Free backpacks in Union raise questions for some

UNION – Last week, parents of first- through third-graders had the opportunity to obtain free backpacks and school supplies for their children. And although parents were very grateful for this help with school supplies, not everyone was happy that the provider had an education platform.

Earlier this summer a flier appeared on the Union School District website notifying parents of first, second and third grade students that the free backpacks and school supplies would be available for pickup Aug. 20 if they filled out a registration form.

The program, sponsored by Better Education for Kids, Inc., based in Cranford, has a website that is quite open about their organization and the fact they are “an independent voice for common sense education reform in New Jersey.”

The website also explained that B4Kids, the abbreviation the organization uses, strongly believes the first priority of the New Jersey school system “must be the best interests of students, not the special interests that dominate the status quo.”

“To this end, every class must have an effective teacher and every school an effective principal,” their website stressed.

There is also information about the annual “Backpack Drive” this organization has put on for the last four years, including towns selected to receive this bounty for the 2014-15 school years.

Union received 1,575 of the 15,500 backpacks the organization handed out this summer, while the school districts of Passaic, Paterson and Willingboro received the remainder.

Union school district parents who opted to participate simply had to fill out the form provided by the school district on their website and email it back. The fact this form pointed out the backpack program was sponsored by B4Kids did not appear to faze those participating.
However, within a week the issue of who this sponsor represented would surface at the Aug. 21 board of education meeting and become a point of contention.

Susan Lipstein, President of the Township of Union Education Foundation, took exception to the school district not disclosing this information on their website.

“I believe it was wrong of our board of education to approve the donation of backpacks that allowed an organization that advocates changes that even the New Jersey Education Association says will weaken public schools, come into our schools,” Lipstein said in a prepared statement to LocalSource, explaining B4Kids “was allowed” to hand out business cards and get mailing list information in a public school building.

“I’ve done some research and found that in other towns, backpacks were not distributed in public school buildings but rather in other areas of towns. In my opinion, having parents provide personal information without explaining to the parents that information about their children would be given to a third party is dangerous,” the education foundation president added.

According to Lipstein, B4Kids is a foundation with ties to Republican Gov. Chris Christie which was “established by hedge fund donors who do not have to be identified but do have a political agenda that involves schools and education.”

Because hedge funds are not sold to the general public or retail investors, the funds and their managers have historically been exempt from some of the regulation that governs other funds and investment managers with regard to how a fund may be structured and how strategies and techniques are employed. However, Lipstein did not provide any information to prove B4Kids funds come from hedge fund donors and LocalSource was unable to find anything supporting her claim

Lipstein brought up her concerns to Board of Education President Ray Perkins at the last board meeting, explaining she took exception to backpacks being distributed in a public venue paid for by taxpayer dollars. She also had a problem with Perkins attending the Aug. 20 event to hand out backpacks. Perkins is running for another term on the board.

“I told Mr. Perkins I had a real problem with these backpacks being distributed in a public school and that I did not believe anyone running for office should be distributing them,” Lipstein said, mentioning that the school board president did not respond to her concern.
After the school board meeting, Lipstein posed her concern to James Frazier, an officer in the Union Township Education Association, which is the teachers’ union.

“I asked him if he thought there was a problem with the distribution of these backpacks and he said ‘no comment,’” said Lipstein, who explained she was referring to the school district accepting the backpacks and school supplies from an organization that appears to be using the distribution as a way to gather information from parents without them knowing about it.
“At the very least I think the board should have informed parents that their private information was going to be given to this organization,” she added.

On Monday, LocalSource spoke with B4Kids Outreach Coordinator Gerard Green, who explained that the mission of this organization is to provide backpacks and school supplies to children. The program is set up earlier in the year and certain school districts are selected for contact.

“We contacted the Union School District and spoke with Assistant Superintendent Noreen Lishack,” Green explained, noting that it was her determination that first through third grade school children would benefit the most from the program.
Green also explained that the purpose for the registration form was to ensure that those signing up indeed had children in the Union School District.

“The form is not long and while it did ask for an email, that was not required to receive a backpack,” he said, adding that actually new forms have omitted this particular line.

When asked if the information provided on the registration form would be given to any other sources, such as political groups, Green emphatically denied the allegation.

“Absolutely not,” he said, pointing out that B4Kids would not even be contacting parents who did provide their email information.
“In fact, the day we gave out the backpacks in Union I was there to hand out my card and direct parents to our website but there was no discussion about our organization,” the B4Kids outreach coordinator said.

“Parents were very grateful to receive the backpacks and school supplies,” he added, mentioning that there were “smiles all around.”
Green also said there was a great showing of 40 to 50 school youth, track and soccer teams, who volunteered to help that day.
Although LocalSource attempted multiple times to reach out to Perkins, Lishack and Interim Superintendent Gregory Tatum, no calls regarding the backpack issue were returned.