Schools pan state probe

South Brunswick district is one of 50 to get letters from the State Commission of Investigation.

By: Jeff Milgram and Rebecca Tokarz
   School officials said they were surprised to learn that the state is beginning a probe into the salaries, benefits and other perks given to the school district’s top officials during the past five years, information already available to the public.
   The State Commission of Investigation issued a letter to about 50 school districts throughout the state — including South Brunswick, Cranbury, Princeton Regional and Montgomery — on Jan. 9 requesting districts send information regarding "compensation, remuneration given or expenditures made" to superintendents or chief school administrators and assistant superintendents in each district.
   According to the letter, the inquiry is required "in connection with an inquiry related to public school administrative costs." The letter, printed on state letterhead, states the request was made in lieu of a subpoena and was signed by Chief Counsel Robert J. Clark.
   On Tuesday, an SCI spokesman would not confirm or deny whether an investigation was underway.
   School officials said the inquiry makes it seem like districts are involved in corrupt or wrongful behavior, even though the information is available to members of the public upon request.
   "It’s a shame. The information is available under the Open Public Records Act," said Jeff Scott, the assistant superintendent for business. "This leaves people with the perception that something is wrong."
   The letter calls for districts to comply with the state’s inquiry by providing copies of "any and all employment contracts, along with addenda; any and all sidebar and/or exit agreements with the Board of Education" in connection with the district’s chief school administrator, superintendent and assistant superintendents from July 1999 to present.
   In addition, districts must provide records of compensation or expenditures that are not mentioned in an employment contract, such as credit cards bills, legal fees or automobile expenses, according to the letter. The probe also calls for documentation about termination or retirement settlements paid by the school board and all records of sick and vacation time cashed in or paid by the district to its top administrators over the specified five year period.
   Former Superintendent Sam Stewart earned $163,514 when he retired in June 30 after 11 years as schools chief.
   In April 2002, Dr. Stewart and the school board entered into a contract for the terms of his retirement package from the district, allowing him to remain on the payroll as a district administrator through Oct. 31.
   "His annual salary during such term shall be at the same salary rate which he was receiving as superintendent just prior to July 1, 2003," according to the contract.
   In addition, the district agreed to pay Dr. Stewart $50,000 in what was called "merit payment," according to the contract. The money would come in the form of two paychecks — "one on or about August 1, 2003 and a second on or about January 15, 2004."
   By accepting the merit settlement, Dr. Stewart waives his rights to collect payment for unused vacation or sick time under his current or prior contract, the contract states.
   According to the contract, Dr. Stewart had accumulated 108 unused sick days through June 30, 2002. The contract states that he would have accumulated an additional 12 days on July 1, 2002 and another 12 days as of July 1, 2003. The contract states that "the agreed upon merit payment is in lieu of any payment on retirement for unused sick days."
   Former Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Willa Spicer made approximately $136,000 when she retired in July. She also remained with the district as an unpaid consultant through Oct. 31.
   As part of Ms. Spicer’s retirement package, the district paid its former assistant superintendent $54,728 for unused sick and vacation time from her start in the district, 1975 to 1992. In addition, Ms. Spicer was paid for her accumulated sick time and last year’s vacation when she retired, according to Personnel Director Mike Lacey.
   Interim Superintendent Judith A. Ferguson, who joined the district July 1, earns $600 per day. Dr. Ferguson’s contract will have her in the district through June 30. Mr. Scott currently earns $134.397 a year.
   In Cranbury, Cranbury Chief School Administrator Carol Malouf earns $122,221 and Chief Business Administrator Brian DeLucia makes $96,000. Former Chief School Administrator Bob Bartoletti made $123,626 when he left the district in 2001 after 12 years in the district.
   Mr. Scott said South Brunswick is one of 50 districts that received the letter and the district is in the process of complying with the state’s inquiry, but has not been able to get an answer as to why the probe is being made.
   Mr. Scott said the required documentation will show that the district allows its top administrators to be reimbursed for travel expenses for conferences.
   He said that in his time as an assistant superintendent, he has never seen such an inquiry and it raises some questions.
   "Anytime you receive a letter from the State Commission of Investigation, it raises your concern — you wonder what they are investigating. But there are other ways to do that that are less onerous," he said.
   According to Mr. Scott, the state denies the investigation has anything to do with Gov. James E. McGreevey’s desire to cut administrative school costs. But, Mr. Scott said the timing of the letter and the governor’s announcement during his State of the State address cannot be overlooked.
   In his speech, Gov. McGreevey directed Commissioner of Education William L. Librera to take five steps toward effectively educating students. His plan includes providing grants to districts that "demonstrate excellence in student achievement while maintaining low administrative costs." Gov. McGreevey also said his plan would change the culture of education "that has spawned too much inefficient government and too much unnecessary spending."
   "It’s quite a coincidence," Mr. Scott said.
   Cranbury School’s Chief Business Administrator Brian DeLucia said the district is waiting to hear back from its attorney before it complies with the request.
   Mr. DeLucia said the request came as a bit of a shock.
   "I was a little surprised and taken aback by the wording of the chief counsel," he said. "It seemed a little disturbing that it’s in lieu of a subpoena."
   Montgomery Township Superintendent Stuart Schnur called the letter "heavy handed" and said he was shocked when he received it Jan. 13. He later found out that other districts received the letters.
   "We don’t get it," said Dr. Schnur. "We don’t have special perks."
   Dr. Schnur said the SCI gave the Montgomery school board’s lawyer no reason why his district received the letter.
   The letters give the districts two weeks to comply, Dr. Schnur said.
   "The state would love to blame taxes on teachers and administrators," Charlotte Bialek, president of the Princeton school board, said Monday.
   She said the letter, which she has heard about but not seen, poses no threat to the district.
   Ms. Bialek called the two-page letter a diversion.
   "They are having their own budget problem in the state and across the nation, and the kids in schools are easy diversions," Ms. Bialek said.