Elizabeth BOE report unleashes political combatants

A report issued today by former Justice Gary Stein of Pashman Stein on the ethical condition of the embattled Elizabeth Board of Education provided an opportunity for two warring wharf front factions to don their battle gear and clank away.

For the Board of Ed, the document arrives with the imprimatur of unimpeachable truth, as the overseer of the Board review effort is a former state Supreme Court judge.

The opposing side points out that the judge’s son works for the Elizabeth Board of Education and laughs at the suggestion that the tome could be anything other than a snow job.

The Star-Ledger, knowingly or unknowingly, improperly failed to disclose that the sources relied on for those allegations were biased,” writes Judge Gary Stein, decrying the sources for last year’s damning stories of the board as connective tissue to state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20) and Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage.

“The reports don’t describe the extraordinary educational progress that the Elizabeth School Board has achieved,” writes Stein, who said nine investigations and two audits of the board during 2006 and 2007 uncovered “no significant financial concerns.”

The Star-Ledger series last year, however, did result in the state AG Office’s arrest of School Board President Marie Munn and others allegedly found to be abusing the school lunch program.

Stein said the investigation occurred within the cocoon of Lesniak’s and Bollwage’s adversarial relationship with the Board of Education, an outfit charged with administering services for 23,000 students, which is the only school district in the state to have received three national Blue Ribbons.

Lesniak dismissed the report as bogus.

“The guy’s son makes over half a million dollars a year from the board he was hired to investigate,” said the senator. “No self-respecting attorney would take this on when you investigate the entity that pays your son.”

The Elizabeth Board of Education embraced the report as proof positive that their operation is legit.

“We are humbled and thankful that such a respected independent investigator has vindicated all the hard work that the teachers and administrators do in this district every day who were unjustly smeared by the May 2011 articles,” said Elizabeth Board Spokesperson Donald Goncalves, the Assistant Board Secretary. “The Star-Ledger‘s stories rattled the community and shocked and disappointed many parents, taxpayers, students and staff, as well as Board members. The politically generated and distorted portrayal of our district undermined confidence inside and outside the district, which, as noted in the report, has been showing the sharpest educational rebound of any urban district in the state.”

In a separate reaction, the Education Law Center (ELC) reinforced Stein’s reliance on the school district’s performance record to laud the Board of Education, pointing out that the district has made steady progress towards matching overall state proficiency levels.

In 2004, Elizabeth’s average 3rd grade score was 20 percentage points below the state average in language arts and 19 points below the state average in math. By 2008, the gap had closed to 6 points in language arts and 5 points in math. Similar progress can be seen in 8th grade. Elizabeth closed the gap with the state average from 24 points in 2008 to 11 points in 2011 in language arts, and from 30 points to 16 points in math.

“The impressive academic progress achieved in Elizabeth comes as a result of the influx of resources and programs deemed necessary for student success in NJ’s highest need districts by the NJ Supreme Court in the landmark Abbott v. Burke decisions,” said David G. Sciarra, ELC Executive Director and lead attorney in the Abbott case. “The Justices’ foresight and commitment to ensuring the right to a thorough and efficient education have made it possible for Elizabeth to deliver the programs needed for students to achieve at high levels.”

Elizabeth BOE report unleashes political combatants