Asbury Park School Audit Digs Into NJ’s Big Spender

John Mooney | April 20, 2011 | Education
State auditor report finds plenty of room for improvement, from staffing to phone bill

The Monmouth County school district is Gov. Chris Christie’s favorite target — well, maybe second favorite target — when it comes to criticizing New Jersey’s education establishment.

Nearly as much as he goes after the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), Christie is sure to mention in stump speeches what he calls the poster child of excessive school spending: Asbury Park, which he says shells out as much as $33,000 per student.

Now, the legislature’s state auditor has taken its own look, and in a report released Monday, it found a school system with more than its share of inefficiencies and lax controls, some known and some new.

State Auditor Stephen Eells yesterday stopped well short of claiming egregious waste or mismanagement — and his report put the figure closer to $27,000 per student — but he pointed to a general trend of the district’s enrollment dropping while its staffing has not.

In 12 years, the report said, enrollment had fallen close to 40 percent to about 2,100 students last year, while staffing was cut only by about 10 percent. That left the district’s ratios of student-to-teacher and student-to-administrator far below the state’s averages, the latter half the state norm, the report said.

In its defense, Eells said yesterday, the district has begun to address the imbalance with its well-publicized announcement this winter that it will close the Barack Obama School only a year after naming it for the president.

“When you address some of their ratios, you are talking some real money,” Eells said in an interview. “We’re talking two or three administrators where other districts have one. These are major areas and significant costs.”

Eells’ office also found some less publicized issues, including about 1,300 extra days off allotted to staff for “critical illness in the family,” outside legal fees well above the state’s norms, and payments for 149 telephone lines no longer in use.

Asbury Park school officials could not be reached for comment yesterday, with the schools closed for the week. The district’s outside counsel, Michael Gross of Kenney Gross Kovats & Parton in Red Bank, also was unavailable to discuss the report, said his office.

But in a lengthy response attached to the auditor report, district superintendent Denise Lowe said she was already addressing some of the claims while contesting others.

For instance, she said the critical illness days were part of the union contract and could not be easily eliminated. She did say said they could be more closely monitored. She also said the district had already begun to look for a new contract for outside legal counsel and to cut out the unused phone lines.

And she said both the planned closing of the Obama School and more intensive recruitment of new kindergarten students should help address the staffing imbalances. Not mentioned is the local school board resistance that has apparently emerged over the school closing, according to news reports.

“We believe your recommendations will improve our efficiency and effectiveness in providing the best education possible for the children of Asbury Park,” Lowe wrote in her response.

“We have already implemented several of the procedures recommended by your team and will continue to research ways to do so in the future,” she wrote.