By Ron Leir
For the past few years, it has been nothing but Sturm und Drang at the Belleville public school district.
In late 2012 the superintendent of schools resigned in the wake of several lawsuits by former subordinates charging him with sexual harassment and discrimination.
During 2013 and 2014, angry teachers lambasted the school board for spending $2 million on an elaborate security system instead of fixing broken computer equipment and replenishing instructional supplies and the teachers’ union head narrowly avoided being fired for “conduct unbecoming.”
This year, the state assigned the district a fiscal monitor who initiated an administrative shakeup after a preliminary finding that the district may have overspent $4 million.
Then, last week, came the coup de grace: the district had its phones disconnected by the provider, Clarity Technologies Group. Calls to the main number were answered by a recording that said: “The number you have dialed at the Belleville school district has been suspended due to nonpayment.”
That recording played several days before the phones were switched on again by Clarity – which, according to state monitor Thomas Egan, had turned them off after a dispute “over what we’re being charged.”
In early 2013, the school board contracted with Clarity to provide phone service for $10,000 a month ($120,000 annually). As part of one contract package, it also agreed to pay the firm $1.9 million to install a security system and $240,000 to oversee its IT technology.
Egan said the Belleville school district – like many others – participates in a federal program that helps local districts “enhance phone technology” and reimburses local districts for the cost of phone service under an “E-rate provider” formula keyed to the number of free and reduced meals it provides its students.
It turns out, Egan said, that Belleville is “not eligible to get any of our E-rate reimbursement because Clarity is not recognized as a bona fide E-rate provider by the federal government which they made representation to the board that they were.”
In June, the district, at Egan’s direction, stopped paying Clarity for alleged “poor performance” under its multi-tiered contract and had planned to go to arbitration until Clarity killed phone service, prompting the district to post on its website a list of cell phone numbers assigned to each of its school facilities – a move that Councilman (and former BOE member) Joseph Longo ridiculed as “moronic” and oblivious to the issue of “public safety” for students and staff.
Egan said last week he’s getting another phone vendor, which he described only as “an affiliate of Verizon” and “vetted by the state,” to install a new phone system.
Clarity President/COO Bruce Kreeger said that the Belleville district “failed to pay its bill for six months and their service was suspended. [Late last week] they made a payment and their service is back on.” He declined to say how much the district paid but noted that the check was dated May 4.
Kreeger said it was his understanding that because “Belleville’s financial situation was very bad,” the monitor had been holding up its payments Even so, he said, Clarity “didn’t shut off access to the internet, and made sure that 911 emergency, inter-office and interschool communication systems were still on. Our concern was that students would be protected.”
Asked about Egan’s assertion that Clarity misrepresented its E-rate provider qualifications, Kreeger said that Clarity is a properly licensed E-rate provider. He said the district has failed to file the proper paperwork with the Federal Communications Commission to qualify for federal E-rate reimbursement.
According to Kreeger, the district owes Clarity about $269,000, of which $61,000 is for “phone and internet” service and the balance is for “outsource IT support, parts and supplies,” including fixing all the district’s printers.
Egan said it was also the lack of IT support that prompted his decision to hold up Clarity’s payment. During a severe heat wave at the end of August, Egan said, the district’s computer system crashed, taking down its business, payroll and special services software, preventing it from processing purchase orders and vendor payments. School employees had to bring in their summer pay stubs so that W2 records could be manually calculated and guidance counselors had to reconstruct student scheduling and special needs records for the middle and high schools. “
It caused havoc,” Egan said, and it happened because “Clarity never backed up any of those systems on a separate server.” Egan said Clarity blamed the district for the foulup and, ultimately, both parties agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration, but, “two weeks later, they pulled the plug.”
Meanwhile, BOE President John Rivera, who faulted Egan for allowing the phone shutdown to happen, said: “The monitor came here four months ago and we still don’t have an [accounting] of the district’s financials. He pretty much thinks he’s running the district and he’s put us between a rock and a hard place. … I still don’t know if we’re solvent or if we’re losing money.”
Egan said he’s “had to postpone” that auditing process “because the business records weren’t available,” but added that he’s in the process now of “preparing all the financials to be sent to Trenton.” He said he anticipates he’ll be asking the state to provide a loan to the district of “in excess of $4 million” to balance its budget.