Monday, December 27, 2010

Looking Ahead

Three years ago, was launched at a moment everything started to change. The Great Recession was getting underway and the nation was about to take a dramatic turn to the left, electing the most liberal president in history and awarding super-majorities to the Democrats in both houses of congress.

Locally, Dr. Gambino’s election to the school board shifted the balance of power and a new administration under Dr. O’Malley directed the district toward achieving objective goals.

On the flip side, the popular town manager, Stuart Brown, was summarily terminated after waging an internal battle against corruption and waste. The teachers union was picketing at school board members’ homes for higher wages. And Aberdeen and Matawan were among the top five highest taxed municipalities in Monmouth County.

Over the next three years, the Tea Party was born, Governor Christie was elected, and the country has shifted back to center-right. On the school board, only one of six Aberdeen representatives has served more than one term. In the township, a majority of the council seats turned over although every seat stayed within the local Democratic Party.

So, what will the next three years bring?

Higher Taxes
Nobody living in Aberdeen would expect otherwise. Over the past three years, municipal taxes have increased roughly 30%. The township’s “secret plan” is to offset spending increases with new development through PILOT programs. PILOT stands for “payments in lieu of taxes”.

Property taxes have to be apportioned to each tax collecting body, i.e. school, county, fire, etc. The township’s meager 17% share of property taxes from new development wouldn’t be enough to offset new spending, meaning municipal property taxes would keep rocketing upward despite the added revenue from new development. However, PILOT payments aren’t taxes so the township gets to keep the lion’s share and technically hold down taxes while allowing spending to soar.

No such luck by the school district. The township favors residential development over commercial development because developers prefer residential. Unfortunately for taxpayers, any development that attracts children is a net loss. At over $15,000 per student, any unit with a child will cost the town more than it can recoup through taxes. Furthermore, children from low-income families, on average, require more services and, therefore, cost more. COAH housing could be especially costly to the school district.

Meanwhile, the school district has never developed any significant revenue streams aside from taxes and state funding. There’s some hope of developing an autism program to attract out-of-district students but, until that happens, the focus is cutting costs. The district has already begun outsourcing – cafeteria, substitutes, custodians – and there’s more to go – transportation, secretarial, aides, guidance counselors, child study teams, etc. Classes can be cut, class sizes can increase, and more extra curricular can be eliminated. However, at some point the cutting will stop.

Meanwhile, contractual and statutory increases are on the march. Last year, prior to the budget cuts, the district projected a $3.5 million increases from salary, pension, health, and special education. The average teachers union officer saw his salary increase about 25% over the prior three years.

Some day, in the not too distant future, those annual increases will overwhelm any cost cutting measures.

It doesn’t have to go this way but we all know it will. Governor Christie’s 2% cap should help but don’t discount those wily politicians and public administrators who will use every trick in the book to take your money.

Self-Serving Politicos
The school district has a $60 million budget and the board members are paid zilch. Fire District #1 has a budget equal to 1% of the school district, yet each fire commissioner earns $5,460. As a percentage of the total budget, the fire district spends more money on each fire commissioner than the school district spends on the combined salary and benefits of the district superintendent, deputy superintendent, and business administrator.

Two of those five commissioners, Vinci and Lauro, also earn salaries from the town council as well as their state pensions from years of public service to the township. Add all that to the free land given to Vinci and the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to divert highway workers from driving in front of his house, and it’s still not enough to satisfy their senses of entitlement. In 2009, the fire commissioners voted themselves a 36.5% raise.

Ultimately, the townsfolk don’t care. Both Vinci and Lauro would likely cruise to reelection. This past year, the town elected a board member who testified against the school district in a labor dispute, played racial politics, and acknowledged voting to pay herself for working as a poll worker during a school board election.

And, at some point, Barza will regain control of the school board and appoint administrators to their liking. It won’t happen soon but it will happen. That’s because the largest pools of candidates for local elective office are the PTO’s and the sports leagues. Most of the current school board members come from neither.

School board elections are usually a luck of the draw. Placement on the ballot is determined by pulling candidates’ names from a hat (literally) and the candidates at the top of the ticket nearly always win. Whichever group fields the most candidates over time will ultimately control the board and Barza is in an excellent position to do just that.

That’s why Aberdeen has rejected every property tax increase at the ballot box for nearly a decade but still sees property taxes increase every year – either the people a) don’t think it matters who they elect b) don’t know who they’re electing or c) don’t know what their representatives are doing once elected.

While on the school board, I strongly opposed any tax increase. Had there been two other members of the nine-member board who shared my opposition, school taxes would not have risen this year.

Education Advances Slowly
The first thing that people will notice and quickly forget is that the draconian cuts didn’t undermine the students’ education.

Next, as students from the middle school who benefited from an accelerated curriculum move into high school, test scores will rise.

However, any advancement will be limited. Among the staff, there are several ideological battles underway – Should the district focus upon test scores or preparing students for post-high school? What are the skills and knowledge our students need to acquire before graduating? How do we test and grade our students? What do we do with teachers who can’t teach? How do we help our struggling students? How do we enable our stars to advance according to their potential?

Unless someone becomes a powerful and incessant advocate for moving in one direction, the district will always drift along the path of least resistance. That means the least work and the least headaches. The community won’t fight for higher standards and neither will most of the staff.

Local Reporting Will Continue to Deteriorate
The local papers lack resources for investigative reporting. As they continue to struggle, fewer town meetings will be covered. Excluding bloggers and the rumor mill, the community will continue to know less and less about what’s happening. And the opportunities for corruption and incompetence will expand.

Housing Will Continue to Struggle
Huge backlog of unsold and foreclosed housing. High unemployment and underemployment. As the economy recovers, interest rates will rise to combat inflation. Many underwater homeowners will put their homes on the market at their first opportunity to cover their mortgages. Meanwhile, high taxes will continue to depress prices and push more seniors to sell.

Most New Development Will Be Residential
It is an absolute disgrace that public education has become so expensive that it makes financial sense to deter families from moving to the neighborhood. But that’s the reality. Developers, however, prefer residential because they’re easier to finance and sell and often have higher profit margins. The town could easily encourage commercial development through zoning laws and PILOT programs but don’t expect it. The town council wants the tax/PILOT money, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes hand greasing that enriches their handlers, and care little about the burden new development imposes on the school district or the rest of the township.

Corruption Will Continue Unabated
People mistakenly believe corruption necessarily involves criminal activity. That’s not the case at all. Political corruption is the use of office for anything other than the public good. For example, taking tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions from CME Engineering and then awarding it millions of dollars in no-bid contracts is corrupt because there’s an assumption CME is not being awarded the business based solely upon price, service, and community benefit. Furthermore, when people and corporations are legitimately concerned over retribution if they don’t contribute to political campaigns, that is corruption. When people and corporations are able to use their political connections to “un-level” the playing field or seek business from third parties, that’s corruption.

Again and again, we hear about how there’s been no proof of corruption but that’s a lie. The free land given to Councilman Vinci, and how that land was kept off the tax rolls, is public record. Vinci being paid “consulting fees” to work on his own reelection campaign is public record. The county spending $400,000 to divert traffic from Vinci’s home on a dead end street is public record.

CME’s contributions and millions of dollars in no-bid contracts are public record.

Fire commissioners, who should be working for free, awarding themselves a 36.5% pay increase during a steep recession is public record.

Any suggestion that “corruption” only applies to criminal activity is morally repugnant and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the people who write the laws know how to avoid them.

The Teachers Union Will Continue Being Anti-Community
It’s astounding how teachers, the very people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to teaching and with whom we’ve entrusted our children, would repeatedly support anti-community agendas but that’s the reality.

When faced with a pay freeze or scores of colleagues losing their jobs, the teachers kicked their coworkers to the curb and then launched a fear-mongering campaign insisting the community’s children would be in jeopardy unless we raised taxes to save jobs.

Now, the union is doing the same to the bus drivers, the secretaries, and everyone else who could be outsourced.

When the school board offered to help three custodians save their lifetime health benefits, the union offered nothing to offset the costs.

Again and again, the union protects teachers who can’t teach, bars the district from enacting changes that would help students and save money, and prevents the district from rewarding outstanding teachers.

I hear the district used to recognize “Teachers of the Month” and give them prized parking spots and other tokens of thanks and recognition that cost nothing to the district. However, the practice had to stop after the union objected to the district “singling out teachers” for recognition when “all” teachers deserved recognition.

