In a time when citizens clamor, riot and upend their government in the battle for tax relief… how do they let $247,310 worth of tax relief get stolen out from under their noses… without even noticing they had the money to begin with?
The Story of the Clinton Township Tax-relief Heist
Without consulting the Clinton Township Board of Education (BOE), board president Jim Dincuff and board member Marc Kaplan decided last month that the Clinton Township School District (CTSD) would keep $247,310 of new property tax relief funds rather than give the money back to taxpayers.
According to CTSD documents obtained through an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, school board secretary and board administrator Patricia Leonhardt communicated in internal documents more than once that Dincuff and Kaplan were the only two elected board members to participate in the decision. Leonhardt states in internal e-mails that Dincuff, Kaplan, Leonhardt and school superintendent Kevin Carroll decided that the board would not be permitted to meet, discuss and vote to take action required to give the funds back to taxpayers.
The Governor’s Clear Intention: Tax Relief for 2011
On July 13, 2011, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sent $247, 310 of extra aid to the CTSD as one of his new measures to deliver vitally important property tax relief this year. Dincuff and Kaplan have steadily complained that Clinton Township school taxes are high because the State sends more aid to Abbott districts than to Clinton Township. But the monies just released were part of a $150 million increase in funding for non-Abbott districts like Clinton Township — and were added to the State budget to help school officials like Dincuff and Kaplan reduce the local school tax levy.
Instead, Dincuff and Kaplan made off with the quarter-million dollars without the consent of the full BOE — and without permitting a public meeting and public comment.
In a notice to school boards, Acting Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf urged them to use the additional funding for property tax relief:
“The additional State aid included in this year’s budget provides your district with a unique opportunity to reduce property tax burdens by lowering your local property tax levies for this fiscal year or the next. Using this aid to lower taxes is an important step towards new and effective management of our schools that focuses on improved student achievement, rather than increased spending. I urge you to join our reform initiative by applying these newly-allocated funds to alleviate your district’s taxes this fiscal year.“
What reform effort was Cerf referring to?
A July 1 letter from Governor Christie to Dincuff strongly reinforced Christie’s intention to deliver tax relief and asked for cooperation from schools. But board secretary Leonhardt didn’t deliver it to Dincuff until 17 days later, asking if Dincuff wanted it to be shared with the BOE — adding that “it is VERY political.”
There is no record that Dincuff and Leonhardt ever shared the governor’s letter with the entire BOE.
They had thwarted the governor.
The State finally gave more funding to non-Abbott school districts to relieve Clinton Township’s massive school tax burden. Leonhardt and Dincuff buried it, because “it is VERY political.”
Governor: I’m serious — this is for tax relief THIS YEAR!
So serious was Governor Christie that CTSD should apply the $247,310 to reduce property taxes this year that he took the unprecedented step of issuing an order delaying the date on which property taxes are due. Specifically to allow schools time to act to return the special tax relief funds, Christie changed the property tax due date from August 10 to August 25.
To apply the funds to reduce this year’s school tax bills, the BOE had to meet and vote to do so. Taking no action meant the schools would keep the money. The BOE had a week to act, from the notice of the funds on July 12 to the deadline to act, July 19 at 4:00 pm. But there was still plenty of time for board president Jim Dincuff or board secretary Leonhardt to schedule meetings. The finance committee could have quickly met to advise the BOE, and the BOE could have met to act. (The latter meeting would require 48 hours legal notice to the public.)
Gang of 4 Blocks the BOE of 9
But no meetings were held. There was no discussion, no deliberation and no decision of the BOE. No action was taken by the full BOE of nine members.
Yet according to Leonhardt, in e-mails she wrote to board members and to the Clinton Township council:
The Clinton Township BOE has decided…
…this wasn’t in any way an oversight, it was a decision…
…this was the BOE’s decision.
Legally, there is no BOE decision unless the BOE meets in public to vote. Leonhardt misled everyone.
According to internal BOE e-mails, just two board members — Dincuff and Kaplan — along with two administrators who do not live in the Township — Leonhardt and superintendent Kevin Carroll — decided there would be no meeting of the BOE to decide what to do with the money. They would let the deadline slip by so the funds would automatically be swept into the schools’ account. No tax relief for Clinton Township.
CT Council Agrees with Governor — Demands Tax Relief
If the BOE somehow misunderstood Governor Christie’s intentions and Commissioner Cerf’s urgings, then it ignored a strong request from Clinton Township Mayor Kevin Cimei and the town council. Township administrator Marvin Joss immediately called Leonhardt to notify the BOE that the council expected the tax relief funds would be applied for tax relief this year.
Without consulting the entire BOE, Leonhardt immediately replied to Joss via e-mail:
But Leonhardt was misleading Joss. She told Joss the BOE had “decided”… yet legally the BOE cannot decide anything outside a public meeting — and there had been no meeting. It’s not a stretch to read between the lines into Leonhardt’s intentions: She was misleading township government into believing the BOE as a whole was involved in the decision making. But the BOE never met before the July 19 deadline.
