by Frank Fleischman III (FF3,) Lead Editor

State Monitor Thomas Egan was assigned to Belleville School District in 2014 to oversee school board financial decisions following the disastrous $4 million deficit the school district incurred. In the beginning, Mr. Egan received public approval in Belleville for controlling spending and preventing bad school board decisions. In recent years, however, Mr. Egan has been physically absent from school board meetings, has seemingly approved controversial school board decisions and spending, and recently overruled a board vote on the School 1 property. Belleville taxpayers have good reason to wonder why.

On December 27th, 2022, State Monitor Thomas Egan sent Belleville Board of Education President Luis Muniz a letter. The letter stated that Egan — under the authority granted to him by state law — was overturning a 4-3 “no” vote on a resolution on the school board’s December 19th, 2022 meeting agenda. The resolution was to transfer the remainder of the School One property to the Township of Belleville — a move which both school district and township officials claimed was a needed correction to the original 2010 sale of the property to the Township. Belleville Mayor Michael Melham published the letter on his Facebook page soon after.

The letter was surprising for many reasons, but the most surprising was that it was the first time in years that the public had seen or heard anything from Mr. Egan! Egan hasn’t been physically present at a Belleville Board of Education meeting in more than two years. From 2014 until around the beginning of 2020, Egan attended every school board meeting. Beginning from roughly the time that the State of New Jersey called a Covid-19 public health emergency in March 2020 — thus affecting public meetings for more than a year — until the present day, Egan has been missing from school board meetings. At meetings from which Egan has been absent, district business administrator Matthew Paladino would routinely say that Egan was watching the meeting’s livestream, had reviewed and approved all items on the agenda, and that he certified that the district had sufficient funds to cover those items.

Thomas Egan’s physical absence from Belleville Board of Education meetings has been strange enough, but stranger still is that it seems nobody — not a board member, not the superintendent, not the business administrator — has seen fit to even set up a telephone conference link for Mr. Egan. It’s possible he’s been included by telephone in the private portions of meetings, but a similar arrangement has evidently not been set up for the public portion of the meetings.

Egan’s letter seems a nexus of the continuing saga of the $4 million deficit in 2014, the sale of the School One property that played a key part in it, and disturbing questions about Egan’s continued role as state monitor to the Belleville School District.

How We Got Here: The 2014 School Board Deficit, The School One Sale & Egan’s Arrival

New Jersey law requires all public school districts to perform yearly financial audits and prohibits school districts from operating with a budget deficit. In 2014, an accounting firm the Belleville Board of Education hired to do its annual audit found a $3.7 million budget deficit (a 2018 report from the New Jersey State Auditor cataloged all the activities, practices, and problems leading up to the deficit.) The deficit set then-New Jersey Commissioner of Education Bob Martin into action, floating the district a loan to cover the deficit and appointing a state monitor.

The school board’s disclosing of the deficit came after months of furious protest by teachers, parents, and residents about, among other things, a single-bid $2 million contract to Clarity Technologies toinstall a comprehensive security system in all nine Belleville schools with surveillance cameras and radio-frequency identification (RFID) cards to open and lock doors. There were issues with the system from the start, and it was later discovered that the school board grossly overpaid for the system. However, the biggest public complaint was spending money on such a system when students and classrooms in the district lacked basic school supplies and up-to-date textbooks and computers.

The Clarity security system fiasco, as well as others, pushed residents to contact Interim Essex County Schools Superintendent Joseph Zarra to complain, as well as to contact local and state media about what was happening. The surveillance system contract as well as other issues led to the founding of Essex Watch, Belleville Watch’s parent site.

Another controversy that captured public interest was the school board’s sale of the School One property in 2011 to the Township of Belleville for $1.The School One building, located on Rutgers Street between Cortlandt and Stephens streets, was left to deteriorate for at least 20 years. Once it became too expensive for the school board to try to rehabilitate the school or the property, they sold it to the Township, which sold it shortly after to a developer for $1 million.

State Education Monitor Thomas Egan came to the Belleville school district in June 2014, while in the final months of his time as school district monitor for Elmwood Park in Bergen County. The Elmwood Park schools superintendent at the time Egan was monitor, Dr. Richard Tomko, was hired by the Belleville school board in early 2015 to be Belleville’s Superintendent of Schools, following a candidate search.

State monitors have a lot of power and several responsibilities. According to state law, the monitor oversees the spending and management of school district funds and the maintenance and operation of district facilities. The monitor also has the ability to overrule any decision made by the school board, except as it relates to state law and collective bargaining agreements. The law also states that the monitor “must attend all meetings of the board of education, including closed meetings.”

Egan did use his power to overrule a board decision prior to the School 1 matter. In October 2016, the board voted to appoint Matthew Paladino — formerly of the Ridgefield Park school district — as school district business administrator. The board voted against the appointment, but Egan overturned the board decision in January 2017, thus approving the appointment. Paladino has served in the business administrator role ever since.

From his initial “Meet The Monitor” meeting in June 2015 until roughly March 2020 — when New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy declared a Covid-19 “public health emergency” — Egan attended Belleville Board of Education meetings. During that time, Egan’s work as monitor led to several positive changes in policy and spending.

2021 – Present: Egan Absent, School Board Approves Melham’s Building Lease and Buys Up Property

On January 24, 2021, the Belleville Board of Education voted to approve a 5-year lease of 335 Union Avenue for office space. It’s long been known among Belleville parents and school administration that Belleville schools have had an instructional space shortage, so leasing space for administrative offices so more educational space could be reclaimed seemed prudent.

