“This Is the Big One, Elizabeth!”

On Monday, I wrote about ACTING Education Commissioner Cerf’s reformy new idea: abandoning “free lunch” qualification as a measure of student poverty. Cerf is terribly worried that we might be over-counting the number of poor kids in our schools, which means spending more on education – heaven forbid!

But I missed a great point of irony in Cerf’s argument; fortunately, our intrepid Editorial Director pointed out to me the absurdity of Cerf’s example of fraud in school lunch programs:

A recent analysis by the state auditor estimated that up to 37 percent of participants in the federally administered free and reduced-lunch program are fraudulently enrolled. Cerf cites that finding, along with reports by The Star-Ledger last year that Elizabeth’s school board president and two spouses of district employees allegedly falsified their income so their children could receive meals, as proof of the need for a change.

“There is a perverse incentive to sign up these kids and it’s a big conflict of interest,” state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), a member of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, argued recently. “I think it’s a statewide problem and Elizabeth is just the tip of the iceberg.

Why is it absurd for Cerf – and, for matter Doherty – to point to Elizabeth as a hotbed of corruption? Well, how about the fact that the Elizabeth Board of Education is pretty much a wholly owned subsidiary of the Christie Administration?

March 2nd, 2010

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak and Mayor Christian Bollwage run a powerful Democratic political organization in Elizabeth, but control of the local school board has remained out of their reach in recent years.  In 2009, eight of the nine elected Board of Education members endorsed Republican Christopher Christie for governor against. [sic] The endorsements may have had some impact: Democrat Jon Corzine carried Elizabeth by 8,014 votes in 2005 (74%-22%), but last year his margin fell to 5,072 (68%-29%).  

The Christie campaign said at the time that the mostly Democratic school board members were frustrated by Corzine’s failure to assure funding for critical education programs as their reason for supporting the GOP candidate.   After the election, Christie named Elizabeth Superintendent of Schools Pablo Munoz to his Education transition team and Elizabeth Board of Education President Rafael Fajardo to the panel coordinating transition for the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. [emphasis mine]

Despite the accusations made against him in the Star-Ledger’s reports, Fajardo has been one of Chris Christie’s favorite go-to guys on education:

An appointment by Gov. Chris Christie to his Education Effectiveness Task Force has opened deep political wounds in Elizabeth between longtime, bitter enemies state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) and former School Board member Rafael Fajardo.

Christie selected Fajardo for his nine-member task force, infuriating Lesniak, whose allies in city government fought a protracted legal battle with Fajardo in addition to every other war waged in recent local political history.

“It’s remarkable that someone found guilty by the courts of using over $88,000 of taxpayer dollars for political ends would be given this kind of authority,” Lesniak told PolitickerNJ.com, referring to a glossy pamphlet prepared by Fajardo and the Board of Education.

“Obviously, it’s the governor’s call, but he ought to take a second look at Fajardo’s actions when he was on the Board of Education,” added the veteran senator. “He lost the case in three venues: the Department of Education, the administrative office of courts and the appelate division: three independent bodies. He illegally spent education dollars. If that’s not a disqualification, I don’t know what it is.”

As PolitickerNJ has reported, the Elizabeth BOE has set themselves up as Christie’s local political machine, masquerading as Democrats while working at every turn to stop Senator Ray Lesniak. That machine is allegedly fueled by forced contributions from Elizabeth’s teachers.

And it’s not like there is evidence of large-scale free-lunch fraud in Elizabeth: the investigation was limited to two administrators and Fajardo’s successor as BOE President, Marie Munn. And, yes, Munn did endorse Christie’s bid for governor (credit where it’s due: my source for this is none other than Paul Mulshine).

So, yes, ACTING Commissioner Cerf, there is a problem with school lunch fraud in Elizabeth – but it has NOTHING to do with a large-scale over-counting of poor children, and everything to do with your boss’s political cronies.

By the way: I can’t think of a better example of why we still need tenure than Elizabeth. Thanks for reminding us, ACTING Commissioner Cerf.

Comments (12)

  1. William Weber (WjcW)

    the fraud isn’t a problem?

    I think the figure 37% translates to is about 140,000 fraudulent applications. Requiring $840,000,000 is misdirected aid (at 6k per fraudster).

    No one is saying use the fraud to lower education spending, but don’t you think it would be fairer to redistribute that $840,000,000 to the truly deserving districts rather than the ones that cook the books the best?


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