Union BOE, Children First Coalition clash

UNION, NJ — With the Union Board of Education elections drawing near, opposing factions are already butting heads and tensions were high after Children First Coalition members Steven Le and Ray Perkins appeared at the July 18 meeting of the Union BOE. Le is a former BOE member and Perkins is a former BOE president.

Parents for Change, a parent advocacy group aligned with the BOE, released the following statement about that meeting: “The BOE meeting on Tuesday night was attacked by the Township of Union Children First Coalition leadership — former BOE member Steven Le and 21-year former BOE member and chairperson Ray Perkins,” the July 21 statement read.

“Then, Steven Le posted a disingenuous ‘rant’ on Facebook, with a partial taping of the meeting below the post attacking the Parents for Change movement in a clear political move preparing for the November elections.”

Current BOE President Ron McDowell is up for re-election, as are board members Nancy Zuena and Vito Nufrio. Their main opposition is the Township of Union Children First Coalition, which are also running candidates in the upcoming Nov. 7 election; those candidates will be announced later in August.

According to the PFC statement, Le was deceptive in his claims against the BOE.
“Mr. Le is being deceptive with his flawed account of the process to release approximately $5 million sitting in an account for the completed and beautiful Jefferson School, while other schools, like Burnet, Franklin and the High School suffered from disrepair for over a decade under the leadership of Mr. Perkins as BOE president,” the press release states. “In fact, Mr. Le was on the BOE during the initial pursuit to properly transfer those funds and served on both the Fiscal and Operations committees.”

In Le’s July 18 Facebook post, he called out the BOE for what he alleged is fiscal imprudence.
“Tonight’s BOE meeting was a bombshell,” Le wrote on Facebook. “The Union BOE, controlled by Parents for Change, began spending leftover funds from one capital project for other projects. The BOE is mandated by law to apply the $5 million in leftover funds to tax relief or pay down the principal on the bond from the original project. Put this into perspective — $5 million in tax relief equates to $300 per the average home.”

Le further alleged that, instead of providing $5 million in tax relief, the BOE has begun spending that money on other projects.

“This year alone, the BOE raised your taxes by $1.7 million, saw their surplus increase by $1.8 million, moved $825,000 into their capital reserves fund, and hired new administrative positions that will cost the district around $400- to 500,000,” Le wrote. “They are sitting on lots and lots of your money, and are not giving any of it back. Their actions are a total disregard for the taxpayers of the township of Union. It seems they care more about taxpayers’ dollars than taxpayers.”

Le told LocalSource that the BOE had approved four new administrative positions this year, including a district capital projects manager in February, a personnel manager/public relations coordinator in May, a director of instruction and funded programs in July, and an instructional technology specialist, also in July.

“There are two main issues,” Le said in a July 26 email. “First, it would cost the district around $400K to $500K a year. Positions with the job title of coordinator, director, manager or supervisor tend to have salaries either just under or over $100,000.”

As an example, Le cited the personnel manager/public relations coordinator position, with a salary of $91,248.

“You then need to add a benefits package, which tends to be $15,000 to $30,000 per position,” Le said. “Multiply that by four, and you get within the $400,000 to $500,000 range.”
According to Le, these positions create redundancies.

“The district has multiple people doing the same job,” Le said. “It is like the light bulb joke, ‘How many people does it take to change a lightbulb?’ These duties can be and should be consolidated to boost efficiency and save taxpayer dollars.”

But according to McDowell, the positions created are were based on the district’s needs.
“The district project manager is a position that will specialize in assessing the quality of work performed and compliance standards on major projects throughout the district,” McDowell told LocalSource in a July 28 email. “Development of new positions are contingent upon an assessment of district needs. We have actively evaluated the needs of the district and determined the undertaking of certain responsibilities will be best met by assisting with administrative staff.
“These positions will not cost the district a dime because we were able to collapse some positions to gain the funds to use for higher priority positions. Additionally, the new staff will be hired at a lower salary than retired or resigned staff, providing additional cost savings to the district.”

According to Le, the published BOE budget shows a local tax levy of $86 million in 2016-2017, and that it will be $87.7 million in 2017-2018, an increase of $1.7 million.

“The excess surplus went from $4.8 million in 2016-17 to $6.6 million in 2017-18,” Le said. “That is an increase of $1.8 million. In June 2017, the board also transferred $825,000 back in capital reserves, originally to be used for new classrooms at Burnet Middle School. The main point is that the BOE is sitting on lots of taxpayer dollars. I believe they can fund lots of capital projects even without the $5 million leftover from the Jefferson School Project. That $5 million should go back to the residents as tax relief. The residents need it, and it’s mandated by law.”

The 2016-2017 BOE proposed budget shows a state-aid increase of 1 percent, or $292,380; a local tax levy increase of 2 percent, or $1,685,905; and a cost per pupil of $14,707. The Union School District employs 1,200 people and has a student population of 7,300.

The 2017-2018 BOE proposed budget shows a state aid increase of zero, a local tax levy increase of 2 percent, or $1,719,622, and a cost per pupil of $15,268. According to the data, the impact of the spending increase on the average homeowner would be $87.73 per year.

In its press release, the PFC responded to Le’s points, calling them “unfounded accusations.”
According to the release, since Perkins’ defeat in 2014, fiscal prudence has been returned to the BOE, “saving taxpayers $2 million in additional taxes.”

“Superintendent Tatum is among those that refute their accusations,” the PFC said of Union Superintendent of Schools, Greg Tatum. “He reminds everyone that members of the previous BOE, led by Mr. Perkins, lost over $9 million of taxpayer money to the state for non-use and a resulting $6.4 million reduction from the state for a total of over $15 million lost to the School District.”
In response to Le’s claims that the board raised taxes by $1.7 million, the PFC stated that, “The fact is $1.7 million, or approximately $80 per average homeowner, is part of a 2 percent allowable tax rate ceiling every school district in the state of New Jersey has. The school tax percentage has actually gone down to 46 percent and is one of the lowest in the county and below the 52 percent average rate in the state.”

PFC also said Le’s claim regarding a $1.8 million surplus is false.
“The surplus has gone down from the previous year by millions of dollars,” the PFC release stated. “He should know that — he was on the BOE Finance Committee.”

As for Le’s claims that the board moved $825,000 into a capital reserves fund, the PFC stated that this is, indeed, true.

“Capital dollars have been moved to fund projects in the district, like a leaking roof at Franklin, Burnett improvements, asbestos removal, renovating bathrooms, unrepairable light fixtures, and security upgrades,” the July 21 press release read.

Le called out the BOE for being greedy and said the BOE is controlled by the PFC.
“The issue, at the end of the day, is about the BOE’s greed at the expense of taxpayers. That will be the legacy of Parents for Change. The hard-working residents of the township of Union should not be used as a piggy bank. They are being taken advantage of by the BOE, controlled by Parents for Change.”

Misael Guzman and Paul Casey, spokesmen for PFC, issued a statement to LocalSource denying that their organization controls the BOE.

“PFC is doing anything but controlling the BOE,” Guzman and Casey said in a July 28 email. “This is evidenced by the fact that board members will often disagree in a constructive way to make sure that the most positive outcome is achieved for our children. In addition, the progress that our public schools have made over the last few years, when board members have stepped back from ‘controlling’ staff and administration, has led to improvements across the district.”