‘We’ll straighten out BOE,’ monitor vows

BELLEVILLE –

There’s been a parade of finance administrators at the Belleville Board of Education who’ve come and gone in recent years and the board’s state monitor says that’s a reflection of the district’s hapless past performance.

An outside auditor brought in by the monitor Tom Egan reported in June 2014 that the school district was running a $3.6 million deficit and, the next year, the state began advancing the district $4.1 million in school aid to phase out its debt.

This year, at Egan’s recommendation, the school board hired Matthew Paladino as interim assistant school business administrator at $79,000 a year, prorated through June 30.

At a Jan. 31 board meeting, resident Vincent Frantantoni asked the trustees why Paladino’s appointment wasn’t on the meeting agenda, in light of the fact that the board had previously put off the hiring after it was brought to light that the Ridgefield Park Board of Education – Paladino’s former employer – had experienced a budget shortfall.

Egan responded that he had hired Paladino – without the board’s concurrence – because he had the power “by statute” to do so.

And between the time that the Belleville school board had declined to act and the time Paladino was put on the payroll, Egan said that the “questions raised about Ridgefield Park have been answered. [Paladino] still has his license, Ridgefield Park [BOE] has brought no charges against him and he wasn’t responsible for [the shortfall].”

Then Egan went on to say: “Nobody of any quality wants to work here in Belleville. The people that applied for the [assistant BA] position were not of high quality.”

Perhaps equally disquieting was news contained in a resolution passed by the board at that same meeting which acknowledged that the district has failed to meet the standards set by the state’s Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency and Budgeting Procedures.

Districts are expected “to establish policies designed to minimize the cost of professional services, including procedures to ensure the efficient use of legal services by employees and Board members as well as the tracking of said services,” where, in Belleville’s case, “legal costs exceed 130% of the statewide average per-pupil amount … as evidenced by the fact that the excess legal costs incurred are the result of a high volume of litigation, grievances, protracted negotiations, and due process hearings initiated against the District ….”

Neither Egan nor board members mentioned what those legal costs approximated.

Despite the grim tidings, however, Egan said there was reason to be hopeful about a more stable financial future.

He said the most recent state QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum) report on the Belleville school district – which measures compliance with applicable state laws under monitoring and capacity for improvement  finds that Belleville has made “tremendous” strides in the finance area, while the district will “need more work” when it comes to “accounting for things.”

Egan did not elaborate on the latter point.

Frantantoni wondered what it would take to get Belleville on the right track. “In districts where the state took over,” he lamented, “the state has spent tons of money,” with “an elite bureaucracy creating a bottomless [money] pit for education” with poor performance results.

Egan chided Frantantoni for the critic’s skepticism about the district’s recovery period, even under monitoring. “You’ve painted monitoring with a broad brush,” he said. “It will take time,” he said.

“Look at Garfield,” Egan continued, referring to its school district which was assigned a state fiscal monitor in 2011. “It’s no longer in deficit. Things got straightened out so we don’t need to be there now.”

Egan also pointed to the Elmwood Park school district, where he was named state monitor in 2013 after the district had run up deficits for the prior two years, as an example of progress.

“They’re out of deficit now,” he said. “The [new] monitor is down to one day a week. And that monitor will be gone next year because [the financial situation] is fixed.”

And, Egan maintained, “that’s going to happen here. Just give it a chance.”

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.