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Mt. Ephraim News

Mt. Ephraim School District Submits 2016-17 Budget; Has $443K Deficit

On Monday night, the Mt. Ephraim Board of Education (BOE) voted to approve its total operating budget for 2016-17 in the amount of $9,870,139. The budget did not pass the first time it was voted on.

Before the budget was brought to a vote, the meeting involved a lengthy public portion.

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Following the first vote, the BOE was polled and there was additional discussion among them. When the matter was brought to a vote the second time, it passed and the budget has been submitted to the county for approval. However, there still remains a deficit of $443,552.

School Superintendent, Leslie Koller, was reached by telephone for follow-ups for clarifications. She explained banked cap, why the budget didn’t pass on the first try, and she also spoke about previous instability in the board office.

Can you please explain what the banked cap is?

LK: In 2010, the law changed to allow school districts to raise the tax levy up to 2% without voter approval. If they want to go above the 2%, they must put it out to the voters to approve. However, there is an exception and that is called using ‘banked cap.’ Banked cap is only generated in years when a school district does not increase their budget by the maximum of 2% and the balance remains available for use for up to the next three years.

In other words, if in any school year, a school district budget increases taxes by less than 2%, the difference between the percent that they have to raise taxes and the allowable 2% is “banked” and is available to be generated for future budgets for up to three years, after that it expires.

Banked cap is not money in the bank. When we use the term ‘banked cap’, people assume that it is actual money in the bank. It’s logical that they would assume that, but banked cap is actually the ability to generate money.

Here is an example: Let’s say for 2015-16, a school district’s budget raised taxes 1.5%. Since they could have gone to 2% without going out to voters, the ability to use the remaining .5% gets put aside. Not the actual .5%, but the ability to generate it. Then, say, in 2016-17 the school district’s budget requires taxes to be raised 2.25% in order to make their bills, the school district can raise taxes the allowable 2% plus another .25% because they had .5% “banked” without having to go to the voters. This would leave .25% “bank” and this .25% would remain available for use in 2017-18, 2018-19 and then it would expire.

*Note, the board passed a motion during Monday’s meeting 7-2 in favor of using the banked cap in the amount of $140,946. Voting yes were Pat Blaylock, Carl Ingram, Robbin Malinowski, Joan Greenwood, Mario Alibrando, Rocco Vespe, Lewis Greenwood, Sr. Voting no were Nick Salamone and Diane Vilardo.

The Budget Was Rejected at First.

A motion was made to adopt the tentative budget for 2016-17 and when it was first brought to a vote, it was unanimously voted down. Why?

LK: At first, we didn’t know. I asked the Board President (Pat Blaylock) to poll the Board members and it was pretty much across the board that they felt very rushed to make that decision. At the time, they also assumed that they had to make decisions right on the spot as to what cuts would be made in approving that budget. By polling them afterwards, we discovered that they actually didn’t have to make decisions as to what they would cut. They just had to make the decision on Monday night with the amount of the operating budget. So they voted again on just the operating budget and that time, it passed.

The Deficit

LK: The Board will make plans at a later date as to how to make up the deficit. I am going to make recommendations and have already made recommendations. I wanted to provide the Board several options and I have done that. They feel that they didn’t have time to really process them. The Board has very tough decisions to make.

When Mrs. Koller first came to the Mt. Ephraim School District:

LK: When they brought me on board, they wanted to move the district forward educationally, not only because they just wanted to make the district better, but also because of all of the new mandates that were being put upon them. They had a superintendent who had just resigned and they were with an interim. They had a lot that they wanted to accomplish and that costs money. I brought them proposals. We put together a three year plan and planned to do it in steps, which is what we did do.

Instability in the Business Office:

LK: Unfortunately, we had some instability with business administrators. We had to keep getting interim business administrators, all very qualified people, but the turnover caused instability. I think that because of that instability, mixed messages got sent and that is where the communication broke down. People were wondering why. They may not have known this was happening. I think it was due to the instability in the business office, which was just a very unfortunate situation, which they are trying very, very hard to rectify.

