Another District Gets Fiscal Monitor to Try to Solve Budget Woes

Belleville schools are latest ordered, following audit, to submit to state oversight of finances

Just two weeks after the Christie administration assigned a fiscal monitor to the Lakewood school district, it announced yesterday that it’s sending another one to oversee finances in the Belleville schools.

Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe said he was sending the monitor to the Essex County district to address “repeated findings and material weaknesses of internal controls” found in financial audits.

It is the eighth fiscal monitor that the state has dispatched into troubled school districts. The move is seen as being far more temporary and less wide-ranging than a full takeover. The state now has full or partial control in four districts.

But that doesn’t necessarily make the monitor intervention less complex, as Hespe and his staff are learning in the Lakewood district.

In that case, the district had reported a $5 million deficit going into the end of the year and intractable challenges in trying to address a population where 20,000 children — mostly Orthodox Jews — attend private schools, while less than 6,000 attend the public schools.

One of the financial pressure points has been the state requirement that the district pay for transportation of the private school students, at a cost of nearly $20 million a year, as well as special education and other services.

Hespe met with the monitor, Michael Azzara, and local Lakewood officials this week.

He said in an interview yesterday that among the issues to be addressed is that the Jewish private schools have separate bus routes for boys and girls. Others issues stem from the schools not taking advantage of staggered starts and other potential efficiencies.

But when asked whether he would order an overhaul of the transportation system, Hespe said there was far more discussion to take place.

“There are certainly some complexities that we are trying to understand first,” Hespe said. “All of these things are things we need to take a look at.”

A more immediate issue is how to close the $5 million budget gap.

Hespe said Azzara was first trying to find savings in the existing budget. He said a possible loan or emergency aid was not yet being considered.

“Ultimately, we’d have to work with the district to find available money, but we’re not there yet,” he said.

The Belleville monitor, Thomas Egan, will face his own challenges in that district, which has 4,600 students and nine schools. Egan currently serves as the monitor in Elmwood Park as well, and will double up as monitor in Belleville.

Among his tasks will be addressing 24 audit findings of accounting irregularities and a coming up with a plan to address an impending deficit in a $62.5 million budget for this school year. The state said the amount of the deficit is yet to be determined.

The other school districts currently with fiscal monitors are Asbury Park, Trenton, Pleasantville, Garfield, Elmwood Park, Elmer and Woodbine.