The state Department of Education said Tuesday that a new full-time fiscal monitor will be placed in the Pleasantville school district in September, replacing part-time monitor James Riehman.
The announcement came the day after the release of a report by the Office of the State Auditor that found continuing financial problems in the district.
Department of Education spokesman Mike Yaple said among the new monitor's first tasks will be addressing the items in the state audit. The problems included timesheet irregularities, lack of sufficient financial and program oversight, several teachers who had no assigned students and a costly mentoring program with many more paid student mentors than students being helped.
"Thank God," school board President Darleen Bey-Blocker said. "The children deserve better."
Superintendent Garnell Bailey said she also welcomed any assistance from the state.
The district has had a state monitor since 2007, and it often has been a rocky relationship.
The first monitor, John Deserable, said Tuesday that it seems some of his work has been reversed.
"I was there from July 1, 2007, to June 30, 2009, and addressed issues in previous (district) audits. I remediated the district," Deserable said. "It appears some things we had addressed seem to be back."
When Deserable was appointed, he was able to address 54 district audit recommendations, according to a November 2008 article in The Press of Atlantic City. By that time, which was more than a year after his appointment, district auditor Robert Swartz said there were only five findings for remediation.
But school board members and the administration have never been fond of having a state monitor, especially when he overturned their decisions.
In December 2009, after another improved audit, then-board President Doris Graves said it was a good enough reason for the state to stop appointing monitors, which are paid for by the district. The auditor said more progress was needed, but Graves felt differently.
"I'm glad to say we don't need anybody to baby-sit us," she said at the time.
Then-monitor Mark Cowell said in January 2010 that the district still had serious issues.
"You've never had a clean audit," he said.
At that same meeting, the board refused to pay a bill covering $5,000 in legal expenses for Deserable. Cowell warned them he would overturn that decision because state law required them to pay the bill.
The most recent state audit covers a period from July 2010 to June 2013.
Bailey said that many of the issues cited in the audit existed before she was brought on board, and she is working to address them.
She said that at the start of 2013, a new procurement and purchasing system was put in place that cannot be circumvented. The new system requires different levels of authorization throughout the process, Bailey said.
The audit found 82 payments totalling $512,000 that did not follow proper procurement procedures.
Riehman said some of the problems in the district come from the administration and some from school board members.
"The administration doesn't follow the law all the time," he said. "The school board is too involved in the administration and doesn't follow the purpose it was elected for, which is policy and oversight."
But board members blamed the monitor for lack of oversight.
In late 2012, auditor Swartz mentioned the high number of lawsuits in the district and advised the board to monitor its expenses.
Riehman did not address the issue until August of this year, saying the board needs to keep an eye on its legal fees and be more responsible about settling lawsuits.
Board Vice President Joanne Famularo noted that the information is not new and that the monitor had delayed in addressing the issue.
Board member Jerome Page added that the board continues to be involved in lawsuits and has yet to win one.
In a phone interview Tuesday, he said that the lawsuits are all discussed during executive session, and that other issues the board faces include a lack of communication from the monitor and administration.
"We're lacking at least 80 to 85 percent of information when we are ready to vote," Page said.
In addition, some school board members expressed a feeling that Riehman is aligned with the superintendent instead of making decisions that are financially beneficial to the district.
"For some reason I can't understand, he is overriding everything the board does or votes on and accommodates the superintendent all the way. That's not his job. His job is to look at the fiscal situation of the district," Page said Tuesday.
When asked at a meeting earlier this year why certain decisions were made without a given reason, Riehman told the board, "Because I can."
Page, Famularo and Tony Davenport said Tuesday the comment was disrespectful to the board.
Page said he was on the board when Deserable was monitor and he remembers getting explanations for decisions.
Yaple declined to name the new state monitor, but said a DOE representative will introduce the person at the September Board of Education meeting. That meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 10 in the high school cafeteria. Riehman's last day will be Sept. 13.
Famularo said that in the three years he was at the district, Riehman was paid $450,000.
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