That sense of “we’re all wonderful and entitled” appears to be have become contagious as Christmas Friday Fever has swept through the district. Christmas Friday Fever is the infectious disease that hits about a quarter of our teachers every year on the last Friday before Christmas break, forcing them to call in sick and get some therapeutic shopping at the malls.

Local Blogging Will Decline
Normally, success attracts competition. Not in this case. Despite the widespread popularity of (many would say infamy), the only other local blog is AberdeenNJlife, which doesn’t do investigative reporting. Researching issues is very time consuming and won’t win you many friends. However, for those considering blogging, the experience can be quite rewarding and you truly have the power to make positive changes within your community.

As for this blog, I’m hoping someone will volunteer to manage it but, so far, no takers. However, the forces of darkness shouldn’t relax just yet. There’s still some life in this blog.
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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lessons Learned on the BOE

If You Want Change, Join the BOE
Shortly after joining the BOE, Mr. Somma, a local resident and New York City schoolteacher, began petitioning the school board to change the start time for high school to a later hour. He appeared before the board on several occasions and provided studies showing that high school students don’t get enough sleep, the benefits of getting a full night’s sleep, and the experiences of other school districts that moved to a later start time. Selma then proposed a brilliant idea – Most of our students graduate with more credits than the state requires. Allow those juniors and seniors who are performing well in class and are on track to graduate with extra class credits to substitute one of their non-core classes for an online class on condition that they will be responsible for morning transportation.

The idea presented a win-win scenario – Teenagers would get more sleep, students would have an incentive to do well in class to earn the privilege, and the district would save money by offering fewer classes.

Intrigued by the idea, then-board member Larry O’Connell requested the administration to provide the board with guidance, which it did. Later in the year, the administration considered the idea as a means to cut expenses.

So, what happened? Absolutely nothing. It remains a great idea and one that would have board support but, without a champion within the administration or on the school board, it will go nowhere.

Board Members Have the Power to Make Changes
Any board member who’s informed, well liked, and has a good relationship with the administration can deeply affect the school district. Most board members only appear at meetings to raise their hands but they do have the power to take the initiative.

Board Members Are Not the Best Informed
Before joining the board, I once asked then-president Demarest whether the $2 million a year Response to Intervention program was helping or hurting students. She didn’t know.

Aside from the public agenda, board members receive three things – Information from the superintendent, updates from the attorney, and financial reports from the business administrator. Board members also have the privilege of access to the superintendent and business administrator. Ultimately, board members only know what they’re told by the administration. Their access to raw data is no different from the public’s access.

Ask a board member how many students take at least one advanced placement class and he probably won’t know. (It’s about 10%) Or how many students are expected to earn a bachelor’s degree. (Less than 30%) Or the cost per student for a ceramics class. (Over $700)

Aside from legal issues, personnel, and criminal activity, the board may know information before the public but they rarely know more than any involved member of the public.

Elections Matter
Elections do matter. The battle within the school board is focused upon the following lines –

  • Should the district’s sole focus be student achievement or should the district also consider public service (i.e. giving preference to hiring local residents)?
  • Should we measure student achievement through objective measurements or teacher feedback?
  • Should the focus be educational and character achievements or opportunities offered?
If the former, you’re among the standards wing that currently control the board. If the latter, you’re among the “progressives” or Barza wing.

However, despite the importance of elections, the electorate cares little about board issues and is woefully uninformed. As a result, the winners of any board election are usually the first two names on the ballot.

Where I Was Wrong

I don’t regret a single vote I cast. However, there are two areas where I changed my mind upon joining the board.

The first is the issue of grants. The vast majority of grants support new spending, not ongoing operations. That means grants can only be used for short-term projects. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating new programs that keep running long after the grant funding has vanished.

The other issue was my perception of the community. I had assumed the vast majority of parents wanted their children to receive an excellent education and, once they knew the truth of what was happening in the classrooms, they would demand improvements.

I was terribly wrong. Only a minority of parents value education as an end in itself. A large percentage of parents considers school as substitute parenting. And a majority of parents view education as merely a gateway to a better livelihood.

Those kids who learn just enough to get decent grades and graduate high school are unlikely to develop the skills necessary to succeed in college. And with over a third of our graduates going to a college whose only entrance requirement is a heartbeat, many of our students don’t challenge themselves in high school and then are shocked to discover they’re woefully unprepared for college academics.

Where I Was right
Aside from preferring my original mission statement – To build scholars and leaders – I still believe Everyday Math is a terrible curriculum that doesn’t provide a foundation for higher level mathematics and we should have outsourced as much staff as possible in one fell swoop.

Where I Was Surprised
I was shocked by how weak, incompetent, and dangerous the teachers union is. Weak, because the only people they’re able to intimidate are children. Incompetent because, despite multiple opportunities, the union leadership has consistently failed to work to the mutual benefit of their members and the community. Dangerous because their only tactic is to threaten harm to the children.

If teachers wonder why they don’t get the love and respect so many of them richly deserve, they only have to look at the rodeo clowns who represent them. In the meantime, considering the economic reality and their union leaders’ disdain for the rank and file, more school staff should expect to be outsourced next year.

Where I Failed
I would have liked to establish clear expectations for what education and experiences a student should obtain prior to graduation. I also would have liked to have had a hand in contract negotiations. However, my single greatest failure was not establishing a social organization to recruit and develop future community leaders. For now, the only people doing that are the Aberdeen Democrats, the parent groups, and the sports leagues.

When People Care
For the most part, people don’t care. Excluding the union stampedes, the only time the school board ever sees members of the public is when somebody’s child is being directly affected or when students appear to defend a teacher or program. Considering the sky high property taxes and the rock bottom test scores, you’d think the community would care more but it doesn’t. Or at least not enough to actually do anything.

The Teachers
During my stint on the school board, only one teacher ever came before the board with a proposal to change the class curriculum to better prepare students for college – Dr. Kaplan, the physics teacher.

Considering our poor academic record, you’d hope teachers would take the initiative to raise standards but, by and large, they don’t. If the students’ education and futures were the primary concerns of our teacher body, I certainly didn’t see any evidence of it.

When English teachers don’t test writing, when math teachers support a math curriculum that promotes calculators for hard problems, when history teachers use a textbook that devotes more time to the Zoot Suit Riots than Benjamin Franklin, and when high school students are assigned Harry Potter, then teachers are part of the problem.

No Accountability

We have a system where no one is accountable. Everybody blames everybody else. Until parents have the power to choose the best school for their kids and thereby force the educators to become accountable, the system will never work.

Predictions for the Future
  • The draconian cuts to staff and funding won’t have any measurable impact on the quality of education
  • At some point, the Barza wing will regain control
  • Educational progress will be stifled by teachers who are not highly educated or motivated and by parents who don’t know better
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Monday, November 29, 2010

Setting the Stage for Union Negotations

Considering the MRTA’s declaration of an impasse, not to mention the superintendent’s and business administrator’s imminent departures, it would appear contract negotiations between the Matawan-Aberdeen school district and its teachers union are on hiatus. That would only be technically true. The competition for public opinion is afoot.

The first volley was lobbed by the teachers union in its condemnation of the “wasteful” spending in Board President Kenney’s communiqué as to the status of negotiations. Sadly, the union’s cry of waste is particularly hypocritical in this instance as it was the union’s actions and history that necessitated the letter.

During the last negotiation, MRTA President Kosmyna had complained of “working without a contract”. That was not true then as any similar claim would not be true now. Under law, the teachers continue working under the “expired contract” until a new contract is in place. Practically, there is no difference for any school employee between an expired contract and an un-expired contract.

Given the union’s decision to declare an impasse before negotiating any terms, the school board naturally assumed the worst and chose to pre-empt any miscommunications from the teachers union.

(Note: The following two paragraphs were slightly edited to note a staff member's "step" on the salary guide is frozen under an expired contract.)

The next charge from the teachers union will likely be the teachers aren’t receiving any raises. Well, that's true but not the whole truth.

Once the new contract is settled, teachers and other staff qualify for two raises – moving up the salary guide and adjustments to the salary guide itself. (Though it's a subject of negotiations, those raises are often retroactive.)

Taking this year as an example, let’s say the salary guides for all employees are frozen for one year. In the common parlance, this would mean the staff is getting a 0% salary increase.