Corrective Action Plans

LK: At the meeting, I was asked if there were any corrective action plans. We are for participation in PARCC and also for curriculum with QSAC (The Quality Single Accountability Continuum), which is the Department of Education’s monitoring and evaluation system for public school districts.

I was also asked if there were corrective action plans for financial. At that point, Bill (Gerson) took over. He said there were four recommendations for corrective actions in our audit. They are all being rectified. They were discussed and being addressed. Those actions came about due to the instability of the business office.

*The Corrective Action Plan was previously provided by Mr. Gerson and reported on here. Below is a copy of the Corrective Action Plan:

Corrective Action Plan

No Fraud or Unethical Activity

William Gerson (finance manager and board secretary) was also asked during the meeting if there was any fraud of any unethical behavior and Mr. Gerson responded that there was not.

What’s next?

LK: We have two meetings scheduled in April: a work session on April 4 and an action meeting on April 11. The Board and I have not talked since Monday’s meeting, but I am going to assume that we are going to discuss the plans of how to come to that $443,552 cuts at those meetings.

What if the public has any questions?

LK: If the parents want to ask any questions, I encourage them to send me an email: lkoller@mtephraimschools.com.

On Tuesday, Principal Michael Hunter received an email from a parent saying her child had heard things that were so off the mark, but it gave him the opportunity to answer her with facts. I would encourage any parents who have any questions or whose kids come home with anything that they said they heard, I ask them to please contact me to get the facts. I would much rather be contacted than to see it on social media.

Right now, the children can’t be coming home with any facts because there has been absolutely nothing decided.

Final Remarks:

LK: The Board cares about the kids. There are ten different ways to solve every problem. Each one of the nine members of the Board has a different opinion of how they think that a problem should be solved and they vote their consciences, but always with the kids in mind. That is how they will solve this upcoming problem: by working as a group in the best interest of the kids, the teachers, and the programs that we put in place and not wanting to lose any of those. These are really, really hard decisions and the public shouldn’t take the responsibility that is on these Board members lightly. It is very, difficult for them.

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Mt. Ephraim School Board To Vote Monday On Proposed Budget Cuts

The Mt. Ephraim Board of Education (BOE) is scheduled to meet tomorrow, Monday, March 21 at 7:30 p.m. to vote on proposed cuts in order to balance its 2016-17 budget.

The regular BOE meeting was held on March 14, which I attended. During that meeting, School Superintendent, Leslie Koller and Finance Manager/Board Secretary, Bill Gerson, spoke about the budget. At that time, neither Mrs, Koller nor Mr. Gerson had indicated that there were any issues with the budget.

However, the BOE called a special meeting on Friday, March 18.

Several people had reached out to me asking if I was planning to attend the meeting, but I was unable to.

I spoke with Mrs. Koller by telephone on Sunday morning, March 20. She explained what had transpired between the regular board meeting and the special meeting. I also asked her to address the issue about advertising the special meeting in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act.

This article includes:

  • Excerpts from what Mrs. Koller and Mr. Gerson said about the budget during the March 14 meeting.
  • Information provided by a source who attended the March 18 meeting, who asked that her name not be used.
  • Mrs. Koller’s explanation of what happened between Monday-Friday of last week that led up to the special meeting.

From the March 14 BOE meeting:

William Gerson:

I put a lot of time and as you are aware, I pulled the 15-16 budget apart and I’ve been doing this a long time and I couldn’t understand it. So I took the budget apart from 15-16 and put it in a format that not only I, but anyone coming into my office, would be able to understand, and they could really read it and understand it. That had to be my basis for creating the 16-17.

So, I basically took your spending plan and I worked with Leslie and we both identified programs. Every program in the school has a budget directly related.

Kindergarten has their own program. Grades 1-5 have their own program. Special Ed has a program.

Leslie could explain exactly what programs there are.

