Township, school board squabble over finances

Municipal officials
want some degree of
oversight on spending

Staff Writer

Township, school board
squabble over finances
Municipal officials
want some degree of
oversight on spending
Staff Writer

LAKEWOOD — Township Commit-teeman Charles Cunliffe has said he would ask for a state takeover of Lakewood’s schools if members of the Board of Education block Township Committee oversight of school district finances.

"If they act in a dishonorable way, the committee will take steps to eliminate the board and the administration," Cunliffe told Tri-Town News. "If they can’t live up to their promises in a professional way, I don’t want to have any more future dealings with them; I’m done."

Cunliffe’s comments were made in reaction to a special meeting of the board held May 20. Although board members approved reductions in the school district’s 2004-05 budget, several questioned whether they were required to comply with an agreement to permit the town’s governing body and the county superintendent of schools to oversee changes in line items.

The agreement was negotiated between committee representatives Cunliffe and Mayor Raymond Coles, consultant Frank Marlow, school board attorney Michael Inzelbuch, Lakewood Superintendent of Schools Ernest Cannava, Ocean County Superintendent of Schools Bruce Greenfield and Ocean County school business administrator Michael Foster. It would require the board to notify the committee and the county if the district decides it needs to transfer funds between line items in the budget.

"We pointed out to them that they have far too much transferring," said Cunliffe. "They’re going to have to do a better job managing what they have. It’s too easy to say, ‘Oh, we busted the budget, let’s transfer from somewhere else.’ Live within the line item and don’t make needless transfers. Why have a budget with line items if you’re going to do that? State law makes it too easy for boards to transfer money."

Voters defeated the $95 million budget for the coming school year that was proposed by the board on April 20. That budget would have increased the school tax rate by 14.7 cents per $100 of assessed valuation ($294 increase to the owner of a home assessed at $200,000). After examining the defeated budget, Marlow made recommendations to reduce many of the line items. The reductions decreased the total budget to $92.2 million.

The proposed increase was cut to 9.5 cents ($190 increase to the owner of a home assessed at $200,000) and the local tax levy to support the budget’s general fund was reduced from $54.8 million to $51.8 million. The tax levy to pay the district’s debt service remains untouched at$1.3 million.

With Marlow’s advice, the Township Committee reduced several line items in the defeated school budget by significant amounts. The amount of money allotted for health benefits was reduced by $260,000 since the committee asserted that more funds had been provided than had been used for a thorough and efficient education.

The same reason was given for the reduction of the transportation line item, considered by residents who have criticized the district’s courtesy busing policy to be a controversial expenditure. The committee reduced transportation by $522,098.

Both Cunliffe and Cannava declined to specify what expenses in that line item could be reduced. The district had asserted last fall that it did not have enough funds to cover aid in lieu of payments made to families who are eligible for busing but unable to be serviced by the school district.

Capital outlay was decreased by $500,000 because the committee deemed that sufficient funding had been allocated for that line item. The reduction was the basis for a statement of defiance by board Vice President Norman Bellinger, who discussed his plans for using the line item’s funds at a board meeting.

"We’re going to (replace) that boiler," he announced to the pub­lic. "We’re going to go all gas. Basically, we’re getting out of the oil (business) and there won’t be any more cold days at the middle school."

The audience, mostly members of the Lakewood Education Association (LEA), applauded him. His comments were the opening salvo from board members who were determined to challenge what they perceived as the com­mittee’s bid to control the school district’s finances.

"The better value of the cost of heating (would be gas)," said board member Chet Galdo. "It has to happen. (However), there will be a reduction in the buildings and grounds (line item)."

Inzelbuch, the board’s attorney, said a new boiler would cost $460,000. He reminded the board that the committee had reduced the line item that would have funded a new boiler because the existing one was deemed to be re­pairable and did not require a re­placement.

Galdo asked Inzelbuch if the board was required to ask permis­sion of the committee and county in order to move line items around to fund projects.

Inzelbuch said no.

Galdo then instructed Bellinger to get quotes on a new boiler.

Kathryn Fuoto, the school dis­trict’s business administrator, said Inzelbuch reviewed quotes upon their receipt.

Later in the May 20 meeting, the board members discussed whether or not to ratify the tentative agreement they had not approved with the LEA in April. Board mem­bers cited reductions made by the committee in the revised school budget as an impediment to meet­ing district expenses.

Bellinger, a board negotiator, said that although he had signed the agreement with the LEA, the township had reduced health ben­efits — a key give-back during dis­cussions — by $260,000. He said the LEA members had to pay some­thing toward their health benefits as a result.

"The cuts have to come from someplace," he said.

Cunliffe angrily disputed Bellinger’s suggestion that there was no longer sufficient funding in the revised budget’s line item to pay for the union’s health and den­tal insurance without a contribu­tion from members.

"We left a generous amount of money in the benefits," Cunliffe said in response. "The actions of the Township Committee left enough money to enable the board to live up to their contractual agreements both in salary and benefits."

During the board’s discussion of new business, Cannava referred to the committee’s cut in administra­tive staff by two supervisors. He said the district could not sustain another loss in administration.

"Legally, the board has an abso­lute right to transfer line items," said Inzelbuch. "(This) is a memo­randum of agreement; it’s not a contract. It was required by the township" in order to certify a tax levy for the 2004-05 school budget.

Galdo asked whether the board had to adhere to the agreement with the township and county. He said he had a problem with the agreement if it required six weeks to get permission to move line items around to fund projects.

Inzelbuch repeated that the board had an absolute right to move line items around. He said that under the agreement, the dis­trict only needed to notify the township and county of its inten­tion.

Board member Bruce Stern said the vote on the revised budget was only a memorialization of the agreement.

"It is not a contract, it is all about honesty, truth and integrity," said Inzelbuch, repeating the motto used by the LEA after the board failed to ratify a new contract in April.

On the day after the board meet­ing, Cunliffe said he was prepared to take action should the board not live up to those ideals.

"If anything goes wrong with that agreement, (the committee) will ask the state to do an indepen­dent forensic audit of the district and to ask that it be taken over by the state immediately," he said. "The administration would be gone, the board would be gone and the district would be run by the state. If (board members) continue (to act) in this irresponsible fash­ion, then I’m going to see that the state (takes over the district) im­mediately."

Cunliffe said he had the support of Mayor Raymond Coles and Committeeman Robert Singer, who is also a state senator. Singer re­quested a state examination of the defeated 2004-05 school budget at the committee’s special meeting on May 19.

The committee’s two newest members, Deputy Mayor Meir Lichtenstein and Committeeman Menashe Miller, said they pre­ferred to take a wait-and-see ap­proach.

"I feel uncomfortable with the state taking over the district," said Lichtenstein. "I said that a couple of weeks ago. I still feel the same way, but I would have to review what happened at the school board meeting before changing my mind."