State Auditor Cries Foul Over Failure to Fill County School Superintendent Posts

John Mooney | July 28, 2014 | Education
Report says having someone at the education helm in all 21 counties is required by statute

Department of Education Building
Calling out Gov. Chris Christie on a long-disputed issue, the state auditor has accused his administration of violating the law by failing to staff county school offices as required by statute.

At issue is the appointment of county executive school superintendents for each of New Jersey’s 21 counties, which the Christie administration has not done since the earliest years of his first term.

The state auditor, a function of the state Legislature’s Office of Legislative Services, said in a report on school administrative spending released last week that just three superintendents were serving just one county, while six were responsible for two counties each and three were each covering three counties.

The report said the county school offices have continued to function. But current superintendents said they were overburdened by having to cover more than one county – and they raised the possibility that the state has suffered, as well, because there is less oversight of local school districts and their budgets.

State Auditor Stephen Eells’s report focused on local administrative expenses and the state’s oversight of that spending. While the report said those costs are generally not excessive, a significant number of school districts in each county had administrative spending that was well above the average or had increased by as much as 10 percent.

Total administrative costs for the state’s 600 school districts over the last four years amounted to about $1.5 billion annually, the report said.

The report recommended that the state do more to encourage consolidation and regionalization of districts, a long-running issue in the state.

Gov. Chris Christie and his administration have faced questions about its county-based schools oversight for years, going back to 2011 when he dismissed seven county superintendents at once and essentially left their offices vacant.

Instead, the administration — led by then-Education Commissioner Chris Cerf – created a group of new Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) to serve the state’s most needy schools, leaving the county administrative functions to be handled on a shared basis.

Legislators have questioned those changes ever since, and the State Auditor said not staffing the county office appeared to clearly violate the law.

The administration’s excuse that the moves were only temporary didn’t hold water, the report said, since the “temporary” situation has persisted for three years or more.

Nonetheless, under acting Commissioner David Hespe, the state Department of Education said in a posted response to the report that it is trying out a new structure for schools at the county and regional level.

It said it has 13 county superintendents in place, and that it is setting up a single regional office for five counties in the southern part of the state that will encompass both the administrative functions and the RACs.

The auditor’s report said the state should nevertheless seek to either comply with the law or amend current statutes to match its plans.