Every program that there is has a cost aligned with that program. The spreadsheets you got previously, I have done away with those. It’s more open to understand. There have been emails been going out to everybody saying that the 16-17 budget….by Friday. If there is any way possible that I can get it earlier than Friday, I will get it out to you. If you have any questions, please feel free to give me a call and ask me a question. Any questions that you ask, I will keep track of them and I will provide that to the Board. I think you will be pleased with it. I am still working on it and I think it will be a very tight budget. Everything I could put in it, appropriations side. Now, I am trying to balance the revenue side. But what I found is reviewing the 15-16 budget….all I do is put it in the state format that is required.

I think once I get the revenues together, that is basically the last piece I have. Once I figure out exactly what revenues are, without going over budget, Leslie and I will sit down. If we don’t have enough revenue to support it, we will look at what we have to cut, if we have to. At this point, I am still putting the revenue side together.

Leslie Koller:

The spreadsheets that you had before, they are always are so hard to read.  There were vendors on there that haven’t been used in five-six years. So Bill and I sat down and we figured out what doesn’t need to be here. We moved things around. Things were in the wrong places. We put them all in the right places. What Bill is going to give you instead of that spreadsheet: You know how it has the line items going across? You are going to get a sheet of paper with that line item on it with all of the items under that particular line item on one sheet of paper, which is how I learned to budget in my last district.

We had a sheet of paper for each one of the line items. So you will get in a binder as opposed to a spreadsheet. I think it is going to be a lot easier for you to understand.

William Gerson:

I put the budget together based on what your spending plan was. Now, if you go back, once I get county approval, district approval, next week for the transfer. We will put the budget line in with what it should be, what it should have been all along. Then what I am going to do is re-class everything. So my plan is that by the end of April, the chart of accounts will be lined up. Also, in conjuction with that, there is something else that the district has never had is we also have a position control roster and then we will also be tied directly into the budget.

Leslie Koller:

To illustrate what Bill just said. For example, there is this one account, I used it all the time as a principal. I use it here: 190-100 and that is like the supply account. So you are going to see in 15-16. Last year, it was like over $100,000 in this account. Now, it is about $12,000 because we took everything in there and we put it in Kindergarten. We took 1-5 and we put it in 1-5. We took 6-8 and we put it in 6-8.

So instead of everything being lumped into this one account, it now is all where it belongs. Technology is in technology. So it is not apples to apples when we see this. Next year, it will be apples to apples. But you’re looking at $100,000 in this account last year. And you’re going to look at $12,000 in this account this year and then likewise with those other accounts, you are going to look at nothing and you are going to see money in them because we put everything where it’s supposed to be.

William Gerson:

Bottom line is and this is what I feel that you are looking for…What does the program cost? What does every program cost? Up til now, nobody knew. By doing this, everyone will know exactly what it cost to run a program. Everyone will know what first through fifth grade will cost. Everyone will know what Pre-K cost.

I’ll give you a great example – the educational media center or ITC, or I call it, which is not only the library, but also technology throughout the Mt. Ephraim School District. The problem is, there is a piece here, and a piece here and no one really knew what was going on. And yet….they came, who was here tonight and Kitty Gallagher, who was not here. They were like where does this go? Where is that? Now they know. I sat down with them for about three hours and we went down line by line.

And we found out, as I was going through it with them that there was duplication that was in the budget. And they said: What’s this? I said I don’t know. You tell me. Because we don’t need that anymore. We haven’t used that in years. So it came out of the budget.

But this budget is a tight budget. I know we’ve had this discussion about previous Boards. I am going to tell you right now: It’s a tight, tight budget. And that’s before I got the revenue together, which means there may or may not be cuts. We’ve been cutting things.  There are some things in there that Leslie and I talked about that I think are needs of the district and I think you’d be happy.

I think you’ll be real happy because then you’ll be educated and you’ll know what it’s going to cost. Then next year, we have a full year under our belt. We get this year’s budget, when I present the budget to you next year, not only will you know what you’re going to budget for 17-18, but you will also know what was spent 15-16.

And that’s something that you don’t have now and have not had, from what I see, for a number of years. And that’s what you need. I mean, Mario [Alibrando], you asked me a question: What did we spend on this last year? We don’t know.

