Le drops out of Union school board race, continues to quarrel with board members

UNION, NJ — Steven Le, who took legal action against the Union Board of Education, dropped out of the school board race on Aug. 31, but that didn’t stop him from arguing with board members at the Sept. 19 BOE meeting.

Le filed a complaint in Superior Court against the school board because he said $5 million in excess funds used for a lighting-renovation project in the high school should have gone back to taxpayers.

After Le voluntarily withdrew his original complaint, it was reviewed by an administrative law judge, who dismissed it since Le had filed it too late.
“The lawsuit had no influence in my decision” to drop out of the race, Le said in an email. “I dropped out on Aug. 31, days before the case was heard by the Office of Administrative Law on Sept. 6.”

Le said he plans to file an exception to the state Commissioner of Education, he said.
“We are also exploring additional avenues to hold the board accountable for what I believe are questionable fiscal practices,” Le said in an email after the meeting. “I may be not a candidate, but I will stay involved as an advocate for the children and for good governance of our schools.”
Misael Guzman, a former school board candidate, rhetorically asked the BOE during the meeting where the district could have spent the $7,000 in legal fees it cost to fight Le’s complaint.

“It certainly could buy some supplies, if nothing else,” Superintendent Gregory Tatum responded.
Le, who was running on the Children’s First Coalition ticket, said he dropped out due to family reasons, but wouldn’t elaborate.
“I dropped out of the race due to personal reasons regarding family matters,” Le wrote in a Sept. 20 email. “To respect my family’s privacy, I won’t disclose further on the details, so I apologize on my glibness.”

During the public comment portion of the Sept. 19 BOE meeting, Le disputed the amount of money Tatum said he’d be saving the district in new hires this year. Tatum said at least $30,000 will be saved from an employee reorganization, but Le charged the savings could actually be
less, if the health benefits packages are included.

Up to six new hires that Tatum spoke of would be offset by changes to five previous positions in the district. There were three resignations or retirements this year, which included a social studies supervisor and two confidential administrative assistants whose combined salaries amounted to about $266,000.

Additionally, two teachers’ positions were “collapsed” since the district no longer needed them, the superintendent explained. Those jobs, which together amounted to $147,674, would offset the costs of hiring a manager of personnel and instructional technology specialist.

Four additional new positions would include a capital projects manager, which hasn’t been filled yet, a full-time Title I director, technology assistant and a possible replacement for an administrative assistant in the business office.

Although the benefits packages of each employee weren’t included in the numbers Tatum provided at the board meeting, he said those benefits are staying in the district. The newest would receive benefits, like the employees who had formerly held those jobs.

“You know, Mr. Le has once again has come forward with something that really is a very valid statement,” Tatum said during the meeting. “But there’s already an answer for it. Every one of those positions already has a benefit package with it, and technically we save that money too. So thank you for bringing that up, Mr. Le.”

One of the new jobs the superintendent highlighted was a full-time Title I director. Title I federal funds give money to schools with high numbers of children who come from low-income families.

Tatum said that in 2010, when he first became acting superintendent, the district had failed a Title I audit. During that time, the district’s Title I funding had been frozen, he added.

“However, after that 2010 period, we had a person who used to manage the Title I program,” Tatum said. “When that person left, that position went to a part-time person to oversee — just to write the grant.”

Tatum added — to much applause — that a few months ago, those Title I funds had finally been released.
The district still has not hired a full-time Title I director, BOE President Ronnie McDowell said in an email after the

Tatum’s presentation accounted for that position to be paid anywhere from $130,000 to $140,000, with $45,000 from Title I funds paying that salary.

“This is an unbudgeted position but will be filled using existing funds,” said McDowell, who is running for re-election. “Those funds will be derived from retirements and resignations. The new position will not cost the board, taxpayers any additional money and will fill a much needed position.”
Board member Vito Nufrio, who also is running with McDowell as part of the Parents for Change advocacy group aligned with the current board, said during the meeting that having a full-time Title I director would potentially bring in more money for the school district.

“One set of numbers you did not include in here,” Nufrio said, referring to the superintendent’s presentation, “is the potential of how much more money can be brought in from Title I if the oversight is better and you have a director who knows what to do.”

Another issue over which Le sparred with the board was the June 29 burglary at the high school, for which nine suspects were arrested. Authorities said $26,000 was stolen from a secretary’s desk and that school officials indicated the cash had been collected from activities like the prom.

One of the suspects, Nicholas Zuena, is the son of BOE Vice President Nancy Zuena, who is running for re-election alongside Nufrio and McDowell.
Le also asked the board during his public comments for some accountability and more information from the board about the theft and demanded that the school board make a public statement about it.

A school spokeswoman has repeatedly declined to comment to the press about the theft, saying it is under investigation.
Le pointed to school policy No. 3450, which states no money should be left overnight in school except if locked in a school safe.

“With prom on June 1, wouldn’t it mean that those monies were in the school for at least 28 days?” Le asked the board. “To me, this raises a few questions. First, will this board confirm that policy 3450 was violated? Second, which I’m sure is on the minds of many residents out there, was what was $26,000 in cold hard cash lying around in a desk drawer in the high school?”

BOE attorney Paul Griggs interrupted Le at one point, telling him that he could not ask questions about a specific employee.
“I highly recommend that, if you’re listening to what Mr. Le is saying,” Griggs said, addressing board members, “that they do not respond because it’s still being investigated by the authorities and they should have no comment whatsoever.”

Nufrio reiterated board policy, which states that no employees will be discussed during a public meeting.