Asbury Park Residents Decry School District’s High Spending and “Top-Heavy Administration.”

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On Wednesday night the Asbury Park Board of Education held its monthly public meeting.

Sort of.

While other districts are finding creative ways to include residents in public meetings while maintaining social-distancing — people in my district, for example, can choose among GoogleMeet, live-streaming, and phoning into a conference line — these options were too cumbersome for Asbury Park. Instead, there was only a listen-only telephone number and an opportunity to email questions. 

And this wasn’t just any meeting: The primary agenda item was approval of next year’s budget, a fraught exercise for a district that a recent audit (see here) characterized as having “excess capacity across schools,” lack of “staff efficiencies,” “declining enrollment,” “internal control deficiencies,” “the highest cost per pupil in its enrollment group” ($42,382 total a year),  and “the lowest student-to-teacher (8.9) and student-to-administrative personnel (77.8) ratios in its enrollment group.”

A look at the proposed budget for 2020-2021 (see here), shows that these criticisms fell on deaf ears. While enrollment continues to decline (the entire district is down to 1,864 students, the size of some high schools) and cost per pupil should drop about $3,000, there appears to be little attempt to improve accountability and reduce the disproportionate numbers of administrators.

I spoke to two residents who attended — well, called in — to the meeting. They told me that that, judging by the email questions that were read (not all were), community members were upset by the prospect of higher school taxes, which many ascribe to the notoriously “top-heavy” administrative staff. One of the parents I spoke to noted the Board’s decison – made right after the audit — to sign a lease for a quarter of a million dollars a year for “board offices” even though the district had space available in Barack Obama Elementary School (closed for lack of enrollment).

Let’s look at the administrators at Asbury Park Public Schools who oversee a district where four out of five high school students don’t meet expectations in reading and six out of seven don’t meet expectations in math. Some staff members (who will remain anonymous) call this group the “Repollet Tree” because so many were either hired or promoted by Education Commissioner and former Asbury Park Superintendent Lamont Repollet. 

As noted in the audit (that covered 2016-2018), the student-to-administrative personnel is one administrator for every 78 students. The state average is one administrator for every 160 students., giving Asbury Park twice as many administrators as it needs. In fact, Asbury Park’s ratio of administrators to students ranks highest among in the state’s list of 75 comparable districts. The proposed budget shows that administrative costs will go down by a little less than $200 per student, which may mean that one administrator is getting a pink slip.

Why only one?

After all, in Asbury Park there is a:

  • Superintendent
  • Assistant Superintendent
  • Director of Curriculum and Instruction,
  • Director of Special Services
  • Director of Student Services
  • Director of Operations
  • Director of School Counseling Services. 
  • Business Administrator
  • Assistant Business Administrator,
  • Coordinator of Funded Programs
  • Chief Technology Officer
  • Coordinator of Data and Communication Systems
  • Director of Planning and Assessment
  • Director of Operations

And this district page lists five Directors of Curriculum and Instruction.

I’m told that some board members echoed community concerns. At one point one board member (not sure which one) complained that Board President Angela Ahbez-Anderson “wouldn’t let them” have committee meetings about the budget. Board member Dominic Latorraca, whom I’m told is chair of the Finance Committee, said he’d been asking about budget cuts, to no avail.

The residents I spoke to told me they think Superintendent Sancha Gray (who was brought in by Repollet as Assistant Superintendent when he came to Asbury Park in 2014) is “incompetent” and she “has people there to do her job.” They said that “people who either she or Repollet is friends with” (and one may be a relative) are quickly promoted to administrative roles. There is “no organizational flow chart” and “no accountability.” 

Then there’s this: The budget that the Asbury Park School Board ended up tabling (delaying for a week, even after being scolded by State Monitor Carol Morris) is rooted in pre-pandemic times. There will be no money for profligacy. It’s unclear if there will be enough money for pension payments or Adjustment Aid or expansion of preschools as state revenue drops precipitously. If we get a bailout from the federal governement it likely will come with strings attached. In many ways these (mandated) public budget meetings are meaningless exercises because the school aid proposed by Gov. Murphy in March doesn’t account for a crashing economy.

And yet Asbury Park forever remains Asbury Park. Maybe the district needs a little less administrative management, a little more fiscal literacy, and a lot more attention to student outcomes.

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