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!