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5-12-14 Education Issues in the News
Star Ledger - NJ private school for disabled children lied about finances, ex-workers allege…Somerset Hills School-More than two dozen former employees of Somerset Hills School and a related treatment center claim they were systematically lied to and given inadequate notice of their layoffs in December.

New Jersey Newsroom - NJ Public Schools to Narrow the Diversity Gap...Two studies conducted by the Center for American Progress and the National Education Association have shed light on the diversity gap in New Jersey Public schools.

NJ Spotlight - Two of Camden District's High Schools Consider Converting to Charters...Switch would move schools out of district control, feeding more tensions over charter growth.

Star Ledger - NJ private school for disabled children lied about finances, ex-workers allege…Somerset Hills School-More than two dozen former employees of Somerset Hills School and a related treatment center claim they were systematically lied to and given inadequate notice of their layoffs in December.

 

Christopher Baxter/The Star-Ledger By Christopher Baxter/The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on May 12, 2014 at 6:00 AM, updated May 12, 2014 at 6:27 AM

TRENTON — More than two dozen former employees of Somerset Hills School, a private school for students with disabilities, and a related treatment center claim they were misled about the companies’ finances and told their jobs were safe before being abruptly laid off last year.

In a confidential letter sent to the school last week and recently obtained by The Star-Ledger, an attorney for the 29 employees asserts they are owed more than $134,500 in lost wages and benefits because they were not given 60 days notice of the layoffs, as required under state law.

The letter also contends Somerset Hills never notified the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development of the layoffs, which is also required under the law.

The companies laid off 84 full-time employees Dec. 31, the letter said, shortly after the school came under fire for its spending of taxpayer money and the same day the treatment center closed after state officials, citing a host of problems, let its contract expire.

The letter accuses the executive director of the companies, Ryan Kimmins, of lying to staff members about the problems and reassuring them their jobs were safe, while at the same time privately warning state officials that the school and center were on life support.

"Despite Mr. Kimmins’ first-hand knowledge and his own assertion of Somerset Hills’ ‘complete financial peril,’ he repeatedly reassured staff that Somerset Hills was in no danger of closing, and that their jobs were in fact safe," it said.

The letter added that Kimmins and the school’s attorneys had 10 days from the date it was sent, on April 30, to indicate if they were willing to settle the matter. If they don’t, the employees intended to file a lawsuit seeking damages in state Superior Court.

An attorney for the employees, Gregory Devero, did not return a call for comment.

Kimmins said in a statement that the employees’ claims were "baseless" and that they were the victims of the state Department of Children and Families, which ultimately made the decision to not renew its contract with the treatment center when it expired at the end of last year.

"Somerset Hills acted in good faith at all times," Kimmins said. "However, Somerset Hills was blindsided by DCF, which ended our longstanding relationship without notice."

The school in February of this year filed a $1.5 million claim against the Department of Children and Families, accusing it of playing a game of "hide-the-ball," keeping it "in limbo," and giving the treatment center false assurances its contract would be renewed.

The claim disclosed for the first time there were two cases of abuse at the center in early 2013, shortly before the department suspended placements pending an investigation, but that both staff members involved were fired. The allegation against one has since been found to be unsubstantiated; the other is pending, according to records kept by the state Office of Administrative Law.

Somerset Hills also alleges a department staffer provided The Star-Ledger with detailed information about the school as part of an "obvious vendetta" against Somerset Hills, and asserts the state did not provide proper notice that it was cutting ties with the facility.

A spokesman for the department, Ernest Landante, did not return a request for comment, but he has previously denied the contention that a staffer acted on a personal vendetta.

"From the commencement of the ‘investigation,’ Somerset Hills acted in good faith and acquiesced to the (department’s) requests, despite the fact there were no ongoing, identifiable safety concerns for the children attending Somerset Hills’ residential program," the complaint against the state said.

TAXPAYERS ON HOOK?