But that 0% only applies to the guide itself, not staff moving up the guide. Even with a 0% increase, the staff units represented by the MRTA would receive the following average salary increases during the 2010-11 school year -
Teachers – 2.1%
Clerical – 5.8%
Drivers – 3.6%
Maintenance – 2.2%

To be fair, this doesn’t include the 1.5% employee contributions to healthcare but, to be fair, was it ever fair that teachers didn’t have to contribute to their own health care?

Remember, the above increases assume a 0% increase to the salary guides. Any negotiated raises will be in addition to the above. (On a side note, the teachers union has already conceded the above numbers during negotiations.)

However, if the school board hopes to garner public support, they need to let the public know what’s at stake. For example, one of the board’s priorities is the elimination of “past practices” and a relaxation of work rules.

For instance, the school district must pay a fee to any union officer who is required to proctor his final exams to his classes because proctoring exams does not qualify as a “teaching duty” and the teachers contract exempts union officers from non-teaching duties.

Another example is when the union leadership advised teachers to no longer help children on and off school busses without compensation. To the teachers’ credit, they ignored the recommendation and placed our children’s safety first.

Then there was the question of whether teachers had to be paid extra for analyzing their classes’ assessment scores during school hours to determine how to improve their curriculums and class instruction.

And the list goes on.

This is a public relations campaign the school board needs to win. Remember Marlboro.

On a final note, the school board should inform the union leaders that intimidation tactics and/or a work slowdown will not be tolerated. In addition to further outsourcing, the board has two other arrows in its quiver - the infamous “custodian email” whereby the union threw the custodians under the bus and the case of employee theft.

For a number of years, several teachers, including union leaders, received compensation for work never performed. I uncovered the fraud two years ago but was asked to keep it quiet. Dr. O’Malley immediately halted the practice.

Considering how widespread the practice was and how several administrators were in the know, I don’t foresee any criminal charges, but I wonder how eager these teachers are to have their records permanently stained with the label “thief”. All the information is public and the payouts were part of the board agendas. But nobody had bothered to check if the work was actually being done.

Labor leaders are expected to fight vigorously on their members’ behalf but intimidating board members and poisoning the school environment are beyond the pale. The school board should let the MRTA officers know that unacceptable behavior will have consequences.
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Friday, November 19, 2010

When Teachers Pass as Children Fail

Although few of us would consider ourselves experts, most of us can discern between great food and garbage, an awesome movie and dreck, or a fabulous educator and dead wood. Regarding the last, what thoughts come to mind when you recall your favorite teacher or administrator? Someone engaging, caring, challenging, brought out the best in you? Well, consider this: The Matawan-Aberdeen school district’s Principal Evaluation form states “The formal evaluation process does not include school wide student achievement outcomes or student growth data.” [Emphasis mine]

In case you missed that, I’ll say it again.

The Matawan-Aberdeen school district’s Principal Evaluation form states “The formal evaluation process does not include school wide student achievement outcomes or student growth data.” [Emphasis mine again]

Think that’s crazy? How about this? Principals and assistant principals are evaluated upon “12 Performance Factors”. 12 performance factors but not one that has anything to do with whether our students are actually learning anything.

In case you’re wondering, 100% of our principals and assistant principals met this highly exacting standard.

Think that’s bad? Teachers are only evaluated in five areas - Grade Book, Lesson Plans, Implementation of the Lesson, Classroom Management and Interpersonal Skills/Learning Climate.

As for the question of whether students are learning, that’s irrelevant to a teacher’s evaluation. (Thankfully, non-tenured teachers are evaluated according to “pupil progress”, including test scores and parental feedback, but non-tenured teachers are a small minority among the total staff.)

So, how did our teachers do in their five areas of “measured” expertise? Among the 364 teachers, only 7 were found to be not “acceptable” – 3 in the high school, 3 in the middle school, and one at Strathmore Elementary. Congratulations to the other three schools that scored 100%. (Cambridge Park was too small to be evaluated.)

I strain to think of what other profession specifically excludes the very purpose of the profession from job evaluations.

Are auto mechanics judged on their ability to fix cars? Police to enforce the law? Firemen to extinguish fires? I believe so.

How about showing up for work? Should teachers be evaluated for that? Last year’s 7% absenteeism rate was double the 3.5% that school policy defines as unacceptably high.

How about the fact that a third of high school seniors were at risk of not graduating because they couldn’t score 50% on a state assessment exam? Does that suggest something about the “learning climate”?

Obviously, this is all about state law forbidding school districts from actually evaluating teachers. It’s not enough that teachers have tenure, that it’s been well over a decade since any tenured teacher in the State of New Jersey was fired, or that tenured teachers have a job for life whether they do that job or not. Teachers are even protected from being labeled as teachers that “need improvement”. That is, unless they can’t manage their grade books.

Reminds me of the days when school policy barred teachers from engaging in the tedious work of grading homework assignments. I wonder if that policy remains in force.

For me, the greatest mystery is how hundreds of teachers who plainly love their students and want their students to succeed could vigorously support a union whose policies are downright hostile to those very students. You simply cannot be both pro-teachers union and pro-child. Not in our school district.

(Note to those who our irked by my continued use of the possessive pronoun “our”: Good)
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Thursday, November 11, 2010

On This Veterans Day

The following are excerpts from President Kennedy’s Veterans Day speech in 1961.

Today we are here to celebrate and to honor and to commemorate the dead and the living, the young men who in every war since this country began have given testimony to their loyalty to their country and their own great courage.

I do not believe that any nation in the history of the world has buried its soldiers farther from its native soil than we Americans -- or buried them closer to the towns in which they grew up.

We celebrate this Veterans Day for a very few minutes, a few seconds of silence and then this country's life goes on. But I think it most appropriate that we recall on this occasion, and on every other moment when we are faced with great responsibilities, the contribution and the sacrifice which so many men and their families have made in order to permit this country to now occupy its present position of responsibility and freedom, and in order to permit us to gather here together . . .

For our part, we shall achieve that peace only with patience and perseverance and courage -- the patience and perseverance necessary to work with allies of diverse interests but common goals, the courage necessary over a long period of time to overcome an adversary skilled in the arts of harassment and obstruction.

There is no way to maintain the frontiers of freedom without cost and commitment and risk. There is no swift and easy path to peace in our generation. No man who witnessed the tragedies of the last war, no man who can imagine the unimaginable possibilities of the next war, can advocate war out of irritability or frustration or impatience.

But let no nation confuse our perseverance and patience with fear of war or unwillingness to meet our responsibilities. We cannot save ourselves by abandoning those who are associated with us, or rejecting our responsibilities.

In the end, the only way to maintain the peace is to be prepared in the final extreme to fight for our country -- and to mean it.

As a nation, we have little capacity for deception. We can convince friend and foe alike that we are in earnest about the defense of freedom only if we are in earnest -- and I can assure the world that we are . . .

On this Veterans Day of 1961, on this day of remembrance, let us pray in the name of those who have fought in this country's wars, and most especially who have fought in the First World War and in the Second World War, that there will be no veterans of any further war -- not because all shall have perished but because all shall have learned to live together in peace.
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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Revenge of the Do-Nothings

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." - Yogi Berra

Based upon comments to the blog, it appears the Monday quarterbacking armchair analysts are seizing Dr. O’Malley’s and my departures as an opportunity to repudiate everything the Matawan-Aberdeen district has accomplished under his leadership. This party of malcontents never has anything constructive to offer but their baseless criticisms, which are immune to logic and fact.

For example, when the school district was facing a $7 million budget shortfall and the Matawan-Aberdeen community hadn’t supported a tax increase since 2001, the do-nothings were opposing steep staff reductions. Did they offer any alternative to close the budget gap? No. To this day, they’re happy to criticize the school board for outsourcing the custodians while ignoring the million dollars it would have cost each year to retain the custodians.

Another example is O’Malley’s raise. In 2008, O’Malley negotiated a reasonable compensation package in exchange for the expectation of salary increases once he proved himself. In his first year, O’Malley introduced numerous educational initiatives, made several personnel changes, and produced a budget that actually reduced year-over-year spending and didn’t raise taxes. He asked for a $9,000 raise and got it.

People were in an uproar. How could the school board pay a person more than contractually required? How could we reward someone for just one year’s performance? (To be fair, nobody was so upset as to actually attend the school board meeting, just upset enough to complain on this blog.)

Well, the following year, O’Malley did more of the same and didn’t get a raise beyond his contract guarantee. Every taxpayer and district parent can see the changes O’Malley has wrought, from special education to legal fees, to writing curriculums, to the academies, to testing and data analysis, to accelerated math curricula, to a renewed focus on college preparation, to safer schools, to restrained tax increases, and so on.

