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7-19-12 Education and Related Issues in the News
The Record - N.J. comptroller urges towns, school boards to look into costly pension errors

NJ Spotlight -Top Democrat Joins Debate Over Outside Money in DOE…One of Senator Weinberg's goals, who's paying for what at the Department of Education

Asbury Park Press - Teacher ratings to remain hidden…Bill keeps evaluations shielded from public

The Record - N.J. comptroller urges towns, school boards to look into costly pension errors


Mayors and school board officials are being told to take a new look at employee pensions after New Jersey's comptroller found poor oversight allows pension padding costing millions in taxpayer dollars.

The New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey School Boards Association sent out instructions in response to the report released this week by Comptroller Matthew Boxer, which showed how some local governments have permitted attorneys and other outside professionals to collect pension credits even after laws were passed to end their eligibility for retirement benefits.

The League of Municipalities sent a letter to members that included a link to Boxer's report and summarized reaction from Governor Christie's administration, including instructions that municipal auditors be directed to review the eligibility of professionals enrolling for pension credits.

"We urge all of our member municipalities to read the report and review their employees who receive pension benefits to ensure compliance with the law," wrote Bill Dressel, executive director of the organization.

The School Boards Association also sent members a link to Boxer's report and other materials, said spokesman Frank Belluscio.

"We will also provide our members with information on the need to certify pension eligibility of professional service providers, as per the governor's directive to the Department of Community Affairs," he said.

Boxer estimated weak enforcement of 2007 and 2010 legislative reforms is costing taxpayers millions annually. He called for stepped-up enforcement at both the state and local levels, and also forwarded the names of 202 professionals to the state Division of Pensions and Benefits for further review.

The poor oversight allowed some outside professionals to reach 25 years in the system, triggering costly lifetime health benefits, while others were able to reach the 10-year benchmark for pension vesting, he said.

The abuses were allowed to occur even as New Jersey property tax bills have risen to an all-time high, and while the state's public employee pension system remains grossly underfunded, one of the factors cited by Wall Street ratings agencies when they downgraded New Jersey's credit rating last year.

In some cases, the local governments have mistakenly assumed their professionals were protected by a "grandfather" provision, Boxer found. But some never performed the analysis required by the changes to the law.

And some local governments asked the same attorneys whose eligibility was in question to determine whether they still qualify for the pension system, the comptroller said.

"That just flies in the face of common sense," Boxer said.

The legislative reform efforts came after a 2006 special session was convened in Trenton to come up with ways to address New Jersey's sky-high property tax bills, which now average $7,759 statewide. Local governments fund the employer contribution for each professional enrolled in the pension system.

The reforms also followed a report from a 2005 blue-ribbon task force convened to look into New Jersey's troubled pension and health benefits programs. That panel recommended booting politically connected professionals from the pension system — which is operating with a $42 billion deficit as of the last accounting – to preserve it for true government employees.

Email: reitmeyer@northjersey.com


NJ Spotlight -Top Democrat Joins Debate Over Outside Money in DOE…One of Senator Weinberg's goals, who's paying for what at the Department of Education

By John Mooney, July 19, 2012 in Education|2 Comments

It’s not a typical request from a ranking legislator, but state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) doesn’t always follow the beaten path.

Last week, Weinberg announced in a press release that she had filed an Open Public Records Act request to the Christie administration for information on a now-familiar topic: who’s paying for what jobs in the state Department of Education.

The request was largely a repeat of an OPRA request made by one of the administration’s prime antagonists, the Education Law Center of Newark, Weinberg said, and it appeared to raise few new lines of inquiry.

But for Weinberg to jump into the debate was notable. She is the Senate Majority Leader, the second highest post in the Senate, and also a prominent member of the Senate judiciary committee that could be soon taking up acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s confirmation, a confirmation that has been stalled for more than a year.

“It certainly could become part of what we discuss with him,” Weinberg said yesterday.

Since his appointment by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011, Cerf has faced questions about his and the department’s relationships to, specifically, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a Los Angeles-based organization known for its focus on business- and data-driven strategies to school reform and its support for charter schools.

A former New York City deputy schools chancellor, Cerf is himself a graduate of the Broad Foundation’s leadership program, as are two of his top assistant commissioners and two newly named superintendents in the state-controlled districts of Newark and Jersey City.

This week, Weinberg maintained she was making the request for further details about those relationships in the name of transparency and also accountability for what money is being spent where.

“Obviously, if we have people funded by private corporations or foundations working in public departments, we have a responsibility to ask why,” she said yesterday.

Cerf himself does not hide his frustrations about the repeated questions concerning Broad, and yesterday contended that he has been open about the jobs that have been funded through the foundation.

He said the specific Broad-funded positions, including a former assistant and two mid-level Broad fellows, have been disclosed in previous testimony to the Legislature. The department also recently accepted a $430,000 grant from Broad to help train its school turnaround staff and expand its charter school oversight. That grant was approved by the State Board of Education.

