Union school board asks prosecutor for burglary restitution

Photo by Rebecca Panico
The Union school board will get a report at its Dec. 19 meeting from an audit of the student activities account, from which $26,000 was stolen during a June burglary.

UNION, NJ — The Union school board asked the Union County Prosecutor’s Office to seek restitution for the $26,222 stolen from a high school secretary’s desk in June, Superintendent Gregory Tatum said at a Nov. 21 meeting.

Nine suspects were arrested in connection with the early morning burglary at Union High School during the summer. The son of school board Vice President Nancy Zuena, who lost her re-election bid on Nov. 7, was one of those arrested on a trespass charge in connection to the theft.

“The board of education has taken, and will take, action regarding personnel,” in the wake of the theft, Tatum said at the school board meeting.

He did not give details about who was disciplined — or how — for the incident. School board members have previously stated that the board attorney has advised them not to comment on specific personnel matters.

When asked about it after the meeting, Tatum told LocalSource: “You’ll never know about that because of privacy rights.”
At the Dec. 19 school board meeting the public will hear a report from an auditor’s review of the student activities account, from which authorities say the cash was stolen.

Tatum said an auditor reviewed the student activities account, which collects funds for proms, field trips and yearbooks. The auditor will make recommendations to the board about that account.

The theft was a point of contention in the recent BOE election. The Children First Coalition — which included Linda Richardson, Michelle Schulz and Sharon Sherry Higgins — campaigned heavily on the issue. Steven Le, the coalition’s campaign chairman, put out a press release in October after their open public records request showed that an additional $57,000 — including $45,000 in cash — was deposited into the school’s bank account a day after the theft occurred.

“No one was fired for the violation of laws and policies regulating the handling of monies in schools,” read Le’s Oct. 30 statement. “No one, at least according to public information, was even disciplined. The $26,000 stolen on that June day, accountable to Union taxpayers, was never recovered.”

Richardson and Higgins of the Children First Coalition were elected. Higgins secured her seat by just 29 votes in the race. Current BOE President Ronnie McDowell, who lost to Higgins by a slim margin, previously vowed to ask for a recount of mail-in ballots.
Vito Nufrio was the only candidate from the opposing faction to be re-elected in the race. Zuena and McDowell, who ran with Nufrio, were defeated.

Nufrio left the dais to make a statement from the floor during the public comment portion of the Nov. 21 meeting, a time generally reserved for residents to speak, in his first public statements about the outcome of the election since Nov. 7.

“Now the successes going forward are in serious jeopardy,” he said. “Our platform was clear and direct: keep politics out of our schools and out of our board processes. This was met with obvious resistance since it contradicted their true intended purpose: to regain control of our $135 million school budget — tax dollars.”

Gregory Brennan, the school board secretary, reiterated board policy about cash on hand in schools. Funds from the student activities account are to be deposited into the bank “promptly,” the policy says.

“The accounts reside in each school,” Brennan said after Tatum’s remarks. “As the policy states, the sole responsibility of that account, or these accounts, will reside with the principal or the designee.”

During a September work session meeting, board members discussed depositing funds within 48 hours and possibly collecting student activity fees online to reduce the amount of cash on hand.

Meanwhile, two suspects — Kevin Rea, Marlon Roberts — were scheduled to apply for pre-trial intervention on Nov. 29. A third suspect, Joshua Cipriano, is slated to have a PTI hearing on Dec. 6, a court official said.

The other defendants — Nicholas Zuena, Christian Pereira, Jason Laurent, Fernando Cunha and an unnamed 17-year-old juvenile — remained in pre-indictment as of Nov. 28.