Nobody argues that O’Malley would have done more without the raise and we’ll never know if he would have done less. All we do know is that the board was absolutely correct in assuming O’Malley was a flight risk; Edison, New Jersey’s 5th largest school district, recruited O’Malley with a $25,000 salary increase.

Once again, what would the malcontents have done to retain and incentivize exceptional talent? Absolutely nothing.

Of course, now the malcontents want to argue that the raises were a waste of money because O’Malley is leaving anyways. Nonsense. That’s like saying you should only wear seatbelts prior to certain types of accidents, as if such things could be predicted. The school board did its best, within reason, to encourage O’Malley to do the best job he could and to remain within the district. That’s all the school board could do and it was right to do so.

People complained that eliminating the Director of Security position would endanger our children (the same complaint made when the district outsourced custodial services). Instead, our schools continued to become safer.

The special education department objected to Mr. Schweitzer’s appointment as Director of Special Services. In fact, the special education department under his direction has improved dramatically and saved the taxpayers more money than it ever had in the district’s history. Out-district placements are decreasing, special ed lawsuits have virtually disappeared, and parental complaints are way down.

Our school district is under constant pressure to improve academics and reduce the tax burden but the do-nothings never have a single substantial idea to move our district forward. Instead, their strategy is to complain about everything and then, at that one time when by pure chance they happen to have been right, they can holler to the skies “I told you so”.

These do-nothing malcontents are bankrupt of any leadership or accountability. They jeer from the sidelines and cheer when you stumble but they’ll never get off the bench and play ball.
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Friday, November 5, 2010

Smoke at the Firehouse

I’ve always had the good sense to avoid writing about Aberdeen Township’s police department and its two fire districts. However, last February there was a heated altercation in the firehouse at the corner of Church and Lloyd (Fire District #1). The time had come to have a look.

Although I have spoken with a number of people, I cannot obtain any documentation regarding the incident since it is a personnel matter. However, I believe that fire district chief, Lou Auriemma, acted in a manner unbecoming an officer and he should have, at the very least, been reprimanded by the fire commissioners. Furthermore, I do not believe the district chief is supported by a majority of his command. Although I have heard many wonderful stories about Chief Auriemma, the only chief that firehouse has ever had, I think it’s time for a change in leadership.

Notwithstanding the above, the fire commissioners chose to ignore the incident and there is no consideration of relieving Chief Auriemma of his command.

As for firehouse shenanigans we can talk about, there is some of that. (Full disclosure: When applying for my certificate of occupancy, the fire department dinged me for $2,000 in repairs for small violations that passed inspection when I purchased the house four years earlier, plus requiring a certified inspection for my chimney.)

For starters, the fire commissioners voted themselves an eye-popping 36.5% raise to $5,460 a year. That august body includes our honorable councilmen Vinci and Lauro. Apparently, Vinci needed the money after losing his consulting gig. (Is Councilman Lauro related to Samuel Lauro? Sam is on the fire district payroll as well.)

Vinci, by the way, is transferring his house and his ill-gotten land to his daughter. Looks like he’s freeing up some money to buy another place.

Chief Auriemma only works 20 hours a week. However, the ordinance creating the fire chief position requires “a minimum of 40 hours per week.” The fire commissioners are aware of the discrepancy but don’t care enough to ask the township to change the ordinance. Remember that next time you’re told the town can’t bend for you because it has to follow the law.

The fire district has about $688,000 in reserves that’s budgeted for replacement vehicles. The reserves are apparently immune from the town council’s grubby hands since they’re still in the bank. (The fire district is another unit that should consider merging with Matawan to save expenses.)

Alan Falk, Aberdeen’s former town prosecutor, is still on retainer at the Fire District but there’s talk that may come to an end after Falk refused to participate last year in the democrats’ pay-to-play election campaign. (That’s why he’s the “former” town prosecutor.)

As for the men who volunteer their time in the fire department and the EMT, they have my highest respect and gratitude and I hope they get the leadership and recognition they deserve.
>>> Read more!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Aberdeener Grievance

For the past six months, the Matawan Regional Teachers Association (MRTA) leadership has been spreading a rumor that they filed a grievance against me. The implication was that not only were they fighting back but that I must be guilty of something.

The truth is the MRTA filed an unfair labor practice against the school board in a shameless attempt to silence me. Either they were too cowardly to charge me with a violation or they knew they had no case and I would respond vigorously.

The union must have believed they could file this baseless charge without repercussions since they were free to quietly smear me and threaten the school district with costly legal fees while keeping confidential the actual complaint since grievances are normally exempt from OPRA.

But they were wrong.

New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act excludes “Any grievance filed by or against an employee”. However, the MRTA’s grievance doesn’t list a single employee, position, staff duty, compensation, or contractual obligation as a subject of the complaint; the grievance is solely by and for the union’s organization and doesn’t fall within the exemption.

I kept the grievance sequestered at first because of litigation and later because of the media blackout during negotiations. However, the grievance has since been withdrawn and there is no media blackout due to the union’s declaration of an impasse.

So, here it is, the Aberdeener Grievance.

Before I respond point-by-point, allow me to provide a quick summary. The MRTA’s legal position is that school board members are not allowed to criticize the teachers union or its leadership. Furthermore, the MRTA argues, the school board has an affirmative obligation to monitor its members’ speech and repudiate any critical comments. For relief, the MRTA requested the school board ask me to shut my mouth or resign.

The case’s wanton silliness is demonstrated by the fact that even if the MRTA won this unprecedented legal argument and got all the relief it requested, I would still have been allowed to retain my board seat and continue writing on my blog exactly as I had before the complaint; nowhere did the union request an order for me to cease and desist. So, even the teachers union implicitly concedes I acted within my rights.

What makes the charge truly ironic is the MRTA alleges the school board violated N.J.S.A. 34:13A, which forbids “Interfering with, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed to them by this act [or] . . . Dominating or interfering with the formation, existence or administration of any employee organization.”

That same statute also states “Employee organizations, their representatives or agents are prohibited from interfering with, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed to them by this act.”

That must be news to the MRTA because the union openly and regularly interferes, restrains, and coerces employees in the exercise of their rights. To give just one example, here is an open letter from the MRTA to the district staff instructing them to “not apply for extra curricular positions that are currently being filled by our members.” That same letter further states “If you have concerns regarding fellow workers and their job performance, don’t go to an administrator.” In other words, the union will choose who gets the stipends and the union will handle all personnel complaints. Or else.

We also need to question the MRTA’s priorities. The union wouldn’t contribute one penny towards saving three longtime members’ lifetime health benefits but was prepared to spend thousands in legal fees for a baseless claim in hopes of garnering a public reprimand against a local blog.

So, without further ado, here is the Aberdeener Grievance. My responses are in red-italics.

The Matawan-Aberdeen Regional Teachers Association is the recognized majority representative for, among other professional and support staff titles, all non-supervisory certificated teaching staff members employed within the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional Board of Education.

The Matawan-Aberdeen Regional Board of Education is a public employer within the meaning of the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act and is subject to the Act's provisions.

The Matawan-Aberdeen Regional Board of Education (hereinafter the "Board") and the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional Teachers Association (hereinafter the "Association") are parties to a collective negotiations agreement covering the time period between July 1,2007 through June 30,2010. The parties are presently negotiating a successor collective negotiations agreement.

Joseph Warren (hereinafter "Warren") is a member of the Board of Education and has been a member of the Board since approximately April, 2009.

Board member Warren maintains a blog; i.e. the Aberdeener, that this Board member has used, in part, to both criticize the leadership of the Association and to attempt to negotiate a successor contract by his efforts to convince teaching staff members and support staff represented by the Association to repudiate the contract proposals regarding contract negotiations that have been submitted by the Association's Negotiations Team.

The following are summaries of only some of the many blog entries of Board member Warren that have been critical of the Association's leadership and that have also divulged confidential contract negotiation positions of the Association to members of the public:
What follows is the MRTA’s strongest evidence that the school board, not I, acted illegally.

Board member Warren called the Association's Union President Carl Kosmyna a liar and referred to the Association's "ludicrous claim" that the Association had offered a pay freeze and that this proposal was rejected by the Board of Education. (April 12, 2010 blog entry).
I have never called Kosmyna a liar. Nor have I ever claimed he isn’t. As for the “ludicrous claim” comment, I’m happy to see the MRTA finally acknowledge they did make this ludicrous claim of having offered the school board a pay freeze.

