Letters

Fix Mismanagement

Dec 20, 2017

The following was addressed to Interim Executive Ocean County Schools Superintendent Judith DiStefano-Anen.

Dear Dr. DiStefano-Anen:

Earlier this year, voters in the Pinelands Regional School District approved a $53.6 million bond referendum for major repairs to both the junior and senior high School buildings. Given that the schools had been allowed to decline into significant disrepair, many of us were very concerned that the board and administration were not capable of effectively managing such a large-scale undertaking. Subsequent events have only confirmed our skepticism. I am writing to ask your help in ensuring that the school district manages this project efficiently and complies with applicable law in the process.

On Nov. 6, I attended a working session of the board where residents and parents asked numerous questions about environmental quality problems arising from the construction. The questioning was respectful and demonstrated familiarity with the issues involved. Neither the board nor administration provided answers, despite saying they would be addressed after all questions had been asked.

At the conclusion of the questioning, Steven Brennan, the business administrator, read a lengthy statement that presented a timeline of key construction events. Instead of answering constituent questions, as promised, several members of the board took issue with aspects of the statement, mostly by denying that they had been given the full report and did not see it until Oct. 2.

Mr. Brennan stated that he received an environmental quality report on Sept. 10. The report was discussed with Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks on the afternoon of Sept. 11 and during an executive session of the board that night. Claims by the parties to not be aware of the report until October seem disingenuous at best and deceitful at worst.

I have been advised by Dr. Banks that she cannot discuss this sequence of events, so I must turn to you for answers. Dr. Banks also told me that she could not discuss the chain of command within the district for managing the construction project. As a concerned citizen, I believe I have a right to know that. This seems like a fairly straightforward question that involves no interpretation of potential wrongdoing.

The Nov. 6 audience was told that the construction contractors had been invited to the public meeting, but they declined, saying they would only meet with the board in executive session. Is it appropriate for the board to meet with the contractors only in executive session? Under what circumstances may such meetings be closed to the public? Is it possible that the executive session of the board on Sept. 11 when they met with contractors was in violation of the “Sunshine” Law? My understanding is that such meetings are permitted only where there is either litigation or contractor arbitration. Please investigate these actions by the board.

Board President Susan Ernst has created an Ad Hoc Construction Committee to supervise all construction activity. Currently, this committee has three members. I urge you to recommend that the membership be expanded to five so that the provisions of the Sunshine Law would apply to the committee. It would also be helpful for you to spell out the respective responsibilities of the board, administration and contractors in conducting such an important aspect of the public’s business in public forums to the greatest extent possible.

The construction project to date has gone on longer than anyone expected. There has been significant disruption of the educational experience by shifting to split sessions. Trust within the community has been adversely affected as well with social media ablaze with personal attacks and claims of dubious provenance. Your office has the responsibility to step in and remedy these issues.

The board needs to conduct its business in a transparent and accountable manner. The administration has a responsibility to communicate a clear chain of command for management of the project and to set appropriate expectations for both construction quality and environmental quality. I fear that this will not happen unless you intervene promptly.

Richard H. Longshore

Little Egg Harbor

 

 

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