In Asbury Park, A Call for the State Fiscal Monitor to Resign

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Last night the Asbury Park Board of Education held its monthly meeting –with a bit of a twist. Since mid-March all meetings have been held remotely: For the required public participation, people email in comments that are read at the appropriate time by an administrator and anyone can dial in to listen. But this time the Board decided, COVID-19 be damned, to meet in-person.

Why? Because since meetings have been held remotely, community participation has skyrocketed, as has (mostly negative) comments from parents and residents. This, apparently, is just too much sunlight for those charged with running a school district that has failed its students for decades. For example, currently 89% of 10th graders fail the state reading test.

I’ve been covering Asbury Park Public Schools for a while now, mainly because, as former Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet’s last gig (he was appointed superintendent there in 2014), the district’s dysfunction offers a microcosm of what has happened at the state level during his tenure. My sources within the district remain anonymous because staffers fear retaliation.

But now someone is willing to go on the record: Tracy Rogers, an education, social justice, and affordable housing advocate.

Rogers originally planned to send in his statement to be read at the remote Board meeting, per procedure. (His entire statement is below.) Over the last few months the district has posted the link to listen in on its website the day before the meeting. But yesterday no link was posted. Rogers contacted a few board members who confirmed that anyone who wanted to listen to the board discussions would have to show up in-person. Rogers, committed to getting his information out there, decided to do so in order to read his statement to the full Board (six out of nine showed up) and other staff members. Of course, the public couldn’t hear his remarks unless they were willing to walk into the room during a pandemic. (Four people showed up.)

A little background on his statement: Rogers believes that the problems in Asbury Park stem not only from administrators but also from the State Fiscal Monitor, Carole Morris. Asbury Park has had a State-appointed Fiscal Monitor since 2007, as it should, given that it spends over $41K per pupil with dismal results. Morris, age 81, was appointed in 2014, arriving the same year as Repollet. She has a storied past (described here), appears to control matters both fiscal and non-fiscal, and earns an annual salary of $171,000 (as of 2014 — couldn’t find more recent data) plus her annual pension payment of $141,611 from when she worked in the Manasquan district. (In 2016 she was also a part-time fiscal monitor in Atlantic City for $96/hour; I don’t know her current status there.)

After Rogers read his statement, Morris replied by saying his data was incorrect and that Asbury Park’s situation is “unique.” Rogers told me this morning that there is a belief among the (way too many) administrators and Morris that Asbury Park students can’t learn. “We can’t keep blaming the families,” he said, “because the district won’t do what needs to be done.”

Board members were sufficiently chastened by complaints about the community’s exclusion that they will hold a Zoom meeting next week. I did read the agenda from last night: Noteworthy was the decision to spend $91,950 on 11 football coaches. Seems like a lot for a high school that has 200 male students.

What’s Rogers’ beef with Morris? Read it below. I’ve added a few links for those who want to dig more deeply.

Dear School Board Members, Concerned Parents and Citizens of Asbury Park:

At the last school board meeting, the present State Monitor appeared to address the concerns of parents, teachers and citizens. You, Mrs. Morris, stated that there were rumors of a top-heavy administration and employed a straw man fallacy. You insulted the intelligence of the stakeholders that participated during the board meeting by informing the audience that our school district must, by law, have a Superintendent. Additionally, you stated that you know of no district that does not have a Business Administrator.

It is obvious that the stakeholders never questioned the legal requirement of those two positions. You were being disingenuous. If you were overseeing the district properly, you would have compared our district with other districts of similar demographics and determined that 6 directors is grossly disproportionate. Can you rationalize for a district of our size, the necessity of all of these positions at the administrative level and identify what measurable successes they have had with Asbury Park students?

Districts like Keansburg, Salem City, Pennsville, and Gloucester City have similar enrollment numbers yet do not have a quarter of the administrative staff positions that Asbury Park has. The data clearly demonstrates that these districts have better test scores than Asbury Park School District. The administrator-to-student ratio is a standard benchmark metric that is on the New Jersey Department of Education website and in the summary of every district in the state. Asbury Park has received alerts from the state that it was below the state average in an audit done in 2011, and again in 2019; our scores still remain below the state average.

Mrs. Morris, our district has not seen significant increases in student performance during your tenure as State Monitor. Granted, the state has required that a state monitor be present to move the district into a better direction. However, under your 7 year tenure, our district has not made any significant changes for the better. Asbury Park test scores continually remain below the state average. In 2015, during Town Hall meetings, our former governor clearly announced to stakeholders in other cities that Asbury Park has the highest cost per pupil, the worst test scores, and a plummeting graduation rate.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention the adoption of the 64th Floor policy, the purpose of which was to lower academic standards for our children in order to raise the graduation rate, and note that it was approved by you.