Board member Warren referred to the Leadership of the Association as "rodeo clowns" and referred to the Association's responses to threatened layoffs as being representative of the Association's "latest antics and utter incompetence". (March 25, 2010 blog entry).
I proudly stand by my comments.

Board member Warren stated, in part, that "the Union has orchestrated political theatre from heckling Board members at a public meeting to frightening the community into believing the District will replace our beloved custodians with pedophiles". (March 25, 2010 blog entry).
I sure did say that. Remember those school board meetings or the fliers warning parents the school board was endangering their children?

Board member Warren maintained that "the Union has not offered any concessions or suggestions on how to cut costs and save jobs" and maintained that "Union Officers receive full pay for reduced work load to permit extra time for Union activities". He also stated that "the Union has filed a slew of grievances demanding extra pay which, if victorious, will result in more job losses". (March 25,2010 blog entry).
Once again, I said it and it’s all true.

Board member Warren, in continuing his vituperative and defamatory charges against the Association Leadership, concluded one of his blog entries with the following statement: As every rodeo clown knows, you can distract the bull, deceive the bull, and avoid the bull, but stick around too long and you will get trampled. The Union leadership can no longer distract, deceive or avoid the public or its membership. (March 25,2010 blog entry).
Yeah, that rodeo clown comment really stuck them. I guess the truth hurts.

Board member Warren published the salaries of Union Executive Board members over the past four years and attacked the negotiating of what Board Warren referred to as "a bewildering array of stipends", while he consciously omitted the fact that the salaries he reported in the blog included coaching salaries and other negotiated stipends.
So, let’s see. I claimed the staff received a “bewildering array of stipends” and neglected to mention they were receiving stipends. Ooooh, I’m so bad.

By the way, district salaries are public information.

To date, the Board of Education has taken no action to prohibit Board member Warren from his malicious attempts to replace the existing association leadership and to coerce the Association into contract concessions by disseminating misrepresentations about the terms and conditions of employment of Association teaching staff members and support staff. The Board therefore has supported the efforts of Board member Warren to dominate and/or interfere with the existence and administration of the Association in violation of N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.4(a)(2).
Here’s that legal ninjitsu – by doing nothing, the board was illegally interfering in the union’s business. Also, notice how it was perfectly acceptable for the teachers union to picket in front of former board member Ken Aitken’s house and spend thousands of dollars to prevent his reelection but my personal comments against the MRTA leadership is “malicious”.

The actions of the Board in refusing to repudiate the statements of one of its Board members, Joseph Warren, has also engaged in actions designed to interfere with, coerce and restrain employees represented by the Association in violation of N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.4(a)(l).
More legal ninjitsu. Doing nothing constitutes “actions designed to interfere with, coerce and restrain employees”. Is that like teachers who do nothing are still considered to be teaching?

WHEREFORE, the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional Teachers Association seeks an Order from the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission:

(A) Finding and declaring that the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional Board of education has violated the of N.J.S.A. 34: 13~-5.4(a)(l) and N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.4(a)(2);
I.e., by doing nothing, the school board has coerced and restrained employees.

(B) Finding and declaring that the actions of individual Board member Joseph Warren, as supported by at least the majority of the Board of Education, represents efforts to illegally dominate and/or interfere with the existence and administration of the Teachers Association;
Since Joseph Warren, acting by himself, constitutes a majority of the board, of course.

(C) Finding and declaring that the Board has acted to interfere with, restrain and coerce employees represented by the Association in the exercise of rights protected by the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act;

(D) Requiring the Board of Education to repudiate in writing all of Board member Warren's defamatory & hominem attacks on the Association's leadership and his consistent misrepresentations about the content of and status of contract negotiations and pending Association grievances;
How childish. Should the school board have also given me a timeout and taken away my circle time?

(E)Requiring the Board of Education to advise Board member Joseph Warren to cease and desist from including any comments in his blog, the Aberdeener, that relate to ongoing contract negotiations issues and other personnel and labor relations matters involving the Association and the Board or, in the alternative, request that Warren resign as a Board of Education member;
Should the state also require the school board to say pretty please?

(F)Requiring the posting of appropriate Notices to Public Employees advising said employees of the Board's illegal conduct;
Why stop there? Let’s have a mass mailing to the entire district. The cover page would say the “Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, without commenting upon the truth or accuracy of Mr. Warren's statements, repudiates all of the following” and then staple it to a copy of all the offensive blog articles.

(G) For such other and further relief as the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission deems to be appropriate under the circumstances.
Like ice cream for all the union leaders whose feelings were hurt.

Teachers, welcome to your union representatives. I hope the rodeo is worth your money and your colleagues’ livelihoods.
>>> Read more!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rodeo Clowns Gone Wild

Ever wonder what our teachers' union leaders say when uncensored, unguarded, and unplugged? These videos of a New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) leadership conference at the East Brunswick Hilton hotel (supported by union dues from the Matawan Regional Teachers Association) offer a glimpse.

But beware, viewer discretion is advised as some of the language is highly offensive.

Full disclosure: These videos were created by James O'Keefe, the same guy who brought down ACORN, and are highly edited.

NJEA Teachers Gone Wild 1
NJEA Teachers Gone Wild 2
>>> Read more!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I Know What You Did Last Winter

In honor of the Matawan Regional Teacher’s Association latest negotiation tactic, a blunder so incredibly stupid that one wonders if the union leadership should be placed on suicide watch, I’d like to dedicate the Bedroom Intruder newscast and its accompanying music video to our dear Rodeo Clowns.

As part of negotiations, the union and school board had agreed to a media blackout – neither side would make any public statements regarding negotiations – so long as neither side declared an impasse. That is why I refrained from attacking the union leadership on this blog.

Recently, the school board changed its entire negotiating team (yes, there’s a story there but I’ll save it for later in case Fearless Marty chooses to run again) and hired a new negotiating attorney. At this point, the only items successfully negotiated were the rules of negotiation and some meeting dates. Not a single contractual item was ever discussed.

So, what happened at the very first negotiations meeting with the new team and the new attorney, before anything is even negotiated? The MRTA declared an impasse.

That means the media blackout no longer exists and school board members are free to discuss negotiations or the lack thereof.

For example, the school board is free to discuss the sweetheart deal it offered the teachers union last January to save the custodial positions, an offer made before the board realized how desperate the district’s financial situation would become. Or, better yet, the ridiculous counter-offer demonstrating the union leadership cared more about themselves than their members. (And the counter-offer was made in writing should the rank and file care to see it.)

Or we could discuss the custodial negotiation session in April when the union leadership had the outsource bids in their hands. They knew the district would save over a million dollars a year from outsourcing even though the school board was only requesting half of that in concessions to save the custodial positions. Regardless, the union offer (also in writing), fell so far short that the school board voted unanimously to outsource rather than waste more time in bad-faith negotiations.

Or maybe we could discuss some of the ludicrous labor grievances that were also part of the negotiations?

Or how about the union offering the district virtually nothing to save three long-time union members from losing their lifetime health benefits.

I’m tempted to post everything online but these are the types of shots that can only be fired once, so I’m going to let this play out a bit more. Let’s see if the union attempts to intimidate board members’ children, picket at their homes, or try to frighten the community again.

I’m also tempted to see what the union membership will do. Scores of jobs are potentially at stake next year. Bus drivers, secretaries, teachers aides, child study teams, and guidance counselors can all be outsourced. Without increased funding from the state (unlikely at best), there will need to be more cuts through either outsourcing or reductions in force to cover increases in salary, healthcare, and pensions.

As for the teachers union leadership, I leave you with this quote from the Bedroom Intruder Song – “You don’t have to come and confess. We’re looking for you. We gonna find you. We gonna find you.”
>>> Read more!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Not Dead Yet

Pleas note: This article has been updated to include Ruprecht's motion to commend Ms. Zavorskas for her service upon her resignation in March, 2009.

“Hey Marty, Sports Authority is having a sale on balls.” – Anonymous comment on March 9, 2010

Poor, Marty. He's been waiting all this time to publicly attack me but couldn't garner the courage until after I resigned the school board and left town. The Independent only partially quotes him because he mumbles through his delivery, apparently fearing me even in absentia, but he appears to complain that I had caused “dissention”.Thirty months on the school board and the only time Ruprecht ever makes a motion to amend an agenda item is to remove the following line - “The Board of Education would like to commend Mr. Warren for his service to the Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District.”

