School board fights about nepotism policy, salary increases

From criticism

School board fights about nepotism policy, salary increases

12/23/2007  Hoboken Reporter

I’M TAKING REQUESTS – City Clerk and School Board Member James Farina knocks out a few Christmas favorites to kick off last week’s school board meeting.

FELIZ NAVIDAD – Eight graders from Brandt and Demarest schools performed a few Christmas carols for the school board and administrators during Tuesday evening’s Board of Education meeting. They were joined on stage by Demarest Principal Thomas Fitzgibbons and Choir Director Robert Myers, as well as school board members James Farina and Frances Rhodes-Kearns who did a two step in the background.

The Hoboken school board ended its 2007 calendar year with arguments among the same board factions that have defined meetings since back in April, when three newly elected "reform" candidates took their seats shortly after the district received a new superintendent.

Although Tuesday's meeting began with 15 eighth graders from the Brandt and Demarest schools singing Christmas carols, the goodwill quickly evaporated into heated exchanges between school board members and at times the public.

The most controversial issue of the night was the first reading of the state's new nepotism policy for the schools, which the state Department of Education is requiring all 31 Abbott school districts (urban "special needs" districts receiving special state aid) to adopt.

The measure proved controversial because the policy calls for the "prohibiting [of] any relative of a board member or chief school administrator from being employed in an office or position in that school district."

The policy was created with the intent of avoiding "both the reality and appearance of conflict of interest in employment," according to the resolution.

Several board members were offended by the resolution, arguing that the measure could be discriminatory against future district employees who have good qualifications but are related to a board member or administrator.

The measure would not penalize any current employees who are already related to a board member or administrator.

Several school board members reacted passionately to the resolution, with former Board President James Farina, who is also the longtime city clerk, describing the policy as "unconstitutional" and warning of potential litigation against the district as a result.

Similarly, board Member Frank Raia, who two months ago tabled the resolution, described it as a "nightmare [that] I think is prejudiced against poor people."

Raia was referring to the fact that only Abbot Districts are required by the state to adopt such a policy, whereas the state's more than 500 other districts are not.

Raia's sentiment was supported by at least two members of the public, former school board member Theresa Burns and 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo, who spoke on the issue.

Russo, who is often the only city councilperson at Board of Education meetings, argued that the nepotism policy gave more importance to whom the candidate is related to rather than to the candidate's qualifications.

The councilman noted that if two people applied for a position, and one was more qualified but was related to a board member, the less qualified candidate would get the job.

Burns, like Raia, objected to the requirement being only for Abbott districts, describing the policy as "flawed and punitive," assuring the board that "no policy is going to give you integrity."

One board member who supported the policy was current Board of Education President Theresa Minutillo, who argued that the reason Abbott districts were required to have such additional regulations was because of the amount of taxpayer money being invested into them by the state, and the fact that the New Jersey Department of Education holds Abbott districts to a higher standard because of that money.

Several members of the school board expressed their concerns that the district could have its state funding reduced if it does not comply with the policy. The board's corporation counsel, Joseph Morano, said that so far, to his knowledge only six Abbott districts have adopted nepotism policies provided by the state. He said that so far, of the 20 plus who have not adopted such a policy, no punishment has been handed down by the state for their refusal to comply, to his knowledge.

In addition, if Gov. Jon Corzine dissolves Abbott districts in his next education budget, which many believe he will, the nepotism policy would be void.

Rather than make an attempt to directly prevent a state mandated policy, Raia added an amendment that included language he believed would stall the implementation of the policy.

According to Raia's amendment, before the policy can be enacted in Hoboken, all of the other Abbott districts in New Jersey must first approve this or a similar nepotism measure.

The amended version was eventually approved in a 5-4 split vote, with a faction of four board members, Tricia Snyder, Rose Marie Markle, Carrie Gilliard, and Theresa Minutilllo, voting against it, while Frances Rhodes-Kearns, Carmelo Garcia, Anthony Romano, James Farina, and Frank Raia voted in favor.

According to Morano, the district actually has complied with the regulations included in the nepotism policy since it was issued by the state in October.

The nepotism policy will come up for a second reading before the board in January.

Salary issues

Another issue debated at Tuesday's board meeting was proposed salary increases of five non-union district employees, including District Facility Director Tim Calligy and longtime secretary to the Superintendent Carmela Mezzina.

Since they hadn't received an increase in two years, the proposal would impose a 5 percent retro increase for the 2006-2007 school year as well as a 5 percent increase for the 2007-2008 school year, representing a approximately 10 percent increase in salary over the past two years, according to Superintendent Jack Raslowsky.

