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Garden State Coalition of Schools
Elisabeth Ginsburg, Executive Director
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8-24-11 Education Issues in the News

Nj.com - 2 Elizabeth school district officials suspended in lunch program probe

Published: Wednesday, August 24, 2011, 6:45 AM Updated: Wednesday, August 24, 2011, 9:10 AM

By Christopher Baxter/Statehouse BureauThe Star-Ledger

ELIZABETH ó The Elizabeth school district said Tuesday it was suspending two high-ranking officials who allegedly signed their children up for taxpayer-subsidized school lunches even though they earn too much money to qualify for the federal program.

As suspensions, with pay, were underway for a school principal and the head of custodians, problems appeared to be mounting for the embattled school district in other areas as well.

The state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the lunch program, said it was expecting a subpoena from the state Attorney General for records concerning recipients of free or reduced-price lunches in Elizabeth.

The attorney general is also in discussions with the the Union County Prosecutor about taking over the lead in a wider investigation into allegations of nepotism and patronage in the district. Neither the prosecutorís office nor the Attorney Generalís Office would comment.

School district officials said they were in touch with state authorities and will cooperate with any investigation.

"The district takes seriously both the value of the program and the need to maintain its integrity," the officials said in a prepared statement that was issued after a long closed-door meeting.

The latest developments unfolded in the wake of an article in The Sunday Star-Ledger detailing how three top school officials were abusing the subsidized lunch program intended for low-income families in the heavily state-supported school district.

A spokeswoman for the state Agriculture Department, Lynne Richmond, said last night she could not confirm if the department had been served with a subpoena, and district officials declined to say if they had received one.

The district said in its statement that it had asked state officials to review applications to its lunch program.

School officials said Carlos Lucio, a principal who earns $103,163 a year, and Marlene Abitanto, a supervisor of custodians who earns $73,350, were put on paid administrative leave until that review is completed.

The president of the Elizabeth Board of Education, Marie L. Munn, also has a son who was listed as eligible for free lunch even though she is a human resources administrator for a state nonprofit organization, according to The Star-Ledger. Her husband is also employed, according to her recent financial disclosure statement.

Munn, however, holds an elective position and is not subject to suspension by the district.

School records obtained by The Star-Ledger showed Lucio has a 6-year-old daughter scheduled to receive a subsidized lunch this year through the federal program. The records also showed that Abitanto has a daughter who received free lunches while in high school through the 2009-10 school year.

Under federal income-eligibility rules, which take into account the number of children in a household and total income, a family of four cannot earn more than $29,055 to qualify for a free lunch and $41,348 for a reduced-price meal.

In the article in The Sunday Star-Ledger, Munn said her sonís application was "submitted accurately." Lucio and Abitanto had not returned calls or e-mails.

Applications submitted to the program by Munn, Lucio and Abitanto have been provided to the state Agriculture Department for review, the district said in its statement. Richmond said the review would be shared with federal agriculture authorities.

The district said it also gave the Agriculture Department the results of its own internal review, but did not provide details in its statement. The district also reiterated its desire for state authorities to investigate how information about its lunch program was "illegally provided" to The Star-Ledger.

State and federal officials acknowledge there is little monitoring statewide of those who receive assistance under the federal National School Lunch Program. The district said in its statement that there are strict rules that limit its oversight. Schools are required to verify only 3 percent of applicants.

It is estimated that 88 percent of the Elizabeth student body benefits from the program, the district said.

In Trenton, state Sen. Joe Pennacchio joined a growing chorus of lawmakers calling for an investigation of the district.

"Unfortunately, some school officials have taken advantage of this valuable program and perverted it to serve their own needs," Pennacchio (R-Morris) said in a statement.

Staff writers Ted Sherman, James Queally and Ryan Hutchins contributed to this report.



Forbes.com - Associated Press - Parents, ACLU sue NJ city over Facebook records

By BETH DeFALCO , 08.23.11, 08:28 PM EDT


TRENTON, N.J. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the state's biggest city for refusing to release records related to a $100 million gift pledged to its schools by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit against Newark on behalf of a parents group denied access to records requested under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act.


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The initial April 1 request sought to review correspondence among Zuckerberg, Newark employees including Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, state officials and others involved in the deal.

"As parents, as taxpayers and as citizens, we have a need and right to know how the money pledged to Newark's public schools will ultimately serve Newark's public school students," said Laura Baker, who filed the initial request and has a granddaughter in the school system.

The Booker administration released a statement late Tuesday saying there was no correspondence between the mayor and Zuckerberg. A city spokeswoman said they communicated in person and over the phone.

The $100 million pledge was announced a year ago by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, Booker and Zuckerberg as they appeared together on Oprah Winfrey's talk show.

Zuckerberg described the gift as a "challenge grant" to Booker, who's trying to raise $100 million more to match what Zuckerberg has promised to contribute over five years.

The gift was presented as a way to try to improve the district, which has been plagued for years by low test scores, poor graduation rates and crumbling buildings. The district was taken over by the state in 1995 after instances of waste and mismanagement, including the spending of taxpayer money by school board members on cars and restaurant meals.

Parents said they want to know more information about how the highly publicized gift would be used.

After requesting several extensions to have time to locate documents, the city denied the request on July 19 in a letter, saying any communications between Booker and Zuckerberg "were not made in the court of the mayor's official duties."

The letter went on to say that if Booker were exercising his official duties, any documents would be privileged.

What's known as "executive privilege" protects the governor from disclosing records that contain advice to him on matters related to his executive functions, but it doesn't apply to other elected officials in the state, ACLU-NJ president Frank Corrado said.

"By invoking executive privilege, the City of Newark has waded into unchartered territory in an attempt to make sure these records never see the light of day," Corrado said.

In its statement Tuesday, the mayor's office said that the city "no longer wishes to assert any executive privilege" and that "there are no documents that show correspondence between the Mayor and Mark Zuckerberg."

City spokeswoman Anne Torres told The Associated Press that there weren't even any emails between the two men.

The statement said every investment made through the Zuckerberg fund has been made public.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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