Such moral outrage is ironic coming from the unindicted co-conspirator of violations of campaign regulations, the New Jersey School Board Code of Ethics, and state law. Ironic but not surprising.

Ruprecht will probably be best remembered for his waffling on O’Malley’s contract extension. Being the critical swing vote, Ruprecht first voted to table O’Malley’s contract and, when that motion failed, voted to approve the contract. (Now Ruprecht can claim to have voted against the extension before voting for it.)

Then there was the time he tried to stage a minor coup. When Zavorskas’ seat became vacant, Ruprecht conspired to appoint an unknown during a lame duck session and thereby circumvent the board’s past practice of interviewing candidates and deny Liz Hayward and me from voting on Zavorskas’ replacement.

Or how about voting on personnel matters without disclosing who contributed to his election campaign? We know Ruprecht voted on Principal Olsen’s tenure the following April despite having solicited her.

When discussing a board goal to limit future tax increases, Ruprecht argued against setting any goals that would restrict the superintendent’s ability to set a budget that was in the district’s “best interests”, exactly the kind of thinking that lead to the school district’s out-of-control spending.

In fact, the only spending Ruprecht ever objected to were legal fees to defend a board member’s right to publish public information and criticize union leaders (a.k.a. Rodeo Clowns). Ruprecht believed the money could be better spent on school board jaunts to Atlantic City for the NJSBA’s annual convention.

Ruprecht’s philosophy is diametrically opposed to mine. I believe a school board member's job is to inform the public, set expectations and priorities, and hold the administration accountable. Ruprecht believes his job is to simply point his thumb up or down when the administration recommends an agenda item. It’s a common position for people who love to take credit when things go well and blame someone else when they go awry. It’s also why those same people never actually do anything but complain about others while throwing bouquets at themselves.

The teachers union spent about $3,000 on Ruprecht’s election campaign but not one dollar towards saving three custodial positions so those people could earn their lifetime healthcare benefits. Makes you wonder.

As for Ruprecht's claim that there's no "past practice" of commending a resigning board member, eighteen months earlier he made the motion to "commend" Ms. Zavorskas upon her resignation, using the identical language. Nice to know Ruprecht's allegiances are still intact.

Hmmm. Maybe I do cause dissension? Well, when children are being robbed of their futures and the taxpayer’s money is being squandered, causing a little dissension is the least I can do. Ruprecht can thank me later.
>>> Read more!

Monday, September 20, 2010

I Resign

I have informed the officers of the school board, the superintendent, and our board secretary, that I intend to resign from my position as board member of the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District.

Furthermore, I am selling my residence and leaving Aberdeen Township.

I respectfully request that members of our teachers union and supporters of our governing town council refrain from dancing in the middle of the streets. :)

As for this blog, I'm not done, yet. Not at all. :) >>> Read more!

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Question of Competence

Nearly nine months into the fiscal year, Aberdeen Township passed a budget. Woo hoo! Mayor Tagliarini spoke proudly over the township’s ability to deliver a double-digit tax increase, the largest tax increase in Aberdeen Township’s history, “without furloughs and without layoffs”. The same mayor who damned the school district for requesting a 1% tax increase has now levied an 11.4% tax increase on top of the sewer fee increase. And, contrary to the school district cutting expenses, spending has increased 2.6%.

According to the article, the township partly blames the budget increase on a decrease in state aid. Either that’s a typo or another sign of the fiscal insanity that has plagued Aberdeen.

Pensions jumped, naturally, after a one-shot payment deferral last year that Mayor Tagliarini characterized as a “decrease in spending”. As expected, debt payments rose by $118,000 – gotta pay for that missed pension payment, not to mention all the debt from our vaunted road program.

About that road program, “the governing body did not want to discontinue its road program, a move very important to Deputy Mayor Vincent Vinci.” Looks like CME Associates has a champion on the town council. Guess they’ll keep getting their million dollar-plus service fees each year. Maybe that’s why CME, along with our town attorney and Anchor Glass developer, have cosponsored Aberdeen Day. Such generosity, such gratitude, who cares if they plunder our town a little? Unless, of course, you happen to be a homeowner.

Sadly, it looks like the good times may be coming to an end. As shown in the chart below, the township is quickly burning through our reserves. At this rate, we’ve only got one more year before we’ve completely exhausted our surplus. We hit asset depletion in five years. At some point, our bond rating will drop and financing our CME-approved roads will become a whole lot more expensive.

Values are in millions
Year-End Surplus

However, our councilmen aren’t concerned. They figure if we’re ever in trouble, we’ll just mug the library, again.

Unfortunately, even the budget numbers are suspect. Each budget publishes the prior year’s “Surplus Balance – December 31st”. Since the budget is published months later, it should be an easy thing to know how much money is in our bank accounts at the end of the prior year. But we don’t. As the next chart shows, each year’s end-year surplus is revised; 2007’s surplus was revised by a whopping $300,000.

Values are in thousands
Original Surplus
Revised Surplus

Our town council has retained a lawyer who blatantly lied to the council and the public stating COAH would immediately withdraw Aberdeen’s certification. (Further proof of the lie can be seen from Marlboro’s loss of COAH certification. Marlboro’s de-certification was on COAH’s agenda whereas no such decision was ever scheduled for Aberdeen.)

Our town council has retained another lawyer who threatened local residents with police force after the townspeople objected to his denying their right to speak at a public meeting.

Our town council has recently re-appointed a felon convicted of attempting to bribe an IRS auditor to be our lead developer on the transit village.

Our town council claimed we had no choice but to accept a massive low-income housing development on County Road only to see the developers voluntarily work with the Cliffwood Housing Association to scale-down the project.

At some point, you begin to question the council’s competence. If only they were as good at running our township as they are at getting themselves elected. At the very least, they should earn their council salaries.

On a final note – Kudos to the township employees for accepting a wage freeze. I wish other public employees had done the same. >>> Read more!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An Unjust Punishment

On April 2, 2008, I lambasted Jan Rubino for soliciting campaign contributions from school district staff. I charged Ms. Rubino with violating school board bylaws. The story was reported in the local press. Ms. Rubino won a landslide victory and was appointed school board vice president. All this is old news. Or at least it was until a judge made an unusual and unwarranted recommendation.

Weeks after the 2008 election, the School Ethics Commission received a complaint against Rubino. A year later, the commission referred the case to an administrative law judge. A year after that, the judge considered the evidence and issued her findings and recommendation on July 19th, which must still be reviewed by the ethics commission and approved by the newly installed commissioner of education.

Judge Sanders is the acting director and chief administrative law judge. She considered four charges against Rubino:

  • N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(e) prohibiting solicitation or acceptance of a gift or political contribution based on an understanding that the contribution is for the purpose of influencing the candidate in the discharge of his or her duties
  • Same concerning an email to the board attorney
  • N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c), which prohibits the taking of private action that could compromise the Board
  • N.J.S.A. 18:12-24.1(f), which forbids the use of the schools for personal gain or the gain of friends
The charges stem from three emails –
  • An “unkonwn” email sent by Rubino to a group of friends, including school staff members at their school email addresses
  • A similar email sent by her running mate, Marty Ruprecht, that included three staff members at their school email addresses
  • A third and similar email sent to the school board attorney, Michael Gross
The email to Gross was deemed a communication soliciting legal guidance, not a political contribution, and was discarded. Ruprecht’s email was deemed an independent communication. Since the statutes only restrain office holders, not candidates for office, the judge properly discarded his email as well.

That left one email and three charges. Namely, Rubino solicited political contributions from district staff with the implicit understanding that such support could influence her actions as a board member, which would compromise the board. And, since Rubino used the school district email system to solicit the contributions, she made an illegal use of school property for personal gain.

We have no idea what was in that email or who received it, only Rubino’s testimony that it may have included some long-time teachers who were old-time friends who “may” have contributed to her campaign. Rubino testified that she regularly purges her computer of old emails and deleted the email during one of her routine purges, unaware the email may become critical to any pending or likely future hearing.

Judge Sanders believes Rubino fibbed about accidentally deleting the email, forgetting who was on the recipient list, and forgetting whether any of the recipients contributed to her campaign. The judge therefore, considering Rubino’s entire testimony and its context, made it a finding of fact that Rubino had solicited school staff at their school email addresses and received political contributions from them. Judge Sanders found Rubino guilty of all three charges.