However, 335 Union Avenue is owned by sitting Mayor Michael Melham, who stands to profit almost $200,000 in taxpayer dollars from this lease. School board trustees approving a property lease with a sitting politician — seemingly dismissing the arguable ethical problems — was bad enough; truly inexcusable was that two school board trustees whose campaign Melham managed in 2019 not only didn’t abstain from the vote but had the audacity to vote for the lease!

The school board’s vote to lease Mayor Melham’s property at 335 Union Avenue would have been an excellent opportunity for Egan to use his power to reverse or overrule board decisions. But he didn’t intervene.

The Melham lease was approved soon after the board approved a lease for office space at 387 Union Avenue, which appears to be owned by a Board of Education employee’s family.

In 2021, the school board purchased three properties: 487 Greylock Parkway — a private residence — for $369,000, in February 2021; another residential property, 499 Greylock Parkway, for $434,000 in August 2021 and 467 Franklin Avenue — a professional building — for $450,000 in September 2021. Again, Egan was not in attendance at the meetings during which the board voted on these purchases and seemingly approved them.

In January 2022, the Board voted to lease for five years — at a base rent of $20 per square foot — 525 Cortlandt Street for an indoor track and training facility for athletes. Rent increases are built-in over the five years.

In March 2022, the school board and the Township Council entered a rare — some would say unprecedented — “shared services agreement.” In quick order, the Township Council voted 4-2 to issue almost $30 million in bonds for various purposes. Approximately $5 million of those bonds were apparently delegated to help the Board of Education purchase the Eastern International College building on Washington Avenue near the Middle School.

At around the same time, the school board voted to put a $250,000 a down payment on purchasing the Eastern International building. Soon after, the board voted to spend $775,000 to purchase the former King’s Windows property that sits next to Eastern International and borders the middle school. As part of the “shared services agreement,” the Township has apparently delegated $11.5 million of the bonds to construct a public parking deck on the King Windows property. This parking deck concept was sold to the public as solving both a longstanding parking issue for middle school teachers and staff, while also providing parking for customers shopping on Washington Avenue.

Some speculated the reason why the Town Council voted to bond the money is while a school board must hold a public referendum to bond money (voters must approve the bond measure, like the $48.5 million bond referendum passed in 2017,) the Township Council can issue bonds by passing an ordinance.

Despite this enormous, seemingly unprecedented, and little-understood agreement between the Township and the school board, Mr. Egan was not present at the school board meetings when these purchases were made and gave no indication he opposed the purchases or the agreement.

In total, the school board spent nearly $1.25 million in 2021 on real estate purchases, and in 2022 spent a little more than $1 million. This doesn’t even take into account the $5 million the Township bonded toward the purchase of the Eastern International building (which will probably come due to taxpayers in the near future,) or the many leases the board approved, which have a baseline rent and built-in per-year increases!

Wither Egan?

Thomas Egan was sent to the Belleville school district in 2014 after the district found itself in a nearly $4 million deficit, caused by the (possibly criminally) negligent actions of some school board trustees and administrators. He deserves credit for being tough on school board spending and policy in the beginning, but it’s difficult to defend him against accusations of rubber-stamping incredibly expensive (and in some cases, arguably unethical) school board decisions, and not being present at school board meetings. Belleville taxpayers, who pay Egan’s salary and costs and who have been paying roughly $400,000 a year since 2014 to pay back the state’s loan (on top of the already obscene municipal and school taxes they pay,) deserve better.

As the Belleville School District has in the past couple of years spent millions of taxpayer dollars on real estate purchases and questionable leases, Belleville deserves a monitor who is present at meetings and available to the public, prudent with the tax dollar and has a solid B.S. detector.

What options exist if Mr. Egan is no longer being the monitor Belleville needs? Belleville has two more payments to make on the state loan — approximately $800,000 to $900,000. After that is paid, Belleville will presumably no longer require a state monitor.

Perhaps it’s possible for the state education department to replace Egan with another monitor. As a matter of fact, this recently happened. This past September, the New Jersey Department of Education swapped state monitors Wayne Demikoff and Mr. Egan’s respective assignments in Ridgefield Park and Lyndhurst. State education department officials stated this was the result of a departmental review of state monitor assignments. Relatedly, a Ridgefield Park resident commented on Belleville Watch’s Facebook page, alleging Egan had only attended one school board meeting since being reassigned, and only then because of complaints to the state education department.

Much Blame To Go Around, But Remember Who And What Got Us Into This Mess

Belleville taxpayers and parents are right to question where Mr. Egan has been, and why he’s been either silent or approving of the inordinate amount of spending the school board has done. If Mr. Egan is no longer performing the job Belleville’s residents expect of him, it’s incumbent on them to voice their concerns to the school board and to the New Jersey Department of Education.

Yet however one may feel about Mr. Egan’s performance, Belleville is forced to have a state monitor because some school board members and district employees’ bad actions years ago made it necessary to have one appointed. It’s been nearly ten years since the school district incurred that deficit and not one person has been held accountable. In his 2018 report on the deficit and the actions that led to it, Steven Eells, then State Auditor, noted that he’d sent several matters to the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice (aka the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General.) Your Belleville Watchdog and others have urged the state attorney general’s office to at least confirm an investigation is ongoing, and so far Trenton has been silent on the matter.

Anger is understandable, and there’s a lot of blame to go around. But the fiercest anger should be directed at those who got the district (and Belleville taxpayers) in this position in the first place.