PLEASANTVILLE — The state has assigned a second state monitor to the school district, school officials said Tuesday.
The appointment followed a warning by the state Department of Education earlier this year amid infighting on the school board over procedures and personalities.
J. Michael Rush will serve as the assistant state monitor at $96 per hour, said school Business Administrator Elisha Thompkins.
A representative from the state Department of Education, which oversees the monitors, did not respond to a request for comment. Pleasantville Superintendent Clarence Alston could not be reached for comment, and school board President Carla Thomas was unavailable for comment.
Thompkins confirmed Rush’s first day was Tuesday and said he did not receive any communication from the state on the reason for the new monitor’s assignment.
In February, during a meeting between officials from the Department of Education and Pleasantville in Trenton, the state warned the district it was considering adding an additional monitor, and even threatened a state takeover.
The Pleasantville school district has been under oversight by a state-appointed fiscal monitor for more than a decade after an audit found serious issues with spending in the district. Its current monitor is Constance Bauer, who last year earned $123,432, a salary paid for by the district.
Rush was deputy superintendent of Paterson Public Schools from 2005 to 2009 and served the state Department of Education as assistant commissioner from 2002 to 2005. Prior to that, Rush was superintendent in Red Bank.
Rush’s salary will also be paid for by the school district, which is already under financial stress.
Over three meetings in May, the school board failed to approve a reduction in force that would have a balanced its 2019-20 budget. School officials said the cuts, which targeted administrative positions with unrecognized titles, like principal on special assignment and dean of students, were being mandated by the county executive superintendent.
At the first meeting May 7, the reduction was postponed for further consideration due to concerns by board members. At a meeting one week later, the board presented a united front and agreed to postpone the vote again and requested a meeting with Executive County Superintendent Robert Bumpus to lay out a new plan to balance the budget. However, Bumpus declined to meet with the school board.
A final meeting was scheduled May 28 to again approve the reduction of staff; however, the vote was split and the motion failed.
“It’s a slap in the face, and I don’t think we should approve anything until he comes and sits down with us,” board member Jerome Page said Thursday. Page voted against the reduction. “If it was any other board that asked the county superintendent to be present, I don’t think it would have been a problem, but because it was Pleasantville, it was a problem.”
Thomas, who had teared up at the second meeting and promised to fight for the district, voted for the reduction.
“I just know that we voted for the budget, so we knew what we had to do,” Thomas said when reached by phone Thursday.
The district did not respond to a request for how much money it needed to cut from its budget for the 2019-20 school year, but the reduction on the May 28 agenda included 14 positions. The agenda listed 12 employees, with salaries totaling more than $1 million, although most of those employees were reassigned based on seniority and union contract rules.
Department of Education spokesman Michale Yaple confirmed last week that Bumpus did not meet with the board.
“It is ultimately the responsibility of the local board of education to implement the balanced budget that it had approved, and that the department had also approved. The department’s role is not to administer a district; that is the responsibility of the school board and its administration,” Yaple said.
He reiterated that the DOE did not force the district to take specific action regarding staff.
“Rather, we discussed with local school officials issues such as unrecognized job titles, administrative spending caps, legal costs and high administrative costs,” Yaple said.
Thompkins said the reduction will be back on the agenda at the June 11 meeting. While Bauer has the ability as a fiscal monitor to overturn the school board’s decision, she has not yet done so, Thompkins said.
Thompkins said he couldn’t say at this point how the salary of the second state monitor will affect Pleasantville’s budget.
“Right now I don’t have an answer to that,” he said. “We’re just adjusting the budget to maintain.”