Because the way things were done and I don’t know why they were done that way. I don’t want to make judgments of people before me. All I know is I tend to do things a certain way and I like when I present a budget or anything else, I like to educate you as to what things are.  And that is the role that I am supposed to play with the board and I think that is important.

From the source who attended the March 18 special meeting:

The fiscal manager said that state aid is up $33,000, and taxables are up 2.5%. The district switched from Aetna to AmeriHealth last year, and so medical insurance premiums did not go up. No major changes caused the problem. They have just used every penny of every reserve fund they had. Last year they were able to take $800,000. This year there is only $146,000 available. Why, no one seemed to know. That was asked, but not answered. No plan was ever in place for sustaining positions that were created, etc. Chromebooks and new curricular materials were bought. The public was told they were limited to one question a piece. No good answers to any good questions. It was crowded, and 5-6 parents, 2 teachers, and one retired teacher spoke.

According to page 6 of the user-friendly budget for 2015-16, there was a $971,000 legal reserve after the audit in 2014. The projected amount left for 2016 is 0. Someone asked what happened to the $971,000, but Mr. Gerson said he couldn’t and wouldn’t try to answer that one. He has “revised” the 2015-16 budget. I asked for a copy, but he said it is pending approval from the county.

They will vote to approve the budget and cut positions on Monday night.

From the March 20 conversation with Leslie Koller: 

Talking about Monday the 14th, at this point Bill (Gerson) did not have his revenues as of Monday the 14th and I was in waiting mode myself so I cannot really comment any more than what he said.

The revenues came together on Tuesday and he (Bill Gerson) called me in and told me that we have problems, which is what we anticipated. We anticipated that there very, very could well be problems. But we didn’t really know because he was really just putting it together. We really had no idea whether we were going to have more money or enough money or not enough money. We did not know. And it came in the way it probably came in for most districts, and that is we did not have enough revenue to cover everything. I had definitely as he (Bill Gerson) said: to put every single thing that I wanted in. I put my entire wish list in the budget.

So first thing we did was pull all of that out, pull out any non-essentials. So every December, what I do is give a worksheet to each teacher and I ask them to put everything that they need and price it out and I give them a column to check: absolutely needed or wish list. And when I start the budget I put it all in.  And then what I do is I back out anything on the wish list. And that is what I did and then I looked at their absolutely needed and I think: “The minimum that every teacher must have are the workbooks that the kids need to do their work in.” Those are consumables. I look very meticulously at each teacher: If they want a new science kit that has to go. If you were able to do this particular lab before, they can do it again. As much as I would like to give them the lab, they can’t. So I backed out everything I could; teachers needed new furniture. I backed out the second phase of the Chrome Books. I backed out anything that was non-essential.

That happened on Tuesday and he (Bill Gerson) matched it against the revenues and we got it down to where there was still a deficit and it was obvious that the only place that we cut was positions. The amount was so large.

I came up several options for the Board to decide. 

I said this at the meeting the other night. I wanted to be able to give the Board that we have worked very hard to build programs in Mt. Ephraim since I came there. I believe that we have no programs that are non-essential at this point. Even though some parents may disagree. Everything that we have in Mt. Ephraim is baseline essential. My goal would be to not lose any programs. In order to not lose any programs that means not lose any teachers.

But I wanted to give the board options so I came up with plans where there are teacher cuts, which mean program cuts. I came up with a plan where there are teacher’s reduction in time, which are no program cuts.

And that is what I gave to the Board on Friday night and asked them to digest over the weekend. I asked them to call me with any questions over the weekend. And that is what they will have to decide on Monday night.

I can’t tell you [the number of positions that may be affected] because there are a variety of options that the Board could put together.

The Board has options and I want them to ask me questions. Then they have to decide after they have their options and they have their answers from me what is important and what route they would like to go.

With regard to the meeting notice and not giving 48 hours notice, what happened was: We worked together, he (Bill Gerson) told me there was a deficit. We went in and we cut supplies and  he ran a bunch of numbers. He pushed the insurance company to tell them more accurately what the health insurance increase would be. So that he could get as close to the final numbers as possible and we could get an actual amount that we had to cut.

