Bernards students, parents pay the price when resources are mismanaged

BASKING RIDGE, NJ — Bernards Township Board Of Education candidate Lawrence Rascio wrote this letter to the editor:

The current Bernards Township School and Administrative Board has a perception problem. When asked about publicly available financial information, they instinctively perceive it as a threat and invariably adopt a defensive posture. Why? What are they hiding? What are they unable to explain? Their proxies will publicly say of those asking legitimate questions, “well, they’ve never worked in a school system, so they have no idea how to run a school.” That sounds good until you consider that Section D of the NJ School Board Member’s Code of Ethics which states “I will assume my responsibility, not to administer the schools, but, with my fellow members of the council, to see that they are well Course.” In other words, it is not the board’s job to run the schools but to make sure the schools are run well. It doesn’t take a master’s degree in education or any field to recognize inefficiency, financial irresponsibility, and lack of accountability. In fact, recognizing and eliminating them is necessary for the financial survival of any entity, whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or a lemonade stand.

Recently, Bernard’s Board of Ed approved a budget of $111 million, marking a significant increase from just two years ago. During the public hearings on the budget, Ms Gray, a long-time board member, asked another board member: ‘What would you suggest giving up? Because that’s the hardest part. It’s easy to sit here and say that, but what should we delete? Which class? Which teacher? Which program? I’m very curious.

Ms Gray’s statement offers a clear and disturbing look at the thinking of the current Board Of Education. His statement implies that cuts can only come from areas that directly affect students. “Which class” “which teacher” “which program”? I’d like to help satisfy Ms. Gray’s curiosity by asking some of the same questions I asked in April:

Why is our teacher’s median salary just $1,000 above the state median of $72,500 while our senior executive salaries average $43,600 or 30% above of the state median for equivalent positions?

Why are the salaries of our administrators and supervisors so high compared to state medians while our teachers rank 293rd?

Why since 2019 have administrator salaries and benefits accounted for more than 47% of the cost per student increase while classroom instruction accounted for only 14%? Does it cost us more to educate our children because our administrators demand more compensation?

Why would the Board of Education and Administration spend $40,000 on a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant when that money would go a long way toward hiring an additional special education assistant who we recently learned was necessary due to an unexpected increase in special needs registration this fall? DEI certainly has merit, but not at the expense of maintaining a top-notch special education program.

Do we need 2 assistant superintendents with one making $206,000 a year and the other making $187,000 despite declining enrollment? Wasn’t Bernards a higher-ranking, higher-performing school district with about 15 percent more students in 2015 before we hired a second assistant superintendent?

Why do we have a vice principal for each year from grades 6 through 12, each earning an average of $140,000, which is about $8,000 more than the state median. Bernard’s employs 7 more vice principals than the number one school district in the state (Millburn) when they have 2 more schools than us?

Why are junior teaching positions the only ones at risk of being laid off as enrollment declines?

Why are we spending $1.2 million more a year than Millburn on trustee salaries DESPITE they have 2 more schools than us? Maybe that takes into account their ability to pay their teachers an average of 20,000 more than ours?

Why would the district hire a full-time HVAC technician for over $100,000 a year plus benefits? Without even seeing the numbers, I can tell you that this is an irresponsible financial decision in the long run. The long-term cost of this rental will reach into the millions over time. So rather than reintroducing Mandarin as a foreign language, a skill that would no doubt better prepare our students for the challenges they will face in the future, the board and administration have decided not to outsource HVAC repair work?

The current BOE should be held accountable for creating an overstaffed and overpaid administrative staff. It’s not about spending money or even the size of the budget; everyone knows that it takes a lot of money to maintain a stellar school system. It’s about whether the money is being spent wisely. Of course, the district must retain and maintain top-notch administration, just as any business must hire and retain top-notch managers to be successful. By reorganizing our spending, we can have more money for academics and the special needs of our children as well as for athletics, music, drama, the arts, and improving teacher compensation. There is an undeniable correlation between Bernards being the only district in the area with such a top-heavy management structure and the only district in the area where the girls’ softball team does not have a field.

Services and facilities can certainly be improved with better allocation of resources. It’s not complicated, the school district is no different than any other $111,000,000 corporation. Every company has a corporate structure that includes a CEO (Markarian) who reports to a board of directors (the BOE) to which the CEO reports. It is always the job of the Board of Directors to hold management accountable and ensure that they act in the best interests of their shareholders (parents and students). Unfortunately, the current Board of Education has little to no real-world business acumen and, therefore, serves no more than a rubber stamp for administration. Unless this changes, Bernard Township will lose its greatest asset, the quality of its schools.

—Larry Rascio

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