O’Malley refused because the “buy now, pay later” plan was a bad deal for the district. He streamlined and cut costs where he could. When that wasn’t enough, he enacted 5% across-the-board cuts on all discretionary spending.

By contrast, look at the town budget and weep.

Sheet 3b –
Maximum Allowable Amount to be Raised by Taxation – 8,558,712
Amount to be Raised by Taxation for Municipal Purposes – 8,558,712

Municipal taxes are rising 9.5% this year, or 22.4% in the two years since the Democrats promoted their “no tax increase” during the last election cycle.

Undoubtedly, we’ll hear how, despite raising taxes by the legal maximum amount, the township also cut spending $470,000 from the prior year. (Sheet 3) Oh, if only that were so. In contrast to the school district, the township took the pension deferral; $458,000 in pension payments that should have been paid this year will now need to be paid in the future, with interest.

So, in a $15.3 million dollar budget, during a recession, the township successfully cut spending by $12,000.

Still, if spending is going down, why are taxes going up? Well, don’t blame the state. State aid is only down a net $47,000. (Sheet 5)

No, the big holes come from a magically disappearing surplus. In two years, our anticipated surplus has dropped $889,000. (Sheet 4) Additionally, last year we took $600,000 from the General Capital Fund. (Sheet 10a) Don’t know what we spent the money on but we don’t have that $600,000 to plug any holes this year.

Our cash and investments are down over a million dollars during the past year alone. (Sheet 39)

One would think, considering the recession and all, the town would look to cut expenses. After all, tax delinquencies are up over 10%. (Sheet 11) Our town council, however, has decided that, in these tough times, we need to look after our friends.

For example, there’s our good friend and township attorney, Daniel McCarthy (for whom Norman Kauff is “of counsel”). Legal services are going up $47,000, nearly 40%. (Sheet 13) But please try to not get arrested. The public defender’s budget has been completely eliminated.

As for our friends at CME (the ones who will be bankrolling the Democratic campaign), have no fear. We’re increasing spending for the road improvement program by $150,000 to $2.5 million. (Sheet 40c)

Yet, not all friends are created equal. Township employees will be forced to accept furloughs.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Cut the road improvement program to $1.5 million a year. Hire an in-house engineer and eliminate the half million a year CME collects in engineering fees from the locals. Renegotiate contracts for professional services, like Matawan did with its borough attorney. Introduce competitive bidding for all professional contracts whenever possible.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The town council has choices and we will have to live with the choices they make.

(On a side note, special thanks to Karen Ventura and Maxine Rescorl for a flawless election. Too bad the county doesn't have people of similar caliber.)
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Monday, April 20, 2009


Please join Liz Loud-Hayward, Gerry Donaghue, and me, to celebrate our elections to the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, at Maloney’s Pub & Grill at 117 Main St., Matawan, starting 8:30 PM.

So many of you have helped us so much and we would love to have the opportunity to thank you and share our joy.

To our would-be contributors, here is the opportunity to have your money well-spent. To our supporters, please come and join the revelry. To our opponents, Lord knows you need a drink as well, so please come and join the party.

To our police officers, firefighters, and EMTs, your first drink is on me.

We look forward to seeing you there.
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Friday, April 17, 2009

A School Board Beauty Contest

(Note: Don’t forget to support the school budget on Tuesday, April 21st. Dr. O’Malley has cut spending $600,000 without gimmicks or service reductions.)

One of the new school board’s first actions will be to fill the vacancy following Ms. Zavorskas’s resignation. Although appointing a board member is an inherently subjective process, there is a growing consensus among the board that the process needs to be more objective to force us to focus upon each candidate’s qualifications. The goal is to select the person who would best serve the school district.

In that vein, several ideas have been floated which, in turn, raise interesting questions. The purpose of this post is not to promote any position but rather to hear the public’s views, at least from those willing to share them.

Below is a list of suggested criteria. The question for each criterion is whether it should be considered and, if so, how should it be weighted.

Voting Record
Last year’s election saw a 17% turnout in Aberdeen, near the historical norm. Approximately 80% of the residents have never bothered to vote in school district elections during the last five years.

Should a candidate’s voting record be considered? If so, how much should it weighted. Bear in mind that if a candidate’s voting record is weighted heavily, nearly 80% of the public would be virtually precluded from being considered.

School Board Attendance
Ideally, a candidate would be familiar with the board’s operations, its members, and some of the big issues the board has confronted over the past years. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To invite a board member who knows nothing of the past would be an invitation to repeat our past mistakes.

School board meetings also offer concerned citizens the opportunity to question the board leadership and meet with board members following the meeting.

Lastly, only the regular school board meetings are televised. Yet, many of the presentations and board discussions take place at the committee of the whole meetings, which are not videotaped.

Sadly, only a handful of people regularly attend board meetings. I would guesstimate that only a score of residents have attended more than three meetings over the past year.

Once again, heavily weighting this criterion severely limits the candidate pool.

School District Knowledge
Most people in our community have some general knowledge of the schools, either as parents or neighbors. Is that general knowledge enough or do we require more? For example, should that person have, at least, a passing familiarity with the budget process or employment contracts?

School District Involvement
Though I have not seen the list of candidates, I assume anyone applying for the open seat will have a record of community service. The question is whether that community service should include activities related to the school district and/or education.

A history of activism in education would demonstrate passion to help our students and an awareness of the issues.

Once again, on a proportional basis, few people have such a record and certainly not if we restrict the time frame to the last several years.

