Once again it’s time to take a look at Asbury Park Public School District, which spends more per pupil ($42,382 total a year) than almost any other district and is the former post of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet. This past November the New Jersey State Legislature’s Office of the State Auditor completed an analysis of the district’s functioning that spans from July 2016 (when Repollet was still superintendent) to December 2018. The auditor, Stephen M. Eels, addresses his analysis to Gov. Murphy, Senate President Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, and Executive Director of the Office of Legislative Services Peri Horowitz. I was given a copy by a staff member, who will remain anonymous.
Much of what follows confirms patterns that we’ve seen elsewhere: Wasteful spending, poor internal oversight processes, and top-heavy Administration. I’ve also looked over minutes from recent board meetings to confirm some aspects of the audit. And let’s remember that this is not just about money but about children relegated to Asbury Park, almost all of color, who have an 80% chance of not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, an important indicator for future academic success.
Asbury Park has seen a decline in enrollment over the last years. In 2000 the district enrolled over 3,000 students, in 2008 the district enrolled 2,132 students and in 2018 enrolled 1,862. The district’s capacity is for 3,095 students. (Current Superintendent Sancha Gray, brought to Asbury Park by Repollet, recently announced a plan to close one of the three elementary schools.) So, as enrollment drops, how is the district controlling costs with the help of a State Fiscal Monitor who has been there since 2007?
Here are highlights from the audit:
- “We observed a continued decline in enrollment, excess capacity across schools, and found the potential for improving staff efficiencies through scheduling enhancements.”
- The auditors “noted compliance issues regarding health benefit waiver incentive payments and extraordinary aid. We also noted internal control deficiencies involving sign-in procedures, casual payments, procurement, and other matters related to scheduling, early childhood, and proprietary funds that merit management’s attention.” Translation: The district is wasting money because its internal systems are poorly managed by administrators.
- “According to the 2018 guide, the district has the highest cost per pupil in its enrollment group (1,801 – 3,500 students) and operating type (K-12). The district also has the lowest student-to-teacher (8.9) and student-to-administrative personnel (77.8) ratios in its enrollment group. The statewide K-12 averages for these two ratios were 12.0 and 159.2, respectively.” Translation: Asbury Park spends way more than it should and hires too many teachers and administrators compared with comparable districts. For example, there is one administrator for every 78 students, while the state average is one administrator for every 160 students. The district has more than twice as many administrators than it needs. (Word on the ground is that friends of the superintendent are quickly promoted to administrative levels, a trend that began with Repollet and continues under Gray. For example, the Central Office Administration includes the superintendent, five “directors,” and both a Business and Assistant Business Administrator, absurd for a district the size of some high schools.
- Asbury Park is overaided. The Local Fair Share — the amount that should be raised by local property taxes — is $17.4 million but residents only contribute $7.4 million. (The State contributes $50 million of the district’s $65 million annual operating budget.)
- Even though district facilities are at 60% capacity, the Administration is renting a separate building for the central office. The audit says this costs $212,400 a year; any board member could tell you that it’s an easy task to use extra space in school buildings. I checked recent board minutes: see this one. Last November — the same time the audit came out — the Board approved a resolution to continue to lease a building through April 2022 from an entity called GECC Family Limited Partnership for $249,024 per year. (That’s a quarter million of your annual taxes, folks.)
- Class size is too small, which wastes money. (See above for low ratios of students to teachers.) From the audit: “The smallest was a fifth grade homeroom with nine students. We noted as many as eight homerooms that could have been consolidated in the various grades while allowing the district to continue to maintain class sizes below the maximum allowed by the administrative code.” Also, “seat counts for classes at the high school and middle school levels were inconsistent and arbitrary.”
- In the same vein, some teachers are getting paid for full schedules but not teaching them. For example, “one teacher had three free periods.” Regarding employee tardiness (apparently a problem in the district), no school “had a mechanism to track and accumulate the number of times this had occurred.”
