Fine Print: Audit of New Jersey’s $42,000-Per-Student District

John Mooney | December 2, 2019 | Education
State Auditor finds shortcomings in financial control of Asbury Park schools, where New Jersey’s Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet served as superintendent

What it is: The Office of the State Auditor, a division of the state Legislature, last month released a report on Asbury Park school finances for fiscal years 2017 and 2018. It was part of a regular cycle of audits the legislative office conducts of school districts receiving large sums of state aid. The last such audit of Asbury Park was five years ago.

What it found: The report found a number of problems in the district’s finances and financial controls during those years, including possible inefficiencies and excesses in special education, overtime and purchasing. But most notable was the dramatic drop in enrollment, leaving the district with significant “excess capacity across schools” and teachers and aides underutilized.

Drop in enrollment: Enrollment in the district’s five schools fell from 2,132 in 2008-2009 to 1,862 in 2017-2018. Enrollment was above 3,000 a decade before that, leaving buildings now at 60% capacity.

Why it matters: Asbury Park is the poster child for New Jersey’s famously high education costs, hovering at more than $30,000 per child for much of the last decade and topping $42,000 per pupil in 2017-2018, according to the state’s Comparative Spending Guide. It also happens to be the district led in those years by state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, who served as superintendent from 2014 to early 2018, when he was appointed commissioner by Gov. Phil Murphy.

Where savings could be made: Nothing in the report is damning and no mention is made of Repollet at all. And even with all the examples of possible overspending and inefficiencies, no calculation is offered as to whether per-pupil costs could have been significantly reduced. But the report does paint a picture of a district that could save significant spending by reorganizing students into fewer facilities.

Quote: “When you’re averaging nine or 10 [in a classroom], and you could get 15 or 16, you’re talking real dollars,” said State Auditor Stephen Eells said in an interview last week.

More examples: The audit focused largely on personnel costs and systems, and found inefficiencies and questionable practices. The findings on overtime and stipends for additional duties may be the most striking, although not necessarily the most expensive. The auditors found in their sampling that certain custodial and other staff were paid up to 24 hours in overtime on a single day, largely to monitor buildings.

Current superintendent agrees: The district’s current superintendent, Sancha Gray, concurred with the findings in a response posted with the report and said steps were being taken to address the problems. The most significant is a reorganization of class grades to save on space and staff, so that all children from pre-K to third grade, for instance, will go to one school.

“The district is evaluating a shift in the grade configuration utilizing a Pre-K to Grade 3, 4 through 6, and 7 through 12 grade model,” Gray wrote. “This plan would utilize four buildings and would allow the district to repurpose one building creating greater efficiencies as well as cost savings.”

Repollet has no comment: Neither Commissioner Repollet nor his office would comment on the specific findings of the report and how they relate to his tenure there. “The purpose of an audit is to identify areas of improvement so a district can tighten its internal controls, and such information is always helpful,” department spokesman Mike Yaple said in a statement. “However, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the Department to publicly comment or evaluate an audit of a school district.”

Auditor doesn’t comment much either: Eells said the report does not cast responsibility on anyone and stays out of the local decision-making on whom Asbury Park chooses to hire in its schools. “Certainly [Repollet] was party to it all, but that’s for the school board and the voters to decide,” he said.