Although the office of Mayor Mark Smith said it has limited ability to change top school officials, reports from others suggest there is a concerted effort to make changes in both the school district’s leadership as well as members of the Board of Education.
The intense behind the scenes conflict appears to be brewing between Mayor Smith and the Bayonne Board of Education over a perceived lack of cooperation with proposed cost cutting measures Mayor Smith asked for last month.
While the mayor’s office has denied reports that the mayor will replace the superintendent of schools, the school district business administrator, the athletic director and possibly three or more board members, others claim that significant changes are going to be made in order to get the board to cut the $117 million budget.
Steve Gallo, chief of staff for Mayor Smith, said the mayor has encouraged the board to show fiscal restraint.
“He holds regular meetings with the board president and has asked the president and trustees to review the district's operations to eliminate waste and inefficiencies,” Gallo said. “However, the mayor does not control the actions of the board (of education) and he has no power to make any changes in staff other then through his role as a member of the Board of School Estimate, where he is part of the board that controls the purse strings. The budget process for the next fiscal year will commence soon and the word of the day is austerity.”
But Councilman Anthony Chiappone, also a member of the Board of School Estimate, said changes are being proposed.
“There is resistance from the school administration to engage in shared services,” Chiappone said. “As you may be aware, we are receiving $8 million additional for three years. We are in year two. The position of former Mayor Malloy and myself (as a Board of School Estimate member) was to engage in interlocal agreements that would bring some of that money to the municipal side. That $8 million cannot be used for tax relief but can be applied to school expenses. My understanding is that this is not being embraced and thus may result in some school board administrative changes.”
Several sources inside the school district say “a conversation” is ongoing to encourage several high paid administration personnel to seek retirement and several board members may be asked to step down, at which time Mayor Smith will name their replacements.
Since the terms of at least three board members have expired, the mayor’s selection could also influence the board’s voting on replacing of key people in the school district.
City Council President Vincent Lo Re said School Administrator Clifford Doll is supposed to retire shortly.
“That is the reason why the school hired an assistant business administrator in order to give a lot of lead time so that the assistant could learn and make the transition seamlessly,” Lo Re said.
Currently, Michael Pierceson serves as assistant business administrator and athletic director for the school district, and if he moves up to replace Doll, the athletic director’s position would have to be filled, Lo Re said.
Lo Re, however, said that replacing Schools Superintendent Dr. Patricia McGeehan would be a mistake.
“I can’t think of anyone more competent or hardworking,” Lo Re said. “She made that position a 24-hour, seven-day a week job.”
Money is at the heart of conflict
Part of the conflict between the school district and City Hall comes from Mayor Smith’s efforts to shift some of the cost currently borne by the city back to the school district. In a speech last month, the mayor said, “Going forward, we also need to employ the same type of fiscal discipline at the Board of Education.”
“To this end, last night in my role as chairman of the School of Board Estimate, I made clear that all public officials must put the breaks on spending,” Smith said.
“A lot falls on the mayor’s shoulders at the chair of the Board of School Estimate. And he pretty much wants to know where things are.” – Will Lawson
The city has already moved to begin charging schools for water and sewerage service, and is seeking to receive lease payments on Veteran’s Stadium, as well as charges for trash removal.
Board President Will Lawson said the mayor’s office has not contacted him in regard to change of membership on the board.
“As long as I have been on this board, no mayor has discussed who new board members will be. We do not have input when it comes to selecting who serves. That is strictly in the mayor’s discretion,” Lawson said.
While the terms of several board members expire this year, Lawson could not say if they would be replaced or not.
But he said he has had a number of meetings about cutting the budget since Lawson is also a member of the Board of School Estimate.
“A lot falls on the mayor’s shoulders as the chair of the Board of School Estimate,” Lawson said. “And he pretty much wants to know where things are.”
The board is facing difficult times, largely because of the change in economic climate over the last year.
“Decisions I was comfortable making last year, I’m not comfortable with now,” Lawson said. “We need to know where financing is coming from. We are going to have to make some tough decisions.”
While he said some board members may choose to leave the board, he will not be one.
“If anything, I’m more determined to use my experience to navigate us through these tough times,” he said. “But we are going to face some difficult days ahead. When you look at a $117 million budget and the cost of benefit packages and see we will have to pay an additional $6 million next year, you have to wonder where we’ll get the funding.”
Lawson said while the state has committed to giving Bayonne schools an extra $8 million per year in aid over the next few years, the district must wait to see if the state will live up to that promise with the current problems faced on the state level.
These additional aid payments – including $8 million last year – are to make up for underpayments by the state. He said Bayonne should have received $30 million under the state formula, but had its aid capped last year. To make up for this, the state has agreed to pay the district $8 million in additional aid each year until the district is up to where to should be.
While Governor Jon Corzine normally announces aid for schools at around the end of February, this year it has been put off to April, leaving some to believe that the state budget crisis will have a negative impact on state aid to schools.
Lawson said the school board is already looking to put things off that were planned based on past aid presumption, including hiring more math coaches to help bring up students’ testing scores.
“Normally, we would update our textbooks and technology, and we even started to move in that direction. But we now have to take a hard look at those things, too,” Lawson said.
Lawson said the federal stimulus package may help the state meet its obligations for providing aid to school districts, and is among the issues being discussed in the school budget committee.
“We’re keeping a close eye on our options,” he said.
So far, the Board of School Estimate has met once, and is expected to meet several more times before the school board votes on the budget.