Senator uses forum to grill schools chief. Cardinale asks about political patronage in Union City

Senator uses forum to grill schools chief

Cardinale asks about political patronage in Union City
Asbury Park Press 08/30/06

The Union City schools superintendent expected laudatory questions from a property tax committee Tuesday about his model of an urban school district, but instead he found himself insulated from questions about whether there is political patronage spending in the school system.

Union City Superintendent Stanley M. Sanger told the property tax committee looking at school funding how Abbott vs. Burke aid has helped his district improve test scores, hire more staff and transform itself from being on the verge of a state takeover to receiving widespread accolades.

Shortly afterward, committee member state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, fired off questions about whether Sanger has hired those with political connections in a district that receives at least 75 percent of its $187 million budget from the state.

"This is not a deposition," said committee co-chairman state Sen. John H. Adler, D-Camden, telling Cardinale to keep his questions to best practices of the city district.

Sanger did not address Cardinale's accusations that the city school board — appointed by Brian Stack, the mayor and a Democratic assemblyman on the committee — is corrupt with political hires and concerns about donations from school staff to Stack's campaign funds.

"They were really not related to what we were to be doing here today," Sanger said outside the hearing. "I'm not putting fuel to a fire."

Sanger, held up as a shining example for the state's poorest so-called Abbott districts, and Superintendent Robert Previti of Brigantine, held up as a high-performing small, non-Abbott district, were invited by the committee to testify about the best practices in their districts and about things others can replicate.

Sanger made a plea to spare Abbott funding, which has been attacked by some as a drain of tax dollars from middle-class districts, while Previti told lawmakers that it would be bad to force well-run, small districts like his to merge with others.

But the hearing's drama came from Cardinale, who said his questions were an appropriate part of the discussion to find ways to lower property taxes despite critics who dismissed him as making an unfounded political attack.

"It's obvious that Abbott money is being used to create a cesspool of corruption," Cardinale said. "Is some Abbott money being used successfully? Absolutely. But is a fairly substantial portion of the Abbott money being used for political patronage? You bet."

The city's schools chief did not respond. But after the hearing, Stack said there were no shenanigans between politicos and the school board.

"I have no problem with him asking that question, even if he wants to submit it in writing to the Board of Education in the City of Union, he should do so," Stack said. "I don't think he should be going off a handout sheet by political opposition in Union City. I think the senator should do his due diligence and look into whether there's inefficiencies in Union City."

The committee's other co-chairman, Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., D-Burlington, said that there will be hearings on waste in school districts but that the day's agenda was to learn from two well-performing districts.

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