Why, Asked a Tweeter, Is Asbury Park Public Schools’ Cost Per Pupil Over $40K? Here’s My Answer.

Such a good question, Madeline! What does Asbury Park Public Schools do with all that money, even as enrollment declines? With schools all over the state cutting costs, why is this happening? I mean, $42K a kid? Those students must be academic superstars! After all, that’s the basis for New Jersey’s Abbott decisions: As Education Law Center explains,

ELC’s legal and policy advocacy, which includes such landmark rulings as Abbott v. Burke, has significantly advanced the provision of fair school funding, high quality early education, safe and adequate school facilities, and school reform, especially to schools serving high concentrations of at-risk students and students with disabilities and other special needs. These successes have, in turn, resulted in strong academic gains and progress in closing student achievement gaps in New Jersey. 

Is that happening in Asbury Park? Because, let’s face it, $42,382 a kid seems like a lot and, thus, came up in that Twitter conversation last week. State Aid Guy (@stateaidguy), more knowledgeable about New Jersey school finance than anyone I know, often notes on his blog that Asbury Park is the “most overaided” district in the state:

The topic of Asbury Park has special resonance these days in New Jersey. As the fiscal health of the state deteriorates, as schools cry out for fairer allocations of state aid, and the Department of Education is run by Asbury Park’s former superintendent Lamont Repollet, it seems relevant to answer Madeline’s question more fully. After all, the cost per pupil seems awfully high* (all in, including pension costs, overhead, etc.) for a district where four out of five high school students don’t meet expectations in reading and six out of seven don’t meet expectations in math.

To drill down further, I looked at the reading levels of third-graders, a benchmark for success in higher grades. At Barack Obama Elementary School, 11% — barely over one out of ten — third-graders met expectations for reading. (In 2015-16, 8.4% met expectations; in 2016-17, the DOE withheld the data “in order to protect student privacy.”) At Bradley Elementary School, the state withheld the data for third-graders meeting expectations for 2017-2018. (In 2015-2016, 16.1% met expectations; in 2016-2017, the state again withheld the data.)**

So I decided to dig into public records and search for reasons why Asbury Park spends so much money with so little impact on student outcomes, certainly far from “closing the achievement gap,” per Education Law Center’s declaration. (Barack Obama saw some progress; Bradley, not so much.) Sure the high school graduation rate is up, but that’s because Repollet instituted a scam called “The 64 Floor” which makes it impossible for students to not pass courses; see here, here, and here. If high school students do manage to fail a class they can retrieve credits by “volunteering” in non-academic activities. (For a full explanation, see here.)

What did I find? Asbury Park’s profligacy makes King Midas look like a miser — that’s your money, folks, because 91.5% of Asbury Park’s revenue comes from state and federal sources. While Asbury Park has a long history of extravagance, its most recent overseers are Lamont Repollet and his hand-picked successor, Sancha Gray. (Sources at both the DOE and Asbury Park tell me that she oftens relies on her former boss for advice; some have actually gone as far as to say that Repollet still runs Asbury Park, but from his Trenton office.)

Now, I’m a former school board member and insufferably nerdy about these things so I went back and read some of the minutes from Asbury Park School Board meetings to see what the district is doing with all that moolah during Repollet/Gray’s management. This is not to say that the district was stingy before; Chris Christie famously used Asbury Park as an example of wasted school aid. But from what I can tell, its habit of shelling out tons of dough on programs of questionable academic value got worse once Repollet was named superintendent.

The wanton spending falls into five categories: A top-heavy administration, excessive staff travels, the purchase of property even as enrollment shrinks, payment for private programs that don’t address Asbury Park students’ dire academic needs, and a curious relationship with the textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Top-Heavy Administration, or “The Repollet Tree.”

The Asbury Park school district has fewer than 2,000 students. Yet the district website lists the following central office positions: Superintendent, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Director of Special Services, Director of Student Services, Director of Operations, Director of School Counseling Services. At the bottom of this budget you’ll see that there’s not only a Business Administrator but also an Assistant Business Administrator, certainly atypical in a district this size; their combined salaries are over $250K (not including benefits). There is a “Coordinator of Funded Programs” ($115K), a “Chief Technology Officer” ($122K), a “Coordinator of Data and Communication Systems” ($95K), a “Director of Planning and Assessment” ($148K), a “Director of Operations” ($161K), and an“Assistant Superintendent” ($166K). And this district page lists five Directors of Curriculum and Instruction.

