Union school board factions clash over surplus

Photo by Jenny Goldberg
The most recent skirmish between factions for control of the Union Board of Education focused on lighting renovations to the high school.

UNION, NJ — A clash between two factions fighting for control of the Union school board heightened at its Aug. 10 special meeting with one former member accusing the opposing faction of misusing $5 million in unspent funds and the other side charging that their foes were threatening to delay the opening of school.

Former member Steven Le, who is running to return to the board in the November election,
presented the meeting with a motion for an injunction he had filed in Superior Court seeking to halt payment to the contractor working on renovations at Union High School. He brought in a video cameraman to record the event.

After the court rejected his request later in the week, Le — a member of the “Children’s First Coalition” — took his complaint to the state Commissioner of Education.

Le is trying to halt the use of unused funds from the Jefferson School Project.
He claims the leftover funds are being used for unrelated capital projects not authorized by voters.

“The law mandates that such leftover funds must be used for property tax relief, especially when such funds include bond proceeds,” he told the LocalSource. “Estimates show that homeowners would see around $300 in property tax relief.”

The board appropriated nearly $24 million for the Jefferson School Project, funded by three different sources including a Schools Development Authority grant from the state, the sale of bonds and the district’s capital reserve account. While only $18.7 million was used, $5.3 million was returned to the capital reserve account to finance other construction projects and renovations to other Union schools.

Le is trying to stop payment on a lighting project at the high school.
On Aug. 14, district spokeswoman Akua Boakye said “renovations are progressing smoothly and school is (expected) to open up on time.”

Lee claims the lighting renovations are running over cost.
“There was urgency on this matter. The UBOE wanted to spend $2.29 million of the property tax relief funds in a special meeting on Aug. 10 for that lighting project, which was over budget by 119 percent,” he said. “It was so badly over budget that they cancelled $1.9 million worth of other capital projects in the school district.”

Two members of the board, however, condemned Le, accusing him of trying to keep schools from opening on time.
Vito Nufrio, a board member for six years and running for re-election as part of the “Parents for Change” advocacy group aligned with the board, accused Le and his actions of being “more than self-serving and a platform to initiate a campaign to possibly derail the board and all the good direction we have taken.”

His comments followed those of David Armino, a board member for seven-and-a-half years, who said that the board along with Nufrio fought to free the $5 million from restrictions resulting from a minor lawsuit incurred by a previous contractor.

Nufrio added that when Armino and he first joined the board, the excess $5 million was sitting, “collecting dust, not garnering any attention.”

Armino went on to say that it was not until Nufrio and he addressed the money issue and resolved an outstanding lawsuit from a contractor, in which the money could be freed and utilized.

Parents for Change released a public document on their Facebook page from the school board’s auditing firm Suplee, Clooney, backing the idea that the $5 million should return to the capital reserves.

“Speaking to that fact that the remaining dollars should be returned to capital reserves account closing out the project. This is consistent with the original referendum approved by taxpayers. Therefore, leftover money from the Jefferson project cannot be given back to taxpayers. It had to be returned to capital reserves. Note the letter below is dated February 12, 2016, when Steven Le was on BOE and finance committee.”

A separate post on Aug. 11 by Parents for Change wrote, “the deceptive message is suggesting that the BOE is improperly using capital reserves money left over from the Jefferson School Project towards badly needed repairs in the district instead of going back to taxpayers.”

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