PLEASANTVILLE — Saying he was “embarrassed” and “enraged” to learn the school district was getting a second state monitor after 12 years of state oversight, Mayor Jesse Tweedle gathered city and school officials Thursday to discuss how they can work together against what they believe is a state takeover.
“If we don’t step up and straighten ourselves out, it’s going to be a takeover,” said Councilman Lawrence “Tony” Davenport, who served on the school board for the past three years before winning a seat on City Council in November.
While the assistant state monitor, J. Michael Rush, started here Tuesday, state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet had notified the school district May 15 of the added monitor.
In the letter to Superintendent Clarence Alston, Repollet gives little explanation except that he has “deemed it necessary.” The contract term is for one year, starting June 3.
In the contract, Rush’s role is defined as directing business office activities, overseeing budget development, overseeing staffing and developing a plan to address the fiscal deficiencies in the district that necessitated the state monitor.
“Due to well-documented struggles the board has recently experienced with governance and financial issues, the DOE has assigned a second monitor to assist the board, primarily in governance matters,” Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple said in an email Friday.
Yaple said that for the second year in a row, the board has adopted a budget that required a reduction in staffing but failed to take the steps necessary to implement the reduction. Last month, the district approved a budget, down $500,000 from the prior year, but could not come to an agreement on a significant reduction in force that would have balanced the budget. The year prior, the school board was in a similar situation.
“All school boards are required by law to have a balanced budget. It is the Department’s expectation that the Board of Education will make the decisions necessary to fulfill its responsibilities,” he said. “The department’s monitor has developed an exit plan for removal of the district from state-monitor status. However, recurring issues involving unbalanced budgets negatively impact the ability to move forward with that plan.”
In a phone call Thursday, Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson placed blame on the district’s state monitors for failing to be effective over the past decade. Fiscal monitor Constance Bauer has the ability to overrule the decisions of the school board but has not taken action on the most recent failure to approve the reduction in force. Last year, in a series of emails, Bauer warned the school board that its failure to make a reduction in force would create a deficit but did not overturn the board’s decision.
“If it weren’t so tragic that the children are caught in the middle, it would be comical,” Levinson said. “Obviously, the better solution to the problem is not having monitors monitoring monitors and taking money away that should be being put into the children’s education.”
Levinson said he has spoken with the state, the mayor and the county superintendent of schools regarding the situation.
“They’ve got to get this straightened out,” Levinson said. “The people of Pleasantville are paying for it, that’s what they don’t get.”
Davenport said the issues in Pleasantville run deep.
“The board’s playing political and personal games, and I think outside they’re looking in and seeing this,” Davenport said. “The state has to see it. I think we’ve been dragging our feet as a community letting it happen.”
In the exit plan submitted by Bauer in August 2017, she noted the excessive legal costs incurred by the district as one of the reasons the state monitoring had to continue, among other issues, including lack of planning and oversight.
Last year, the district paid $1.3 million in legal costs, including more than $400,000 in payouts from lawsuits against the district. One of those was a $215,000 settlement paid to Alston. Last month, the district paid $200,000 to former maintenance director William “Speedy” Marsh after he sued over the handling of his employment.
Missing from the meeting Thursday was Alston, who school officials confirmed was on leave from the district. How long Alston will be out has not been revealed, but the situation leaves the district without any school chief as Assistant Superintendent Garnell Bailey also is on leave. Also absent were Bauer and Rush, who Tweedle said were not invited.
District Administrator Elisha Thompkins said the next step is to see what happens at Tuesday’s school board meeting.