When it was evident that it was going to be staffing, I called in the president of the [Mt. Ephraim Education] Association and I told her that this was going to be an issue. Coincidentally, she had had a membership meeting that afternoon and that’s why I wanted to tell her early because I felt that the teachers had a right to know because we were talking. I had just put an email to the president of the Board and asked her to call an emergency meeting.

As soon as the Board president confirmed that we would do a meeting, we were talking about Saturday or Friday. She had polled all of the board members and it took a little while and they got back. We were able to get eight yeses out of nine for Friday evening.

So as soon as we got that information, I contacted Bill to advertise and he advertised it in all the appropriate places, but he made a mistake and put May instead of March. So he put May 18 instead of March. As soon as that error was found, he made the correction. But the correction was made after the 48 hour limit.

So it was brought to our attention that we missed the 48 hour limit. Then, we consulted our solicitor who told us what the penalties could be for that and I discussed it with our president. At this point, teachers had been notified that there was going to be a meeting. The public had been notified that there was going to be a meeting. We felt it would do more damage to cancel the meeting because of the Open Public Meetings Act because we want the public to be aware and not feel like we are hiding anything. So we decided to go ahead with the meeting.

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Bellmawr Gloucester Local Government Mt. Ephraim News Recent News

To: Bellmawr, From Your Facebook Blogger

Dear Residents of Bellmawr:

Tonight, the monthly mayor and council caucus meeting was at 5:00 p.m. at the Borough Hall.

I arrived at the Borough Hall at about 4:50 p.m. and walked into the conference room where it appeared that a meeting of some sort was already in progress.

Almost immediately after I walked into the conference room, Mayor Frank Filipek called out to me: “We don’t start until 5:00 p.m.”

Because there were councilmen and other people in the room and the door was open, I asked: “Are you in Executive Session?”

Filipek responded: “We are meeting with our accountant, not that I have to explain anything to you. We will tell you when we are finished.”

So I went out into the hall to wait until Filipek granted me access to the meeting.

No one else from the public was there.

After a few minutes, I was told by one of the meeting attendees, that it was ok for me to come in.

As soon as I sat down, Filipek called out to me again: “Are you recording this meeting?”

I started to respond: “It is a public meeting. I have the right to record…” when he cut me off again.

“Are private citizens allowed to record?” he asked.

I responded by asking if he had consulted with the solicitor, Robert Messick, who was seated right next to him.

I added: “As a reporter….”

Filipek interrupted me by saying: “You are not a reporter. You are a blogger on Facebook.”

I then asked him if he had a problem with me being here.

He then said that at the last council meeting, all of his words were “up there, word for word.”

(Note: I believe Filipek was referring to my February 28, 2016 article, which can be read here.)

The meeting then proceeded. However, from the time when I entered the room to when I sat down, there was no flag salute. I did not hear a “Sunshine Statement” read aloud that indicated that the meeting was being held in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act.

(Note: The Borough of Bellmawr is being sued for Open Public Meetings violations.)

At about 6:12 p.m., someone said that there would be an Executive Session.

After passing a Resolution to go into Executive, I asked Borough Administrator, Josh Tregear, for what purpose the council was going into Executive Session.

He responded that he was not a councilman anymore.

I added that I was asking him because Borough Clerk, Chuck Sauter, was not in attendance (and neither was Council President, Steve Sauter).

Tregear responded that the Executive Session was for personnel and negotiations.

I asked how long the Executive Session would last.

Tregear responded he didn’t know, maybe 30 minutes.

I asked if action would be taken following the Executive Session and Tregear responded that he did not know.

I stated that I would wait out in the hall where I sat on the steps of the Borough Hall until about 7:25 p.m. when Councilman Paul Sandrock came to tell me that the Executive Session was over.

Fullscreen capture 3172016 80121 PM
My view from the steps in Borough Hall where I waited to be told that the Executive Session was over.

When I went back into the room, Filipek addressed me: “Miss, did you have any questions?”

I asked if there was a vote to come out of the Executive session.