Somerset Hills is one of about 180 private schools in the state that serve more than 10,000 severely disabled children when their public schools can’t handle them. Though the schools are privately owned and run, they are almost entirely funded by the public.

A Star-Ledger investigation published in October found that the schools are allowed to spend taxpayer money in ways public schools cannot, resulting in numerous examples of nepotism, high salaries, generous pensions, fancy cars and questionable business deals.

The findings prompted calls for reform by the state’s top Democratic lawmakers, a hearing by the state Assembly and a review of regulations ordered by Gov. Chris Christie that is being conducted by the state Department of Education.

Earlier this year, the school’s former executive director and landlord, Jerome Amedeo, sued in state court for more than $1.6 million, claiming Kimmins and the company broke their lease, abandoned the Warren Township property and left it in disrepair.

The school in January moved to North Plainfield after the treatment center shut down.

That lawsuit and the one threatened by the former employees could end up costing taxpayers. State regulations allow private schools for disabled students such as Somerset Hills to charge any costs related to litigation to tuition, which is in turn paid for by the public.

UNFOLDING SAGA

Trouble for Somerset Hills began in March of last year, when the Department of Children and Families suspended placements at the treatment center, which served boys ages 11 to 15 with social, emotional, behavioral and psychological problems.

In April, state inspectors reported serious trouble inside the center, including children subjected to unwarranted restraint, incident reports with inaccurate and incomplete information, medical records missing documentation and deficient treatment plans.

Inspectors also said children at the center had been confined to an office for "excessive periods of time" as punishment for acting out, a practice the state later demanded the facility discontinue "immediately."

Children placed at the center attended the school and made up a large majority of its students. So when trouble struck the center and the number of residents began to decline, the problems directly affected the financial health of the school.

The former employees claim that throughout the year, numerous staff members asked about the future of the school and the center and expressed concern that Somerset Hills could be forced to shut down. Those concerns heightened in September, when several staff members were laid off as a result of decreasing enrollment. Those who remained were assured there would be no more layoffs, the letter said.

"Mr. Kimmins told Somerset Hills employees during a staff meeting in September or October that ‘we have means to run everything on our own without state money. We can run Somerset Hills for 2 years if anything happens,’" according to the letter.

In October, Kimmins and other administrators held a "damage control" meeting the day after The Star-Ledger published its investigation into the spending of taxpayer money at the state’s private schools, including Somerset Hills, according to the letter.

"In this meeting, Somerset Hills administrators told their employees that the information in the article was totally false, politically driven, and nothing more than rumors," the letter said. "They also suggested that staff members reach out to their local officials and have them advocate for them."

A week or two after the meeting, in response to recent visits to the center by state inspectors, Kimmins told staffers Somerset Hills had "passed; everything is okay. The state is happy with what we are doing," according to the letter.

But on Nov. 20, the center was notified by the state that it would not renew its contract and that all residents would be removed from the facility by the end of the year. The decision came after The Star-Ledger questioned the state about problems at the center.

Kimmins told the newspaper the decision would not affect the school. But a week later, on Dec. 2, he sent notice to 84 staffers of the school and center stating that Somerset Hills was ending their employment Dec. 31, according to the letter.

The employees contend the move was a violation of the New Jersey Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which requires employers of 100 or more full-time workers provide no less than 60 days notice if layoffs exceed 50 people.

RELATED COVERAGE

NJ private school for disabled sued for abandoning property, leaving mess

Christie administration to cut ties with treatment center for children after safety concerns

Some N.J. private schools for disabled students cashing in on taxpayers

 

New Jersey Newsroom - NJ Public Schools to Narrow the Diversity Gap

 

Friday, 09 May 2014 20:34

BY JADE HAMMOND

Two studies conducted by the Center for American Progress and the National Education Association have shed light on the diversity gap in New Jersey Public schools.

The demographics of the teacher workforce in comparison to the student body in New Jersey public schools are incredibly skewed. According to Americanprogress.org, teachers of color make up a mere 18 percent of the teaching force. In contrast, 49 percent of students are students of color.

