The Pleasantville Board of Education recently found itself in an interesting situation.

An audit found it had $1.6 million in additional budget surplus — but it couldn’t use the money to pay off the remaining $330,000 deficit for its food service.

Carla Thomas, school board president, asked the auditor why the district couldn’t use the surplus to zero out its food service debt. The auditor said that’s not allowed by state regulations.

N.J. Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple explained to The Press that the state requires self-sufficient food services to ensure administrative and noninstructional efficiency. He said “a transfer to the food service fund would indicate the fund is not self-sufficient, and that would be an inefficient expenditure of funds.”

The Pleasantville school board needs this and other encouragements to operate on a financially responsible basis. Indeed, among the reasons for paying off the food-service deficit is that it might help convince the state that two district monitors are no longer needed.

The district’s food service went $1.9 million into debt in 2006 when the rules for government school budgets were changed to require that wages and benefits for cafeteria workers be included in the food budget instead of being paid elsewhere in the general budget. The district responded by privatizing its food service and, since then, slowly paying off the debt out of its food budget.

The extra $1.6 million in surplus was partly due to an increase in extraordinary aid from the state and to close monitoring of expenses, said district business administrator Elisha Thompkins. He said the district’s food budget might be helped by a new law enacted last month that requires the state to pay the difference between the total cost of reduced price meals for students and the federal allocation for them.

Bailing out the food budget with excess surplus might seem like a good idea, but it would allow inefficient fiscal habits to persist — causing a problem when there is no surplus. Last year, for example, the audit of the Pleasantville district found a $2 million drop in surplus.

More importantly, as the need for two state monitors shows, school officials in Pleasantville continue to depend on substantial help to keep their financial house in order.

Their auditor also told them recently that he found items were being bought for the district before the required purchase order for them was created. That’s not permissible and puts the administration in a bind, he said.

There are compelling reasons beyond state rules and monitors for district officials to follow proper financial practices. They must do so for the state and local taxpayers who provide the district with very substantial funding, and for the children who need the best education the money will buy.

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