This is not a complete list. Yet even the above seems a bit over the top for such a small district, especially one with such poor outcomes for kids. My own local district, Lawrence in Mercer County, has over twice as many students and a far smaller number of people employed in the central office. Now, the students in Lawrence are not as needy as Asbury Park students; only 27% are economically-disadvantaged compared to 51% at Asbury Park. Yet that doesn’t explain the gap. I’ve been told by Asbury Park staffers, who will remain anonymous, that Repollet would regularly hire favorites for murky central office positions and then, after an appropriate time, appoint them as principals or other administrators. The practice apparently continues under Sancha Gray.

One source told me that the staff calls this practice “The Repollet Tree.” Once you’re a branch, your upward trajectory is assured. I suppose it’s an earlier iteration of the “book of resumes” Repollet keeps at the DOE.

Not Just Ghana:

I’ve written before about Asbury Park’s decision to spend funds intended for students on an almost-all-adult journey to Ghana, where Repollet was enstooled as a King.

Judging by recent Board minutes, this expenditure was not an anomoly (which the Tree had to pay back once the State and the Feds found out) but a pattern. In my experience, school boards typically approve travel for administrators but are extremely cost-sensitive. When a trip is outside the tri-state area, typically one or two staff members attend and then “turn-key” the knowledge they glean, i.e., share it with other personnel. Only rarely do school board members go along.

That’s not how it works in Asbury Park. According to last November’s meeting minutes, the Board approved a trip to Los Angeles for Superintendent Sancha Gray, Board President Angela Ahbez-Anderson, Principal Edwin Ruiz and Reading Specialist Amanda Napolitani at a cost of $11K. Another trip approved that evening was for Gray, Ruiz, and Napolitani to go to D.C. for over $8K. Last February the Board approved a trip to Las Vegas for an athletic trainer and another to Orlando for one of the five Directors of Curriculum and Instruction.

Here’s another: “Recommend Board Approval for Dr. Lamont Repollet and Mrs. Sancha Gray to attend the National Conference on Education in the Digital Age held in Nashville, TN from February 14-18, 2018. The estimated cost of the trip including hotel, travel, registration and the GSA approved rate for meals and incidentals will be $4,996.00. Total Estimated Cost: $4,996.00 Account: 20-270-200-580-074-20.” Repollet and Gray also went to Amelia Island, Florida. That’s a Houghton Mifflin thing, which I’ll get to.

Property Purchase:

In November 2015 during Repollet’s tenure, with enrollment already dwindling, the Board approved his recommendation to purchase a building from the city for $425,000. The reason for the purchase was to convert the building to an Information Technology Center. I don’t know the cost of the conversion. I suppose no one cared; Abbott district construction is underwritten by the Schools Development Authority (yes, the agency much in the news for nepotism).

Program Purchases:

Asbury Park’s School Board minutes lists a number of approvals for programs that seem, well, not focused on improving student outcomes. Here are some examples:

  • Approval for “Beauty That Cares” to provide 3 sessions at the January 23rd 2019 Mid-Year Convocation. During the 25-minute interactive workshop, participants will learn the benefits of using essential oils and herbs to enhance their overall wellbeing. Total Cost: $1,500.00 Account Number: 20-270-200-300-074-20″
  • “Approval for ‘Aunt Elsie’s Homestays’ to work as a liaison to the Ghanaian administration and as an international consultant assisting our students and staff with international relations such as passport, flu shots and visa’s for our Ghana project. Our work with Aunt Elsie’s Homestays will begin 12/20/2016 through 4/15/2016. The rate is $150 an hour up to 100 hours of consulting services. Total not to exceed 15,000 Account: 20-421-200-300-74-20.” [This is for the Ghana trip, initially paid for a federal money stream called 21st Century Learning Funds that is intended for academic enrichment for low-income students. As noted elsewhere, only two Asbury Park students actually attended the international jaunt. The guest list features many members of the Repollet Tree.]
  • “Board approval for ALL Asbury Park High School Teaching Staff to be trained in Yoga Calm. This six week program includes training for all teachers, instructor in residence, materials, chimes, breathing spheres, and training for two teachers to become Instructors, per school. Total Cost: $9,000.00 Account: 15-190-100-800-50-20”
  • “Board approval for the proposal for the Asbury Park High School’s improvement goal to increase the graduation rate by providing students with an opportunity for remediation of failed courses and lost credits. It is the intent of the Asbury Park High School to establish an after school program to address students in need of remediation beginning in December of 2015. The Total Cost for The Extended Day Program for the Asbury Park High School students is: $26,090.00 (Which would include the hiring of staff) Account: 20-231-100-600-50-20.” [This is part of Repollet’s 64 Floor scheme to artificially inflate student graduation rates. His contract likely included a merit pay bonus for the increase.]
  • “Resolved that the Asbury Park Board of Education approve the contract with First Kingdom Management, Dr. Bernice A. King to appear at the Middle School renaming ceremony and speech at the Black History Extravaganza on or about February 17, 2016 for a fee of $15,000 plus travel expenses at $4,000 using account number 15-000-240-800.” [Find me another district that pays close to $20K for a speaker.]
  • “Board approval for Alisha De Lorenzo, SAC, to attend the Baptiste Institute Level One Yoga Teacher Training Program. Training is from August 4, 2018 – August 11, 2018 from 7:00 am – 11:00 am. Registration Cost: $3,452.60 for a course package of 7 Day Course. Total Cost: $3,452.60 Account: 20-270-200-500-074-20.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt [HMH]:

This is a strange one and I don’t pretend to have full context. Several Asbury Park staff members, former and current, have told me that Repollet has a close relationship with the textbook publisher. Indeed, this HMH press release lauds the district’s high literacy rates due to the district’s purchase of HMH programs. “’We have embarked on an educational renaissance. That is why we talk about rising up, about building a brighter future,’ says Dr. Repollet…. While the $3.4 Million price tag might look steep on paper, there’s no price that’s too high for an intervention program and professional learning that works district wide.”

But wait, there’s more. The trips by Repollet and Gray to Amelia Island, Florida were HMH conferences. In March 2018 the Board approved 9 staff members, including then-Acting Superintendent Gray and three Board members, to attend a conference sponsored by HMH in Orlando, Florida. The total cost is listed at $17,200.

Last July the Board approved “a one year agreement with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to provide Tech Advise & Integrated Services in the amount of $57,000. Total Cost: $57,000.00 Account Number: 11-190-100-320-074-41.” On the same agenda the Board approved a trip for Sancha Gray to an HMH “summit” for $3,536. 00.

The district partnered with HMH on an “Impact Study.” Board minutes relate that the district will “allow HMH to use the District’s name, relevant data points (without personal information of students and/or teachers) and testimonials that showcase the success of HMH’s programs through the publication of the HMH Impact Study, written research papers, and other media materials, such as press releases, media outreach, HMH’s blog(s) and social media channels.”

Here’s the Impact Study: It reads, in part, “APSD and HMH formed a partnership starting in the 2015–2016 school year to support APSD’s guiding action pillars to ‘rebuild, retool, and restore’ the district. With the leadership of Dr. Lamont O. Repollet, former superintendent, a culture of high expectations was established… Since 2014–2015, APSD has demonstrated dramatic gains in school and student outcomes. “

In fact, in 2016 HMH named Asbury Park an “Intervention District of Excellence.” From the press release: “’This recognition is a testament to the students, teachers, and families of APSD,’ said Superintendent Dr. Lamont Repollet. ‘I am so proud of our entire community; its incredible efforts are truly helping to guide and reinforce our work to build a brighter future for the young people of Asbury Park.’”

***********************************************

Let’s go back to the top: According to the DOE, now headed by Repollet, fewer than one in ten Asbury Park third-graders can read at grade level. The graduation rate is up due to the 64 Floor scam. All this for $42,382 per student per year.

My boss Chris Stewart says that everything we do in this education world boils down to this: “How are the children?

So, how are the children in Asbury Park? They are failing to learn to read by third-grade, a critical benchmark for future academic success. They are handed high school diplomas that signify nothing but a culture of low expectations. They are utterly failed by a system that uses them for personal aggrandizement and promotions.

That’s your tax dollars at work. That’s the failed premise of the Abbott decisions. That’s your children. That’s who Gov. Murphy appointed as Education Commissioner.

New Jersey deserves better. Most importantly, so do its students, their parents, and their teachers.

Madeline, hope this helps.

*For context, other Abbott districts receive far less in state aid: Newark Public Schools’ cost per pupil is $22,857, Camden City’s is $28,219, and Trenton’s is $23,009.

**The DOE School Performance Reports are configured differently in 2015-2016 than in later years. That year percentages were given for school-wide performance. The DOE under the Christie Administration tweaked the Reports the following year and include grade-by-grade percentages on student outcomes.


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