It’s no surprise the “standards” wing of the school board is mostly comprised of members with advanced degrees. Current and former members of the “progressive” wing mostly had baccalaureate degrees. The political breakdown suggests residents with advanced degrees feel a greater urgency to “raise the bar” for all students.

Still, lacking an advanced degree doesn’t imply a person is less educated or less concerned to see students achieve academic excellence. (Fair Disclosure: I only have a B.S.)

There is an assumption that, up to a point, the longer you live here, the more knowledgeable you are of what has been happening in the school district. Conversely, new residents are assumed to be less knowledgeable. As was the case earlier, we don’t want people who are ignorant of the district’s history.

Should length of residency be a factor? If so, what’s the minimum threshold before a candidate is penalized? (Fair Disclosure: I have only been a resident two years.)

Children in the District
Another question is whether parents with children in the school district should be given preference on the assumption they are more involved with the district and more invested in its success. If so, what of parents whose children have already graduated? Or whose children are too young to enroll (as is my case)? Or those who send their children to a private school because they want their kids to get a better education (as may be my case)?

Minority Status
The school board will have six men and two women members, all white. At least three members have special needs children. The one segment of our student community that, demographically, is under-represented is the African American community. Should we give special preference to someone who is black and can voice the concerns of that segment of our community?

If I’ve missed any criteria, feel free to add your own. I welcome your feedback.
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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ramblings of a Busy Man

I apologize for the long gap between postings – the largest to date. Unfortunately, for those interested in breaking news, erudition, and beautifully written prose, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a bit longer. Should any of you, for reasons unknown, be interested in the disjointed ramblings of a person too busy to show his readers the minimal respect of a coherent sentence, by all means, please continue reading.

I already miss the days when I didn’t just break the news, I made the news. I’d love to muse about how none of the candidates running for town council have ever won an election. Or how Gregory Cannon has never voted in Aberdeen because he’s always been registered in Matawan. I don’t think that violates residency requirements but, if the Republicans had enough money for an attorney, we could have had another show like the one his father gave us.

It also reminds me of a school board member who never (recently?) voted in a school district election until he voted for himself.

I’ll write about the town budget when I see it but so far I’m unimpressed. There’s been talk of requiring town employees to take unpaid furloughs and the town has taken the state’s offer to defer pension payments. The school district had that same opportunity and declined saying the later payments would be too expensive and there were too many unknowns in the program. Looks like the town may be more concerned with good press than good financing. If we don’t have the money for the pension payments, we should take it from the surplus. Better yet, how about taking it from the road program?

As for Matawan’s fiscal condition, it’s only a matter of time before they’re forced to merge with another municipality. Problem is nobody wants them; Matawan’s been under-investing in their infrastructure for over a decade.

I’m glad to see the RCM developments are off the table for now but they’ll be back. This November, control of the town council is up for grabs. Two years later, it’ll be the same story. My guess is the town leadership will wait till the state gives preliminary approval to the COAH plan and then tell everyone we have no choice because it’s a state mandate.

The development on Church St. is another story. We won’t see anything there until CME has milked that cow dry. The $400,000 grant for soil testing will likely show the site requires soil removal and we’ll need an engineer to plan and oversee that project. Then, assuming the developer is still interested, CME will need to review all variance requests and construction.

As for the school board, changing from outspoken critic to insider has been quite jarring. Like many, I was distraught over the district was not providing AP Chemistry next year. My first thought was – we have to do something to prevent this in the future. Then I thought – future? We have to do something now!

I asked the high school administration if we could reinstate the class if I recruited enough students to register. Sure, they said. Just keep in mind the following – The students have to qualify for an AP class so they don’t slow down other students. Next, you don’t want to steal students from physics or biology so those classes don’t have enrollment issues. Lastly, if you recruit juniors, their schedules need to match and they need to have taken high school chemistry.

I got the message – we only have a limited number of students qualified to take AP science and, of those who could, most of them wanted physics or biology. The real problem is that not enough students are interested or qualified to take AP science and there’s not enough time to rectify that before the school year is over.

My next education was in personnel. The next board meeting isn’t scheduled until after the election so I was invited to interview two candidates for Director of Special Services. Both were certainly well qualified but I was surprised we only had two candidates. When I asked Dr. O’Malley, he said that after months of advertising and working the grapevine, the administration could only find two qualified people willing to work in our district.

Surprisingly, there’s been very little talk of the half-dozen candidates or so for the open seat on the school board. I think it’s because we can’t imagine having so many candidates. It reminds me of a scene from Seinfeld when Jerry and George go to visit a pizzeria from their high school days before it closes down. After hearing how much they loved the place, the owner responds “So where you been all these years. We’re dying here.”

I know all the school board regular attendees and, to my knowledge, only one of them has applied for the position. Does the community have such low regard for the school board to believe that any well-intentioned individual should be able to waltz in and take a seat? I wonder how many candidates at least attended the school board meeting after filing their applications.

For some good news, I was able to say Birchas Hachamah this morning. It’s a blessing we only say at the beginning of the solar cycle when it starts on a Wednesday morning, same as the time of creation. Since the solar cycle doesn’t match the weekly calendar, we only get to say it once every twenty-eight years, and that’s assuming we can see the sun. Today was also only the third time in 1300 years we said it the morning before Passover.

On that note, I must bid farewell and wish my Jewish and Christian brothers-in-arms happy holidays. I hope to be back in form soon.
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