- There are myriad problems within the special education department, which I’ve documented before. (See here, here, and here.) One problem is overcharging the state for “Extraordinary Aid,” which is money the state chips in when the costs for a student eligible for special education goes above $40,000 per year. According to Asbury Park’s records, the special education department listed 34 students who each had a one-on-one aide. But, upon examination by auditors, they found that actually only 4 students had one-on-one aides. “Each of these 34 students had the total salary and applicable benefit costs for the assigned aide…None of the salary and benefits costs for “shared” aides were prorated for the remaining 30 students.”
The audit continues,
If the costs for this employee were prorated among the four students, the special education expenses would have fallen below the $40,000 threshold for each of these students. We did not have documentation to determine how many students “shared” each aide. We estimated the reduction of aid based on the assumption that aides were to be shared by at least two students. Under this assumption, 18 students fell below the threshold and 12 other students had a reduction of qualified costs, thereby causing a reduction of aid of at least $342,000. Failure to properly prorate employee salaries and benefits for “shared” staff based on the number of pupils in a class would overstate qualified extraordinary aid costs and provide the district with additional aid for which it wasn’t entitled.
Translation: Asbury Park is cheating state taxpayers by overstating costs.
- The category “Casual Payments” refers to relatively small fees for things like extracurricular activities, overtime, purchase of a vehicle. The employee then fills out a reimbursement sheet. According to the audit, there were mathematical errors in 7 of the 50 sheets examined. “In one example, an approved voucher for an employee was paid for 90 hours when only 30 hours were worked, resulting in an overpayment of $5,760.” And, “In one instance, an employee worked overtime of 17 hours, 24 hours, and 24 hours three consecutive days over a holiday weekend.” And, the district permitted extra luxuries to a school vehicle. “Built-in navigation, rain sensing wipers, heated exterior mirrors, and running boards, are questionable options. The total cost of this optional equipment was $2,354.”
- The district purchases technology it doesn’t use. “We scanned additional periods of wireless bills and found international charges totaling $2,461, related to an approved trip to Ghana. Switching to an international plan for the four devices used on the trip would have resulted in savings of $2,181.”
- The district pays for frivolous activities that often reek of nepotism, even though it is illegal for an employee to have a “direct interest” or be a “related party” in any contract or agreement approved by the Board.
We noted a payment of $7,000 was made to a related party for a workshop and team-building yoga sessions during the summer of 2017. The owner of this business is also an employee of the district. This confirming purchase order was created in March 2018, almost eight months after the workshop was provided. Additionally, the board minutes did not include details regarding the vendor and total payment. The costs were all combined and did not identify the vendor. We identified payments totaling $5,160 in each fiscal year 2017 and 2018 to another related party for computer equipment maintenance services provided by a family member of a district employee.
Here’s a few additional extravagances, some found by looking at Board Minutes and others from staff members who will remain anonymous.
- Superintendent Gray takes many trips at district expense. This school year alone the Board has approved trips to New Orleans, Dallas, and San Diego.
- In September the Board approved “a 1-year Waggle program proposal from HMH [Houghton Mifflin, a constant vendor that has an expensive arrangement with the district — see here] for $13,493.” According to its website, Waggle “instills a growth mindset in every student by rewarding productive perseverance.” In August the Board approved a Monmouth County-based program called “Konscious Youth Development” that “focuses on the body, mind and soul as the pathway to bring internal balance resulting in external success.” All this for $120,000 a year. (Way to teach literacy!) In January the Board approved “Beauty That Cares to provide 3 sessions at the January 23rd 2019 Mid-Year Convocation. During the 25-minute interactive workshop, participants will learn the benefits of using essential oils and herbs to enhance their overall wellbeing.”
You get the idea. The district is a hot mess. Yet here’s the Board’s Self-Evaluation posted in district minutes:
The Board Self-Evaluation that had been completed by eight (8) of nine (9) board members. The board had averaged scores of 2.9 to 3.5. In the areas of Policy, Student Achievement, Finance, Board Operations, Board Performance, Board / Superintendent Relationships, Board/Staff Relationships and Board and Community, the scores indicate that the board has the proper processes and procedures in place in these areas. Well done! However, in the area of Planning, the board could focus attention.