One factor driving this growing gap is the birth rates among populations of color. The Census Bureau found that non-whites made up 50.4 percent of the nation’s population younger than age one.

Immigration has also played a significant role in the minority population surge. Philly.com reported New Jersey’s Hispanic population increased dramatically over the last decade, becoming the state’s largest minority. Hispanics account for 22 percent of the student body in New Jersey.

The growing job field can also account for the deterrence for students of color to pursue a career in the education field. LaRuth Gray, a scholar-in-residence at the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity said, “it’s not seen as the ideal career to have, and so therefore our youngsters, our black children tend to move in other directions,” reported yahoo.com

The two groups that conducted the studies are pushing for teachers to more accurately mirror the students in their classrooms. They believe that a narrowed race gap will provide minority students with a better chance to succeed.

Kevin Gilbert, a member of NEA’s executive committee said, “it becomes easier for students to believe when they can look and see someone who looks just like them, that they can relate to,” reported yahoo.com. “Nothing can help motivate our students more than to see success standing right in front of them.”

Minority students who share racial backgrounds with their teachers may view school as a more welcoming place. Education professors, Richard Ingersoll and Henry May have argued, “minority students benefit from being taught by minority teachers, because minority teachers are likely to have ‘insider knowledge’ due to similar life experiences and cultural background.”

 

NJ Spotlight - Two of Camden District's High Schools Consider Converting to Charters

John Mooney | May 12, 2014

Switch would move schools out of district control, feeding more tensions over charter growth

 

At least two Camden high schools are weighing whether to convert to charters, as the prospect of major change sweeps through the district in its first year under state control.

Administrators and faculty at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy and MetEast High School have already discussed the possibility of the conversion, which a majority of both staff and parents would need to approve and then make a formal application to the state.

Related Links

Camden Superintendent Unveils Strategic Plan

Two Charter Networks Get Endorsement in Camden

Teachers at Brimm Medical Arts High School are expected to discuss making the change today, the school’s union representative said, adding that the union is resisting the move.

These schools would be the first in the state to seek to convert to charters. As such, they would no longer be within the jurisdiction of the district -- instead holding separate agreements with the state. They would still receive the bulk of their funding through the district.

Two private schools in Newark have won approval for charter conversion.

The conversion is by no means assured, and it is lengthy process that can take up to two years.

District spokesman Brendan Lowe said it was something each school was considering on its own; the state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard was not involved.

“We continue to focus on our efforts to improve the district schools,” Lowe said. “Welcome them to do what they want to do, but we have had no role in it.”

But some union and community leaders questioned that claim. Rouhanifard plans on shaking up the district, including laying off hundreds of teachers and staff to close what the superintendent has said is a $75 million budget gap.

About 400 teachers last week received so-called Rice notices of pending board discussions of their possible termination or nonrenewal, and while Lowe said the number of actual layoffs won’t be that many, Rouhanifard has warned that 200 to 250 teachers could be laid off. The notifications of layoffs are expected to go out this week, although any decision on charter schools would be more than a year off and not impact that.

“Timing is everything,” said Karen Borrelli, the Camden Education Association’s board liaison and the union representative at Brimm. “The pitch they are using for the charter conversion is it will save our jobs and keep the schools together.”

These potential moves and layoffs are just some of the tumult to come. Camden has become the focal point of the new Urban Hope Act, under which three charter organizations have won at least preliminary approval to open the first of up to five new “renaissance schools” each in the city, starting next fall. The renaissance schools are a hybrid and better-funded version of charters, operating in concert with the district but nonetheless operated by outside charter organizations.

Appointed last August by Gov. Chris Christie, Rouhanifard has vowed to take a number of immediate steps in his strategic plan, from improved security to strengthened professional development for teachers.

At the moment the situation in Camden is markedly different than that of Newark, which has announced that it will turn over some schools to charter operators. Rouhanifard, however, has vowed to work with the renaissance schools.

 


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828