It has been repeatedly said to our parents and the residents of Asbury Park that it will take time to fix the district’s performance. You continue to get paid 150 thousand dollars per year, (which noticeably does not appear in the user-friendly budget report unlike the salaries of state monitors in other districts which are posted in their budgets according to the guidelines of the NJDOE). Additionally, you receive a pension of 140 thousand dollars per year, yet the needs of our students have been neglected for decades. As a result, they will never likely have the opportunity to earn the type of salary you do.

You have defended why it was necessary for the board to approve the renewal of a lease that will cost the taxpayers 500 thousand dollars in revenue. That amount, if appropriated properly, could have defrayed the cost of the salaries of the art teachers that our students so desperately need and deserve. Renewing that lease went against the recommendation of the 2019 state audit which advised the district to find less expensive office space. Approval given for such was concurrent with the district decision to close a school which was already fitted with computers, and office space, and which the board administrators could have easily occupied. Additionally, you have approved district purchases of over-priced programs which have not increased Asbury Park’s ability to improve our test scores.

I cannot stand by while other districts had have their digital divide for their students lessen over years with the distribution of laptops and chrome books. On the day when the Governor ordered schools closed for this pandemic, our district sent home packets. I watched children in Newark being taught on day one from Facebook. Due to the unprecedented times, Asbury Park School District realized that they did not have enough computers and some students did not have internet access, or adequate internet access. This occurred while our children were already lacking a quality education.

I will ask the Interim Commissioner of Education and the State Legislature Education Committee to investigate all the audits performed of our district, to interview staff as I have done, and examine the statistical data that I have already collected and analyzed on the mismanagement of funds in this district.

Tonight, I am asking that you resign as state monitor for our district for the reasons outlined above. A majority have blamed the children of Asbury Park for their poor educational outcomes; however, it is my belief that you have failed them, Mrs. Morris. As stated in the 2018 state audit of the state monitors, you have the power to implement change in staff, policy, and have overall fiscal control of the district, yet nothing has changed in this district. This district has failed our students miserably and I blame you Mrs. Morris, and ask again that you step down immediately for the sake of our children. I do not believe you are willing to invest in the well-being of the children of Asbury Park and during these unprecedented times with the different scenarios of the reopening of schools in the fall, I do not feel confident in your oversight.

Tracy Rogers, invested stakeholder.

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  • Jon, July 24, 2020 @ 6:27 pm Reply

    The sad truth is that the exorbitant per pupil costs in Asbury Park is to keep those schools segregated — and others — at any cost. That is the pact the administrators in Ocean Twp. and Asbury have made with one another to keep separate schools. Until there was an Oc. Twp. High School, students went to Asbury Park or Long Branch. Those schools were significantly integrated and diverse student populations experienced school together – and bonds were made via the arts, sports, common classes, dining together … that is socializing and knowing one another. The altar of home rule has destroyed what Brown v. Board of Ed. tried to address. We have in NJ defacto segregated school systems, and that is what the powers that be in those communities either want or have enabled, to the detriment of the children and students. In this time of Black Lives Matter, all the more reason that integrated schools with equal opportunities should be in effect. Alliances between school districts would increase the educational opportunities of students via magnet programs, academies, International Baccalaureates, vocational training … the list goes on. A true confederation in the best sense of school districts, such as Ocean and Asbury Park, Long Branch and West Long Branch, Neptune and Manasquan, just some examples where evidence based best practices could begin to address and overcome the starting inequities in educational outcomes and irresponsible fiscal management that interferes with what is in the best interest of students. This could begin even in these times of remote learning with festivals of the arts with cooperating school districts, shared staff development, and shared special education services. But, current superintendents would have to work together and share authority and resources to make this happen.

  • Laura Jensen, July 25, 2020 @ 10:24 pm Reply

    Move over Morris it’s time to retire. This issue with Asbury park schools has been on going for decades. A lot has to do with the fact that parents are not as involved as they need to be. Several don’t even show up for teachers conferences and many aren’t present to help children with their homework or get involved with school activities. It’s all good to be great teachers and really engage the children while they’re in class but if when they go home amd no one cares then your at a loss. Every so often you will get students who excel despite their home environment but it’s not enough. We need to catch these kids when they’re in the lower grades when their minds are open to learming. Once they hit middle school if you already haven’t gotten them it’s too late. Schools without strict rules with parent cooperation will never gain control of their students learning and all the money in the world won’t change it

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