Ram Insurance of Jersey City - a contributor to Elwell's mayoral bids over the last two years - is currently the broker of record for the town employees' health benefits, as well as for Hudson County's. A broker does not provide the insurance, but negotiates insurance benefits with various providers, seeking to get the best benefits possible.
Earlier this year, during council and Board of Education negotiations, town officials suggested the board might seek a new broker in order to help reduce its escalating insurance costs. In 2001, the cost for health insurance benefits rose by $318,000 for school employees.
Elwell said the idea was to create a larger pool of employees by combining those from the town and the schools to qualify for bigger discounts and lower costs for both the town and the schools.
Ram - which contributed to Elwell for the first time in 1999 - got the town's contract two years ago after Elwell was elected mayor. Since then, Ram has contributed $2,000 towards Elwell's current re-election bid. Over the last few years, Ram has also contributed to James McGreevey, Raul Garcia, Bernard Kenny and Robert Janiszewski. Louis Manzo, who served as account executive for Ram throughout much of the 1990's and served as Hudson County Health Chief from 1993 to 1997, ran for mayor of Jersey City earlier this year.
During the last month, the board's finance committee listened to presentations from three insurance brokers. Discussions, according to one board member, suggested that Ram would not be selected.
Several board members claim Elwell called to ask them to interview Ram again, although the board has indicated it would re-interview all three.
"The mayor never asked me to hire anyone," said Board President Paul Amico last week. "But he did ask if we could listen to Ram's presentation again. The full board will hear all three again on June 28."
Previously, only the finance committee heard the presentations. The finance committee is made up of Michael Pesci, Michael Schlemm and Tom Troyer.
After a closed session on June 14, the board agreed to keep Signa as its insurance provider, but must make up its mind on the broker before its budgeting-year ends. The board has until July 1 to award its contract, and is expected to make a decision on the broker at a special meeting on June 28.
What makes the decision tricky is the manner in which brokers are selected. Brokers do not submit a dollar amount so that board members can selected the lowest. Instead, board members must gauge from a broker's experience which broker will provide better service, and which has had more and reliable dealings with schools in the past.
In February, Ram was at the center of a conflict in Bergen County where the Board of Freeholders disputed claims made about how much Ram could save the county.
A radical change of heart?
Although several board members have been reluctant to speak, at least one board member claimed the mayor offered the board a carrot.
The mayor and council agreed Tuesday night to have the town purchase a house next to Huber Street School - a house that juts into the current play yard - to have it demolished.
For years, board officials have debated buying the house themselves, but have not found money in their budget. The offer, however, seems odd considering recent bad feelings between the mayor and the board over large raises given to the school district's top administrators.
Last year, Mayor Elwell and the Town Council authorized the purchase and demolition of a factory across the street from Huber Street School. This allowed the school board to use the school parking lot for expansion, which is currently underway. Earlier this year, after the mayor backed the board's effort to pass a $6.5 million bond for school expansion, Elwell grew outraged when administrators received as high as a 30 percent pay increase.
While there seems to be no overt connection between the purchase of the building and the board's selection of an insurance broker, some see the offer as too good to be true, and questioned what motivated the mayor to have such a dramatic change of heart.
Elwell refuted any connection and said the Town Council will likely move ahead with the purchase anyway. While Board Member Troyer would not comment on discussions held in closed sessions, he say he found the political climate odd.
"It is a most unusual situation to say the least," Troyer said.
Troyer also questioned the growing ties between Secaucus town government and the county, noting that three members of the Town Council currently hold jobs at the county level. Councilman Robert Kickey got a job working for the county Office of Emergency Management at the end of last year. Recently, Council Fred Constantino got a job working for the county's Office for Economic Development. Also recently, Deputy Mayor John Reilly began work in the office of the county's Supervisor of Elections.
Elwell, however, said the county jobs are not the bad sign that rumors make them out to be.
"Bob Kickey has been involved locally in the OEM for years, so it's natural he should take a part on the county level," he said. "John Reilly just retired from UPS, and his is a part time job. Freddie is working to help keep one of our biggest companies from leaving Secaucus. That's part of why he's there."
Battle over the school calendar
In a 5 to 4 vote, the Board of Education at its June 14 meeting rejected last year's school calendar that maintained days off for many of the mid-winter holidays, in favor of a lumped week off in February. This goes back to a calendar the schools used for most of the 1990s.
The new calendar provides a week's vacation in February instead of several holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday, President's Day and Columbus Day. The week break was introduced in the mid-1980s as an energy saving measure, but has since become a boon to the school district that reduces costs in heating and salaries.
Board member Elanore Reinl argued that the extra week off in the middle of the school year put a burden on parents. Parents said that, besides causing scheduling conflicts between parents and kids, the week off also could actually be disruptive to kids, who would be assigned work for the vacation period but would likely get out of sync with classroom habits.
Board member Bill Millevoi, however, disagreed, claiming students learned best in blocks of time and that holidays tended to interrupt the flow.
Schools Superintendent Constantino Scerbo has argued that by lumping many of the holidays into a single week, educators lessened the impact single holidays had on the educational process. They noted the considerable savings the mid-February closing had on expenses at the schools.
"We want to cause the least disruption," Scerbo said. "This schedule has worked well in the past."
Board Member Ed Rittberg said the school system had used that schedule for seven or eight years with only a few complaints.
Board members John Voli, Anthony Rinaldi, Ed Rittberg and Tom Troyer joined Millevoi in fending off two compromise calendar proposals.
Board President Paul Amico urged support for a compromise proposed by Board Member Michael Pesci that would have created a five-day weekend in February, but leave many of traditional holidays unchanged. This raised objections from several board members, saying the compromise - adopted for this year - had disrupted two weeks of schooling instead of one.
Voli argued that attendance dropped during that period in Huber Street where his children attend, and though he could not directly attribute these absences to the schedule, he believed a solid week off might help avert attendance problems.
Amico sought to do away with three half-day sessions, making them full days instead. He said the schools still had to open on those days and students would gain from the full day sessions. The proposal, however, was rejected as well by a 5 to 4 vote.
Rittberg asked the board to consider setting a fixed graduation date for the new calendar, claiming that this would improve planning in cases of snow days during the year. Currently, the graduation date isn't known until after the threat of snow closings passes in late spring. He said if snow days aren't used, they could be inserted in as a short holiday around Memorial Day. While his proposal was not adopted at the June 14 meeting, several other board members said they would consider it for the future.
Expansion progress reports
Rinaldi updated progress on expansion of the two elementary schools in the Buildings and Grounds Committee report. Structural work has moved ahead, with roof nearly 90 percent complete as of June 14. Contractors are currently working plumbing and electrical systems as well as framing ceiling. The expansion at Huber Street School, he said, appears to be on schedule. School officials are hoping to have the additional ready for opening day in September.
"There may be a slip in the schedule for Clarendon School," Rinaldi said, citing a delay in shipment schedules for steel as the cause. "We're trying to hold to the original schedule. He said. We won't know if there will be a problem for about four to eight weeks."
He said contractors expect to erect the steel frame within two to three weeks, with other masonry work expected to be done shortly as well.
In requesting the second change order in a month, Rinaldi asked the board to reduce $68,000 from the original $93,000 contract awarded for the purchase of furniture.
At the end of May, the board agreed to pay $25,000 more after contractors uncovered clay problems around the proposed foundation of the expansion at Huber Street School. The new change order requisition, however, would save money, Rinaldi said, noting that the $68,000 would be used to "shop around" for some of the furniture proposed in the originally awarded contract.
"We found we could get a better price by shopping around," Rinaldi said.