Raslowsky said this is the average raise for administrators, teachers, and clerks in the district over the past two years.

Several board members expressed a desire to discuss the matter further, which required the board to call for a closed session under the direction of its corporation counsel, who felt the employee issue should not be discussed in public.

But several members of the board objected to the closed session.

Garcia asked how some members who have had two to three months to discuss the issue still needed more time. Farina, in protest, avoided the closed session and walked out of the meeting to join the public in the hallway for part of it.

When asked why he walked out, Farina said later in the week that there was no need for him to be there, since he had already stated his opinion for the record and didn't want to engage in something he felt to be "unfair" and "completely political."

After 20 or so minutes, the public was let back into the meeting.

The proposed increase was struck down in a 5-4 decision, with Raia, Gilliard, Markle, Minutillo and Snyder voting against the resolution. Romano, Farina, Rhodes-Kearns, and Garcia voted in favor of it.

Moments after the vote, an apparent attempt was made by those who voted against the increase to introduce a smaller increase.

The proposal of the revised increase, however, was stopped in its tracks by Raslowsky, who suggested to the board that it was not "wise to negotiate" at this time.

In response to Raslowsky's reaction, Markle said publicly later in the meeting that the superintendent had said something different during the closed session.

In an interview later in the week, Markle said that during the closed session, Raslowsky told the board that if the administration's proposed increase failed, an alternate one could be proposed by board members.

One percentage increase that was alluded to by several of the board members during and after the vote was a 3 percent increase for each of the two years.

When asked why she voted against the original proposed increase, Markle said that the funds had not been budgeted for, and that it was going against the recommendation of the Finance Committee, which she said did not endorse the approximately 10 percent increase.

In response to Markle's allegation, Raslowsky said that he could see how Markle could "make the mistake" with regards to what he said during the closed session, but he did not intend for them to come back moments after this resolution was rejected.

"To make a decision on the fly like that is just not wise," he said. "It doesn't allow people the opportunity to carefully consider what they're doing."

Harsh words and a suggestion from Councilman Russo

In addition, the decision to exclude the public drew criticism from some residents in the audience, including Councilman Russo, who accused the board of engaging in "another backroom deal."

Minutillo objected to Russo's characterization and pointed out that the board was only following the advice of their attorney.

Russo also accused the board of politicizing the salary increase, arguing that the selected employees have been doing their job.

Russo alleged that the only reason these employees were not getting their "deserved" increase was because they were close to the district's former Superintendent Patrick Gagliardi, who was routinely at odds with Minutillo.

In a phone interview later in the week, Minutillo confronted Russo's allegation that politics played a role in her decision, repeating Markle's argument that the increase was not recommended by the board's Finance Committee and that it was not budgeted for.

Minutillo said that Russo's claims were baseless and that his motivation for speaking at school board meetings is to be seen on television.

"All he wants is to get on TV," she said. "Mr. Russo doesn't care what he says. All he has are sound bites."

Russo responded later in the week that he comes to school board meetings because he cares about the entire community, especially students.

He said that in the past, "Ms. Minutillo used to come to council meetings and accuse us of not being open and transparent, and now as president, she doesn't even have her closed sessions taped. They're pretending to be open and transparent when they absolutely are not."

Toward the end of the meeting, Russo suggested that the board begin audio-taping closed sessions, as they do at the city council. That way, at a later date, when the issue is resolved, residents can be made aware of what was discussed.

Minutillo, Garcia and Snyder verbally endorsed the suggestion at the meeting, while several other board members nodded in agreement.

The proposition prompted Farina to request that a resolution containing such a measure be prepared for the next Board of Education meeting, so it could be voted on.

PILOT concerns

Near the conclusion of the meeting, former school board candidate Felicia Rubino-Drasheff addressed the board with her concerns over the city's overwhelming endorsement of Payments in Lieu of Taxes (or PILOT payments) for new developments, and the financial consequences they will have on the school district.

PILOT payments are deals between the municipality and a real estate developer that allow a developer to pay a certain amount of money to the city each year instead of regular property taxes. That money would go straight to the city budget, but not to the schools and county, as normal taxes would.

Rubino-Drasheff was concerned about the schools not getting any of the money.

These concerns were echoed by resident activist Ines Garcia-Keim, who also questioned the city's commitment to the district when they apparently are so willing to take away funding.

In response to those concerns, Russo said that the council set a policy to allocate money to the school district from PILOT payments, and that it falls to the administration to follow it through.

In a phone interview later in the week, City Business Administrator Richard England said that he recalled that members of the council had previously announced their intention of designating a certain percentage of PILOT payments to the district. However, to date, no deals have stated that money from PILOT payments has to go to the school district.

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