Leonhardt Crosses the Line
With that e-mail to Joss, Leonhardt crossed the line. Just 31 minutes earlier, Leonhardt had already sent an e-mail dated July 14, 2011 10:28 AM notifying the entire BOE of what we now know. There was no BOE decision. Board president Jim Dincuff and member Mark Kaplan were the only two elected members that “made the decision to not take any action at this time,” thereby letting the deadline pass and withholding $237,310 worth of tax relief from taxpayers.
They had thwarted the governor again. And if any of them now try to suggest that they were planning to “give the money back in the future,” Leonhardt suggests clearly where their minds are about the tax relief funds: “What to do with more money is always a good problem to have…”
…unless you’re the Clinton Township taxpayers who will never see that money.
But Leonhardt didn’t stop there.
Leonhardt & Dincuff Withhold Information Again
Township administrator Marvin Joss clearly believed Leonhardt’s statement that the BOE was going to meet to “have a full BOE discussion regarding these monies.” But rather than call again to express the council’s wishes about the funds, Joss sent Leonhardt an e-mail and asked that she send it to the entire BOE.
What’s not present here is a string of “clarifying” e-mails Leonhardt wrote to Joss between July 14 and July 18, in which she responded to several questions he raised about how much money was actually available for tax relief and how the BOE would handle it all.
If there’s any doubt Leonhardt extended these exchanges to kill time until the deadline was passed, it is erased when one looks at Leonhardt’s “District Office News” for “Week ending Friday, July 22, 2011” delivered to the entire BOE. This is where she fulfills Joss’s and the town council’s request that their request be passed “along to the Board prior to them meeting to make the decision on how to use these funds.”
Leonhardt’s intentions become clear — she did not provide Joss’s e-mail to the BOE until after the deadline to meet and vote had passed. The full BOE had no idea what the message from the elected town council was.
This time, it was the mayor and the council, and the township administrator who were thwarted.
Who Done It? The Gang of 4.
Patricia Leonhardt is the business administrator of the school district and reports to the superintendent, Kevin Carroll, whose contract the BOE declined to renew.
Leonhardt is also the board secretary and reports to the president of the BOE, Jim Dincuff. Since Carroll is a lame duck, Leonhardt is largely under the management and direction of Dincuff. This is clear since she asked him — not Carroll — whether to send the governor’s letter to the entire BOE.
When Leonhardt notified the full BOE that a Gang of 4 “jointly made the decision not to take any action,” and misled administrator Marvin Joss into believing that the gang was “the BOE,” she revealed who done it — who manipulated the BOE and deceived the mayor, the town council, the town administrator and taxpayers: Jim Dincuff, Mark Kaplan, Kevin Carroll, and Patricia Leonhardt.
How do just two elected members of the BOE pull this off? Good question, and the only answer seems to be: Poor BOE Governance.
Led by Jim Dincuff, the Gang of 4 had an obligation to convene the full BOE so it could deliberate and vote on what to do with $247,310 of tax relief funds provided by the governor for that purpose.
But the profound mockery of representative government is revealed in something more onerous.
Again: Total Disdain for the Public
By depriving the elected members of the BOE of their right to meet and decide, the Gang of 4 also deprived the residents of Clinton Township of an open, public meeting where any and every taxpayer could exercise his and her freedom to comment and ask questions — before their tax relief was sucked into the dark hole of the BOE’s books.
The real crime against Clinton Township is that the Gang of 4 violated the public’s right to know and to participate in decisions that are rightfully theirs.
The Gang of 4 recently exposed their disdain for public input by trying to sneak a quick renewal of Carroll’s contract past the public. The massive public outcry over that event killed Carroll’s contract — and the BOE’s credibility. One would think the Gang of 4 would have gone out of its way to run a clean operation — and to regain some part of the public’s faith — by proudly giving the tax relief over to taxpayers immediately. (In fact, some of the new BOE members — a minority — demonstrated integrity and argued for the public’s right to the funds — and we’ll address that in a future posting.)
It’s Time for the Gang of 4 to Go
BOE president Jim Dincuff and BOE member Mark Kaplan should immediately resign, and the BOE should expeditiously terminate business administrator Patricia Leonhardt, for:
- Withholding information from the BOE and from the public,
- Misrepresenting the actions of the BOE, when the BOE took no actions throughout this episode,
- Impersonating the elected BOE (“this wasn’t in any way an oversight, it was a decision”)
- Their “joint decision” to prevent the BOE from meeting and voting,
- For their concerted and successful efforts to mislead the public, the mayor and council, and the township administrator, and
- For conducting the heist of $247,310 worth of desperately needed tax relief funds.
In the next edition, we’ll look at who stood up to fight the Gang of 4.