Cerf said the department would comply with Weinberg’s request as well. “I’m all for transparency, and that’s what we have been,” he said.

The OPRA request also seeks information about the relationship with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Cerf said there is no funding coming to the department from that foundation whatsoever. “Not a nickel,” he said.

Still, Weinberg cited what she said was a largely unanswered OPRA request from the Education Law Center that she said spurred her own request. Weinberg said she was nonetheless confident the department would be forthcoming with her, adding that she and Cerf had already spoken and planned to meet in the next week.

And she hinted Cerf could be coming before the judiciary committee in the near future, although she stressed that had yet to be confirmed. Efforts yesterday to reach the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) were unsuccessful.

“The OPRA is just a bit more formal way to do it than usual,” Weinberg said of the request. “Can we try to get this information in other ways, yes, but this has always been a particular interest.”

“I’m not making any accusations, not saying any of this has been good or bad or inappropriate,” she said. “We’ll just see what comes out of it.”


Asbury Park Press - Teacher ratings to remain hidden…Bill keeps evaluations shielded from public

5:44 AM, Jul 19, 2012 | More

If you think the new education reform bill means you’ll get to see what grade your child’s teacher receives on his or her evaluation, think again.

The grades, part of a teacher tenure reform bill that sits on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk, would be kept secret.

The proposal for yearly evaluations for teachers and principals sailed through both houses of the Legislature last month. But the 18-page bill contains a barely noticed, one-sentence passage shielding the grades: “Information related to the evaluation of a particular employee shall be maintained by the school district, shall be confidential, and shall not be accessible to the public.”

Proponents of the bill say teachers will still be held to task for their performance. But the privacy clause means parents, taxpayers and other stakeholders won’t know what was detailed in a teacher’s review under a plan that will cost millions of dollars to implement. Teachers will receive grades of “ineffective,” “partially effective,” “effective” and “highly effective.”

“It’s ridiculous. It stinks,” said Brielle resident Tizzie Cregan, mother of an 11-year-old daughter. “It’s very important to know if perhaps a teacher’s evaluation showed they have poor classroom management. Depending on where the teacher falls off, you want to know where you can pick things up at home with your child, how to help your child cope.”

But Monmouth County Vocational School District Superintendent Tim McCorkell said he thought opening reviews would be unfair to teachers, adding he couldn’t think of any other public or private industry in which evaluations are made public.

“Usually they’re personnel matters; they’re protected by any number of legal provisions,” McCorkell said. “What other professions do that?”

Yet some states allow public access to teacher grades — something teachers unions have fought vigorously.

Under a recently enacted New York law, parents will be allowed to see evaluations of their children’s current teachers, and other members of the public will be allowed to see evaluation data only with the names of the teachers removed.

A spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said public disclosure of evaluations “has been done in a couple of places with disastrous results,” noting the 2010 suicide of a Los Angeles teacher.

“Sometimes a question will arise about a teacher and the first conversation for a parent should take place with that teacher,” said NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer. “Then talk to the principal. When you start prying open the file cabinets and pulling out everybody’s evaluations, that’s extremely problematic.”

A database of evaluations for every teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District was published in 2010. The suicide of a teacher has been linked by Los Angeles union leaders to when the teacher’s “less effective than average” rating was made public.

Wollmer said those who advocate for making teacher ratings public “should put themselves in the shoes of a teacher.”

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, who sponsored the bill, could not be reached for comment.

The proposed law directs superintendents to file tenure charges against teachers who receive two consecutive negative ratings on annual evaluations. The teachers don’t automatically lose their tenure but could eventually be fired, though they maintain the right to appeal during the process.

Christie has until Aug. 3 to take action on the bill and has indicated he will sign it, but he also has the option to conditionally veto parts with which he doesn’t concur.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said: “We are still considering the bill and each of its provisions, and the governor will make his position clear when he takes final action. Beyond that, I refer you to prior comments by the governor since the bill was passed.”

Christie has touted the bill’s potential to directly tie tenure protections to whether teachers consistently draw positive evaluations.

If the bill becomes law without changes, that’s fine with Janine Pugliese, mother of two children, ages 14 and 15, at Manalapan High School.

Pugliese said she can trust the system.

“If it’s a true evaluation, they want the good teachers in there,” said Pugliese, who also works as a substitute teacher for the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional Schools. “We as lay people could misinterpret something (in a public evaluation). If they feel somebody’s not doing what they’re supposed to do, I as a parent trust (evaluators) to know better than anybody if the teacher should not get their tenure for a certain reason.”

Wendy Green, a teacher at the Marine Academy of Science and Technology in Sandy Hook, said she personally isn’t worried about evaluations being made public.

“In my mind, if I’m not doing my job, I don’t belong there,” Green said.


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