Clinton Twp budget rejected: Board has no credibility

After approving the North Hunterdon High School District budget yesterday, Clinton Township voters once again rejected the Clinton Township School District (CTSD) budget, 824:793.

Why? Because the CTSD Board of Education (BOE) has no credibility among voters and taxpayers. There seem to be two specific issues that lead to budget rejection not just this year, but every year.

First, voters rejected the budget because the CTSD Board of Education (BOE) wastes taxpayer dollars without compunction. It’s not clear what’s more obvious: the trend, or the BOE’s audacity.

On April 6, the CTSD BOE hired Patricia Leonhardt as its new Business Administrator at a salary of $125,000. Leonhardt’s current salary at South Bound Brook is $90,915. That’s a 37% salary boost. Nice deal if you can get it in today’s economy — and in New Jersey’s property tax climate.

To make appearances worse, Leonhardt serves on the DelVal High BOE, which in rapid succession hired former CTSD Superintendent Elizabeth Nastus and former CTSD Business Administrator Daria Wasserbach. Leonhardt voted to hire Nastus in May 2008 and six months later voted to hire Wasserbach in November 2008. The Hunterdon Review (April 15, 2009) reports that Leonhardt and Wasserbach are old friends — they attended the same classes to obtain their professional certifications. Leonhardt votes to hire Wasserbach then takes Wasserbach’s vacated position.

While each year the BOE buries its head in press releases touting the importance of passing the budget, voters look at the BOE’s embarrassing behavior. The BOE has a history of paying “extra salary” and giving enormous bonuses to certain (not all) school administrators. In 2007 it approved the renewal of former Superintendent Elizabeth Nastus’s contract, which included the $17,326 “Lebanon Bonus” above and beyond her $173,490 salary. It also included an extension of Nastus’s golden parachute — $165,966 worth of accrued sick and vacation time payable upon her departure. (See line 1540, column Z in that N.J. Department of Education report. This was one of the top ten such payouts in the State.) Needless to say, right after the State instituted a new law limiting sick/vacation time payouts to $15,000, Nastus grabbed the ‘chute and ran to the DelVal High School District. However, after the mayor of Clinton Township filed a complaint with the N.J. Department of Education, the payout was reduced to approximately $110,000.

The CTSD BOE shamelessly renewed that deal every time Nastus’s contract came up. The renewals even included a 66.5-day liability that the CTSD “acquired” from Nastus’s previous employer — the Hope School District — when she was hired in 2001. Taxpayers paid an extra hundred grand last year as a result of such largesse to CTSD administrators. And they know it.

The second reason Clinton Township voters reject the CTSD budget each year is because they have no idea what is in it. BOE budget presentations have become embarrassing. The operative phrases each year are, “Trust us” and “It’s for the kids.” While parents and voters once cowered before such statements, now they demand facts.

But taxpayers have learned that if the BOE isn’t going to explain to them what’s in the budget, the Township Council will. Since 2006 the Township Council has hired a forensic accountant who peels open the school budgets that voters reject. Clinton Township residents know that a budget rejection means they will finally get to see what’s really in the school budget — and what’s not.

In 2006 the Council’s auditor identified close to $500,000 of interest revenue that the BOE should have returned to taxpayers in the form of a tax levy reduction. The BOE not only denied it but vigorously attacked the Council, claiming the Council’s auditor didn’t know what he was talking about. The Council cut over $400,000 and the BOE’s own accountant admitted the “error.” The Council permitted — and encouraged — the hiring of three new teachers. In the end, the N.J. Department of Education forced the CTSD to return over $700,000 of interest revenue to taxpayers.

In 2007 the BOE padded its budget with over $2 million of unnecessary costs that it could not explain to the Council’s forensic accountant. The Council cut $1.5 million — none of it from instruction, teachers or the classroom.

In 2008 the BOE introduced a budget that included its permitted $470,000 “rainy day” surplus — as well as another half a million dollars worth of unspent funds which the Council’s accountant found. During that school year, the district administation instituted a purchasing freeze and teachers begged parents for basic classroom supplies — pencils, paper, kleenex — while it sat on half a million dollars in cash. The Council cut $631,000 out of the $880,000 proposed budget increase. None of the reductions made by the Council involved teachers, instruction or the classroom. Shortly after this budget reduction, the Clinton Township teachers’ union endorsed Council President Kevin Cimei for Mayor.

Voters and taxpayers have learned that they can turn to the Council to adjust the school budget properly. That’s why they reject the budget each year.

The Clinton Township School Board has a history of using public relations to sell budgets when it needs to be forthright and honest about how it spends money. Until over-the-top teacher turnover is addressed; until instruction is put ahead of administration; until the Board changes its DNA; voters and taxpayers have no reason to trust that the BOE is managing public money or the delivery of education properly.

That’s why the voters passed the NHVSD budget but rejected the CTSD budget. A dog finally stops following the master who abuses him.

The BOE could do two things to start on the long path of rebuilding its credibility and earning back the community’s faith and trust. First, something simple. Record all BOE meetings and publish the audio online so everyone can hear what the BOE is doing. The problem today is too much “PR” and not enough disclosure. Most of the time the BOE doesn’t even use microphones — and even those few people who attend the meetings often can’t hear what is being said. The Township Council has been recording its meetings for years and now publishes them online. It’s a prudent investment in open government.

Second, the BOE should turn to the Township Council and ask it to create a dialogue of stakeholders in a non-threatening setting. Teachers, Council members, community and business leaders, board members, parents. But please: Let’s not let this turn into another “BCAC” or other “loaded” public relations scam like we’ve seen in the past. Clinton Township needs an honest forum where we can talk about how we deliver education — and how we pay for it.

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