Up to this point, Judge Sanders acted reasonably and within her discretion. However, her recommendation to the ethics commission was unduly harsh – that Rubino be suspended from participating on the school board for six-months. Judge Sanders even went a step further saying she would have recommended removal had Rubino not testified that she refrained from voting upon all personnel matters for one year.

It is obvious from Judge Sanders’ decision - her tone, findings, and harsh recommendation - that she is seeking to punish Rubino, not for the actual violations of which Rubino is accused, but upon Judge Sander’s belief that Rubino destroyed evidence and committed perjury.

Judge Sanders claims to have rejected the more appropriate punishment of censure on the scant case history that board members generally incur censure in cases of one violation, not multiple violations. On this point, Judge Sanders plainly erred.

When recommending a penalty, the determining factor is not the number of violations but the severity of the offense(s). A school board member (or a candidate for that office) soliciting money from school district staff is wrong and illegal but, on a moral barometer, is not much more offensive than state officials pursuing political contributions from state labor unions. The only ethical difference is that our state representatives outlawed such behavior for others but not themselves.

Any violation could conceivably “compromise the board”. Sending someone an email at his school address is no more considered “the use of the schools for personal gain” than mailing someone a letter at his place of business. Rubino’s offense was soliciting school employees. The secondary technical violations don’t aggravate the original transgression nor does Judge Sanders suggest they do.

Had Ms. Rubino’s offense been considered truly heinous, the ethics commission and the administrative law judge wouldn’t have waited until Ms. Rubino nearly finishes her term before rendering punishment. Had the ethics commission truly wanted a copy of the offending email, it could have requested a copy from the school administration, which regularly makes archival backups of email in case of a system malfunction. Had the ethics commission been truly concerned whether Ms. Rubino refrained from voting upon personnel matters, it could have spent twenty minutes to review the dozen board minutes posted online at the district website.

Perjury, destruction of evidence, and obstruction of justice are serious offenses because they undermine our legal system’s ability to administer justice in accordance with our laws. If Judge Sanders believes Rubino committed any of those offenses, there are legal remedies, each of which would provide Rubino an opportunity to defend herself. However, to convict Rubino of one offense and then punish her for a separate uncharged crime is a miscarriage of justice.

Jan Rubino solicited political contributions from a handful of school employees who happened to be in her email address book. That’s the charge. Nothing more and nothing less. The appropriate punishment is censure. >>> Read more!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Teacher Truancy

On June 15, 2010, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “Missing in Newark: Its Teachers”. The article reported:

  • The daily absentee rate among teachers is around 7%, “nearly twice the urban-district average of 4%”
  • Nearly half of the teachers took at least two weeks of sick leave whereas New York City teachers only get 10 days of sick leave per year
  • Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Governor Christie, called the situation “completely unacceptable”
  • Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia University business school professor who has researched the correlation between teacher absenteeism and low student performance, said it "surely makes the difference between passing and failing" in some classrooms
  • Rockoff also said "A contract that makes it easy for teachers to take lots of days off may not be attracting the kind of professionals that Newark parents would want for their kids"
  • When Joseph Del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union, was asked whether teachers had a duty to report to work when they weren’t sick, he answered “We're not priests or nuns"
But here’s the real shocker. The Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District has the same absentee rate.

Last Monday’s school board agenda included the contract renewal for Source4Teachers. In S4T’s report, the company listed over 6700 vacancies among staff during the 2009-10 school year, a 12% increase from the prior year.

S4T provides substitutes for a little over 500 district positions and the school year was a little over 180 school days, discounting the snow days. Excluding vacancies for professional training, our district has the same 7% absentee rate that made headlines in Newark.

Even the prior year’s absentee rate was about 40% higher than the urban-district average.

(The absentee rate for private industry is about 2% according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.)

Why does our staff have such a high absentee rate? I suspect it has little to do with sickness.
>>> Read more!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Big Ideas

Once in a blue moon, these pages diverge from local topics to discuss national issues. This is one of those times.

Any economic recovery is going to have very strong headwinds - higher taxes, more regulations, unsustainable debt, and rising interest rates. Given the uncertain economic outlook, companies are reluctant to expand. Here are some ideas to give the economy an immediate boost.

Make mortgage interest tax free
Mortgages are already at their lowest rates in history and people are still having a hard time refinancing. By giving mortgage interest on primary residences the same tax-free status as municipal bonds, rates will drop even more. Lower rates should help the banks through another wave of refinancing and support home prices through lower monthly payments. This will also help counteract the imminent rise in interest rates.

Facilitate short sales by extending pre-existing government guarantees to personal loans
Banks are forcing people to stay in homes they can no longer afford by making short sales extremely difficult and often requiring homeowners to first destroy their credit history through missed payments. However, if mortgages already have government guarantees (i.e. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, FHA, etc.), we can extend that protection to any personal loans to cover a short sale. The personal loans will be levied additional fees and interest charges to cover the added risk but the home seller will be spared the crushing expense of owning a home he no longer wants and the risks to Fannie Mae will be reduced since the house is already underwater.

Place all major tax increases and burdensome regulations on hiatus until after the unemployment rate drops below 6%
Considering Obamacare, cap and trade, card check, designating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, financial reform, liability reform, protectionist trade policies, an unsustainable deficit, and rising taxes, all during a sputtering economy with high unemployment, businesses are understandably reluctant to expand when they can’t calculate the future cost of labor and capital. Let’s place all anti-growth policies on hold until after the economy recovers.

Eliminate minimum wage laws
The overwhelming majority of minimum wage jobs are entry-level positions, exactly the type of job people grab to get their feet in the door. With young adult unemployment at 25%, any job is better than no job. Minimum wage laws price people out of jobs and deny them the opportunity to acquire valuable skills. The fear that companies will start paying their workers only pennies a day is unfounded for the simple reason that people won’t work for pennies a day.

Hold a monthly auction for corporation-sponsored work visas
Within highly-skilled industries (i.e. technology, financial services, engineering, etc.), companies often outsource because they can’t find the skilled labor domestically. A monthly auction for work-visas would become a welcome revenue source and enable companies to employ more people locally. The increased employment would have lots of side benefits for local businesses.

Green cards for all doctorate recipients from American university programs with nationally recognized professional accreditation
We want the world’s best and brightest working in our country. When foreigners spend several years in our country’s best schools pursuing doctorate degrees, we should be encouraging them to stay, not forcing them to leave. These are the people who will create opportunities and jobs for the rest of us.

New Jersey
We’re in competition with every other state in the union. Let’s compete for those people and companies most likely to contribute to our local economies.

Cap on income taxes
The most economically desirable people are the wealthy and the well-to-do elderly. They bring much to the state and cost us relatively little compared to households with children. The simplest way to make our state more attractive is by capping their taxes. For the wealthy, let’s cap state income tax payments at $50,000 a year. (This would kick in around $750,000 of income after deductions.) Eliminate the death tax so that the rich don’t move to Florida when they get old. And limit taxes on retirement income to 5% with a maximum of $5,000 per person.

Remember, if we’re going to keep spending over $15,000 per child in the public schools, we’ll need to attract the rich and the elderly to help pay for it all.

Become a Right to Work state
We’d be the only right to work state in the northeast, giving us a major advantage in recruiting large employers, particularly those looking for easy water access and relatively close proximity to seven of the ten states with the highest population density.

Stick and carrot incentives toward merging municipalities
We have way too many governing bodies in New Jersey. The state could reduce the costs of merging municipalities by guaranteeing bond issues associated with any mergers. Another incentive would be to have separate tier funding according to a municipality’s land area and population. We could also make the change easier by making policing a county responsibility, thereby eliminating the single largest department of any municipality.

Replace all stop signs with yield signs

Why not? Yield signs are more energy efficient and possibly safer than stop signs. No need to change the signs. Just change state law to treat stop signs the same as yield signs.
>>> Read more!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Our Government Friendly Press

One of my rules of thumb for public office is “If it’s not in the newspapers, it never happened.” This has been borne out time and again by major stories and scandals that were never covered and remain mostly unknown or disbelieved. However, the moment a story hits the papers, it’s considered gospel.

Another rule of thumb is “The papers will only report what we say.” In the two years I”ve been blogging, I can only recall four investigative stories involving Aberdeen-Matawan. Two never got published and one only involved a reporter’s personal observations. The three reporters following those stories have since left town. The local papers simply lack the resources to investigate local news unless they have Pulitzer Prize-winning potential. Instead, most articles just stick to official pronouncements, public statements, and feel-good stories. It’s far easier to quote people then research the facts.