Filipek responded that there was. I asked if any actions were taken and I was told there were not.

I stood up to leave and I asked Josh Tregear if he had a copy of the meeting agenda, which he did provide.

I wanted to bring to the public’s attention that this is the second time that the mayor has berated me.

I recently filed an OPRA request seeking information about the parking lot project at Larc School.  Council passed a Resolution at the October, 2015 meeting that authorized Remingon & Vernick to prepare the necessary plans and drawings for the parking lot at Larc School.

Fullscreen capture 3172016 81646 PM
Screengrab from the October, 2015 Agenda

 

I requested additional information because, as passed, there is no budgeted amount for the project and I wanted to know why the Borough of Bellmawr was paying for these plans when Larc School is owned by Camden County.

Filipek called me on the phone about the OPRA request and almost immediately began to yell at me.  He told me that if I wrote about this, then he would “tell everyone that [I] am against the kids.”

Before he hung up, he told me that I had an agenda.

I told him he was right, that I did have an agenda. And that is to the taxpayers to show them how their elected officials are voting and to show them how their tax money is being spent.

I wanted to inform the residents of Bellmawr how their elected official spoke to me, a reporter, yes, a reporter during an open meeting.

I also wanted to share my credentials for being a “reporter.” They include writing for the local weekly, the Gloucester City News, for ten years. I have also had bylines appear locally and nationally.  I also have a B.A., and two professional certifications.

For the mayor to talk to me, a member of the media, in that manner is wrong, unprofessional, and completely unbecoming of an elected official.

Mayor Filipek: If you happen to be reading this blog on Facebook, you owe me and the citizens of Bellmawr an apology for your behavior.

*Note, the story about the Larc School is developing. I am in the process of waiting for additional information from the Borough. They will update me and provide me with information when it is received because the project is involved. Last week, Chuck Sauter confirmed in an email and via telephone that Bellmawr would be reimbursed for these plans. 

 

 

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Mt. Ephraim News Recent News

Mt. Ephraim School District Pays $3,100 in Legal Fees to Defend Ethics Complaint

In response to an OPRA (Open Public Records Act Request), South Jersey Observer has learned that the Mt. Ephraim School District paid $3,100.04 in legal fees to defend Joan Greenwood for the Ethics Complaint that was filed against her.

The Mt. Ephraim School Board previously voted to approve the Parker, McCay law firm to defend Greenwood at a cost not to exceed $10,000.

The Ethics Complaint was filed in August, 2015 and it was dismissed by the School Ethics Commission (SEC) in December, 2015 for failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted.

The New Jersey School Boards Association highlighted this case in its March 1 School Board Notes noting that Greenwood did not compromise the Board with her statement.

 

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Mt. Ephraim News Recent News

Mt. Ephraim School District Pays $50K To Settle Lawsuit

*Article updated on March 23, 2016 to note that John Paff obtained narrowly redacted versions of the civil lawsuit. Paff updated his post by writing: “It looks as if there were two $50,000 settlements for a total of $100,000.”

School superintendent, Leslie Koller, was reached on March 23 for a comment and she stated: “We were notified by the insurance company of the settlement and we have no further comment beyond that.”

The Mt. Ephraim School District recently settled lawsuits involving two former students who claimed that school officials were “willfully indifferent” to harassment and physical assaults that they suffered at the hands of fellow students, reports John Paff on his blog, NJ Civil Settlements.

Are you considering filing a lawsuit? It is no secret that filing a lawsuit can be an expensive and time consuming process. However, that being said, there are solutions out there that can help you to receive financial support to get a lawsuit off the ground. For more information about securing lawsuit loans in as little as one day, go to lawsuitssettlementfunding.com.

Paff writes that the settlement was approved on November 2, 2015 by Camden County Superior Court Judge Louis R. Meloni.

The Complaint, dated November 30, 2012, states the alleged incidents began in 2008.

Paff had submitted a supplemental OPRA (Open Public Records Act Request) to the district seeking additional clarification on the settlement.

Read more of John Paff’s posts at NJ Civil Settlements.