Recently, two news stories have brought this reality into sharp contrast.

Last week, school board member Patricia Demarest voted against renewing Business Administrator Sue Irons’ contract.

The APP reported the vote as follows:

Board member Patricia Demarest cast the lone dissent without comment. Demarest later said she voted against the contract because Irons now will have tenure.

"That will commit the district to both the person and salary nearly permanently," Demarest wrote in an e-mail after the meeting. "We recently eliminated several teaching positions, administrators and all of our custodians. In these economic times, I feel it would be irresponsible to give tenure to a nonteaching position at that salary at this time."
The statement almost sounds reasonable until you put it in context; Demarest voted to fire one of the best business administrators our district has ever had.

Here’s a brief snapshot of Ms. Iron’s nearly three-year tenure in MARSD.
  • Cut the school budget by $1.5 million
  • 3-year average annual tax increase of 1.33%
  • Implemented corrective action in the financial office to comply with auditor’s recommendations and industry best practices
That last item deserves more discussion. Prior to Ms. Iron’s arrival, some of the auditor’s eighteen findings included:
  • In a random sample of purchase orders, twenty-five percent were either blank or for non-earmarked items
  • A $134,000 shortfall in budgeted expenditures
  • A $1.7 million shortfall in the listing of capital assets
Following Ms. Iron’s corrective actions, the number of findings fell from eighteen to six, only one of which Ms. Irons bore primary responsibility - $22,600 of grant money wasn’t spent. (Meaning it should have been listed as spent and other money either put into surplus or, since that was maximized, accelerate spending on other items.)

Dr. Delaney, who works for the New Jersey Department of Education in Monmouth County, reported that Ms. Irons is ranked among the top three business administrators in the county.

Ms. Irons is also compensated about 10% below her peers managing similar sized school districts. Additionally, her latest contract will result in slightly reduced compensation since her salary remains the same but her benefits have dimished.

Ms. Demarest knows all this. During her term as board president, Demarest worked with Dr. O’Malley and Ms. Irons to propose a school budget that cut expenses by $600K and had no tax increase, the first budget to pass in eight years.

Yet, Pat Demarest voted to fire Sue Irons. Why? “In these economic times, I feel it would be irresponsible to give tenure to a nonteaching position at that salary at this time.” So, in Ms. Demarest’s six years on the school board, her only recorded vote to terminate an employee was against the one business administrator who cut year-over-year spending.

Interestingly, Ms. Demarest’s only vote opposing someone’s appointment was against Superintendent O’Malley.

Of course, you’d never know any of this from reading the APP article.

The other story was about the revised housing plan on County Road, reported in the Independent.
The total number of units to be developed on the [County Road] property has been reduced from 132 affordable units to 115 units, with some at market rate and some affordable.

Of the 115 units, the plan includes 78 market rate units for sale and 37 affordable units for rent, responding to the community’s concerns to spread the township’s affordable housing requirement throughout the town.

“There were a number of residents in the immediate neighborhood who expressed concern that there was too much [affordable housing] on that property and there should be consideration to distributing the number of affordable units more evenly,” Coppola said. “We did a number of changes to the plan that has been worked on by the developer under the direction of the COAH work of the governing body.”

All of the units to be developed on the property will be townhouse units instead of apartment units, providing either a one- or two-car garage, which Coppola said will limit the need for on-street parking.

“This will aid with the appearance of the development,” he said. “All the townhouse buildings will have pitched roofs, where apartment buildings have flat roofs.”
The townhouses, required by COAH, will have different bedroom distributions. The market-rate units will contain two and three bedrooms, and no affordable or market-rate unit will contain more than three bedrooms.
All great news but the article gives the impression these changes were made upon the township’s initiative. Not so. Following loud and angry opposition to the original affordable housing plans for County Rd., the developer (RCM) contacted the Cliffwood Housing Association (CHA) and offered to make the above changes in exchange for community support. The revisions, a severely reduced number of affordable housing units, a high proportion of market-rate units, and townhouses in lieu of apartments, is a dramatic improvement over the original plan and both the CHA and RCM deserve our thanks.

However, the story also points to what the town council and planning board could have achieved long ago had they invited community participation in the beginning and considered our concerns. Instead, the town council engaged in backroom deals that risked our COAH certification and foisted upon us a development that nobody wanted.

Now, thanks to the developer and our community activists, we have a new and better plan but the town council and planning board get all the credit. Notice the article never mentions the Cliffwood Housing Association.

However, the article does mention that William Bocra of Silver Oak Properties, who spent time in prison for attempting to bribe his IRS auditor, was re-appointed developer for the proposed transit village. This is the same developer who cost Matawan hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for refusing to grant him the same designation.

Of course, the article doesn’t mention any of the back-story.

I don’t blame the newspapers or the reporters. On the contrary, I think they’re doing the best they can in a challenging environment with limited resources. (Note Newsweek was just sold for $1.) Still, I can’t help but wonder if people would be willing to pay a bit more for real news. It’s sure something I hope someone would try. >>> Read more!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Grading the Academies

I’m an unabashed supporter of MARSD’s three high school academies, Bio Medical, Business, and Performing Arts. At least in theory. The program’s goals are to encourage academically challenging coursework, provide valuable life experiences, and increase students’ chances of gaining acceptance to selective colleges. However, at the program’s inception, I recommended the business academies’ curriculum be more rigorous, particularly in developing communications and analytical skills. Early results suggest the students may agree.

This year, the number of 8th grade applicants to the Bio Medical Academy tripled from 11 to 33 and the freshman class will double from 8 to 16. In Performing Arts, applicants nearly doubled from 8 to 15 and the class will grow by 50% from 8 to 12.

On the flip side, Business Academy applicants dropped by a third from 16 to 11 and the freshman class halved from 13 to 6. (Non-academy students will be allowed to take academy classes so class enrollment should still meet minimum requirements.)

Although one year’s results don’t make a trend, the differences are so striking that we’d be foolish to ignore them.

The first thing to remember is all three academies are competing for our most academically motivated students. These are the students most likely to pursue college degrees, most likely to pursue challenging courses, and most likely to know which course will most help them.

The most academically challenging of the academies is the bio medical, with a heavy emphasis on math and science. All participants are required to take at least two AP math classes and two AP science classes plus a research internship prior to graduation.

Next is the performing arts. Students are required to take four years of either dance, theatre, or music.

Last is the business academy. Students are not required to take a single advanced course prior to graduation and several of the classes appear silly at best. In their freshman year, the only business academy class is “Business Computer Applications”, a fancy title for learning how to use Microsoft Office. In the sophomore year, they have a selection of “Intro to” half-year business classes. In their junior year, they take accounting, which is mostly about learning to balance a ledger and bears little resemblance to finance. Their senior year involves a business plan, some more intro classes, economics, and something called investment math.

(By the way, for anyone playing the stock market game, the only winning strategy is to find a single penny stock and bet the entire wad on options. Either you’ll win or lose the game. Use any other strategy and you’re almost certain to lose.)

Accordingly, projected freshman enrollment is directly proportional to each academy’s level of challenge. Bio Medical – 47.1%, Performing Arts - 35.3%, and Business Academy – 17.6%.

The obvious solution is to increase the academic rigor of the business academy. Unfortunately, there are several obstacles to doing so.

First, I suspect there was an unconscious decision to have one “non-challenging” academy for students who may not wish to pursue the arts but also didn’t want to be subjected to heavy-duty math and science classes.

Second, our staff may not be qualified to teach the two most promising areas of business – technology and financing. Remember, our school district doesn’t teach a single computer programming class and the web design class only uses FrontPage, a Microsoft application that is shunned within the professional community.

Third, do we want to compete with the other academies? Bio Medical and Performing Arts likely draw different students. Would an invigorated Business Academy attract more students or just siphon students from the other programs?

I suspect there is a limited pool of applicants but competition among the academies can only help. Therefore, I would recommend drastic changes to the business curriculum. I suggest requiring the following courses within the business academy: AP English, AP Economics, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Next, I would dump the softball classes (which would still be available as electives outside the academy) and introduce such classes as Probability, Communications, Persuasive Writing, History of Business and Entrepreneurship, Finance, and Investment Models.

The academies were designed to attract and develop our best and brightest students and our students have wisely chosen the most rigorous academies. It’s time to raise our business curriculum to academy level.
>>> Read more!