At the March 8th Board Of Education (BOE) budget presentation Eugene Meola, who serves as the borough’s First Ward Councilman, spoke on the record as a resident during the public comment portion. For 11 and a half minutes, Mr. Meola criticized and made abrasive statements regarding the school district and the current proposed budget. After the meeting, when approached to answer some questions on the record, he stated he had no comment before a single question was even asked.
Mr. Meola started his public comments in front of the microphone by asking about the short time between the BOE’s budget presentation, the 8th, and the date it is due to the county superintendent on the 24th for a review and approval. The Roselle Park School District (RPSD) Business Administrator Sue Guercio advised Mr. Meola that Governor Christie did not give his address, which was also when the state released its state aid figures, until February 16th. She additionally stated that the final budget will not be voted on until May.
Mr. Meola then asked that, since the district is not getting a lot of money from other districts that are now handling their own special needs students in-district, “Maybe it’s time to reverse that and send them ours. It might be cheaper than having it done on our own.”
Mrs. Guercio stated that it is much more expensive to send students out of district due not only to tuition but transportation which she said was extremely costly. She commented, “The cost of tuition plus transportation could be $100,000 for one student to send them out of district. One bus could cost $50,000.”
When Mr. Meola asked about the bus that the district already owns, the Business Administrator stated that the already-purchased buses have saved the district close to $150,000 and that they are primarily used to transport Roselle Park students to the Union County Magnet School. Additionally, Mrs. Guercio remarked that Roselle Park works with other districts to create bus routes to lower costs for all while maintaining efficiency in transportation to students who might be going to the same school out of district.
“I’m just saying,” continued Mr. Meola, “when faced with a shortfall, you’re going to have to, if everything else fails, cut the staff.”
“We don’t want that,” responded Mrs. Guercio, “That’s the last thing that we want to happen because that hurts children. That hurts their education.”
“It doesn’t hurt the children. It hurts you but it [doesn’t] hurt the children,” said Mr. Meola.
Mrs. Guercio remarked, “It would because if we had to let staff go then class sizes would go up and that is not a good thing for children.”
You give me the figures and I’ll come in with an axe and I’ll chop them.” – Eugene Meola
While stating that taxes were high, his comment of families waiting until their children complete their education in Roselle Park actually complimented the school district’s value as maybe the only reason they live in town.
Finance Committee Chair Rodric Bowman interjected, “Mr. Meola, we definitely understand your point but making those cuts, that would not be optimal because that has a direct impact on the education of our students so the question is do we want to sacrifice the quality of our education?”
“We want to sacrifice the homeowner instead,” retorted Mr. Meola. He then proceeded to give the example that Elizabeth teachers took a 10% cut across the board while the Roselle Park BOE agreed to a 2.4% increase. Research shows that not only was there no cuts taken in the Elizabeth school district but currently the teachers are in contract negotiations which will have an expected increase, not a cut.
Mr. Meola continued with his comments, “The staff are getting the benefits, not the students. The student couldn’t care less how much you make but the taxpayer does. The student will still get by, he will survive.”
BOE President Chris Miller entered the conversation by stating, “It’s a slippery slope. I understand what you’re saying and it’s something we need to respect too.”
“It’s not going to be a happy year for the budget, I realize this,” said Mr. Meola, “but you have to understand that you can’t put any more weight on the taxpayers.”
Mr. Bowman answered, “We understand. We are taxpayers as well.”
School Superintendent Pedro Garrido did say that the most important job of the BOE is to provide Roselle Park students with the best education possible. Mr. Meola corrected the statement by saying, “The best we can afford.”
When the School Superintendent stated that research has shown that quality education also increases the values of homes, Mr. Meola responded, “Really? You mean the values of our houses will go way up because of this? No.”
Mr. Garrido reiterated by claiming that when the quality of education goes down, then the values of houses go down.
Mr. Bowman – referring to Mr. Meola comments – suggested that the resident take part in a task force for the school district. In response Mr. Meola said, “You give me the figures and I’ll come in with an axe and I’ll chop them.”
It was at this point the BOE member Harms who was in the audience observing, stated, “That’s not what we need, someone to come in and just cut.”
As Mr. Meola left the microphone, Mrs. Guercio encouraged him to return for the March 14th BOE budget presentation.
In wanting to ask Mr. Meola the resident questions regarding his statements on the record, before any were asked he stated he would not comment. Claiming that he felt the approach taken to him was abrasive, Mr. Meola refused to address actions that he, as a councilman, took which would have cost Roselle Park taxpayers over $40,000 without discussion or public input in the span of 15 minutes.
One question that Mr. Meola did not want to address on the record was how could he criticize the BOE for ‘sacrificing the homeowner’ when he, as a councilman, voted to approve a $25,000 pay increase to the Borough Clerk to perform the duties as an acting Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) (link to article) without allowing public input. His yes vote came after Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey made a verbal resolution at the end of the February 4, 2016 Mayor & Council meeting to assign the Borough Clerk the duties of a CAO. There was no mention made of such a resolution earlier in the meeting nor as something to discuss for a future meeting for the benefit of the public. After questions from some members of council and the mayor as to the surprise nature of the resolution, the councilwoman – without motioning for a formal discussion – called for a vote with Councilman Meola voting to approve the pay increase. That resolution was defeated when the mayor broke a 3-3 tie by voting no.
Right after that incident, at the very same meeting, Councilman Meola verbally motioned to appoint Russell Huegel as the municipal prosecutor for $17,000. That bid amount was over the $15,000 threshold amount set by a second Request For Proposal (RFP) after the first one had Mr. Huegel propose an amount of $19,000. This would have been the second time that Councilman Meola voted to appoint Mr. Huegel as prosecutor. The problem with the appointment is that the Borough Attorney, Richard Huxford, had been the municipal prosecutor for the borough at a cost of $0, performing those duties for free as part of his bid price of $50,000 as Borough Attorney. That bid was rejected by Councilman Meola – a Democrat – in favor of paying Mr. Huegel, who is a Democratic councilman in Fanwood, more than was legally allowed. He had been prepped before the meeting by the Borough Clerk Doreen Cali to read the motion into the record for a vote. Councilman Meola withdrew his motion once he was notified that the $17,000 was over the bid threshold.
Some other questions the councilman did not want to hear included:
- If the BOE should understand that it cannot put any more weight on the taxpayers, why should not the municipal government, of which he is an elected member, do the same?
- If the BOE is to provide the best education that it can afford, why cannot the municipality provide the best prosecutor it can afford since $0 is always more affordable than $17,000?
- If Mr. Meola is willing to come in with an axe and chop costs, then why, as a councilman, has he not done the same with appointing a CAO or a municipal prosecutor or making similar staff cutting suggestions during municipal budget workshops where he has more control over such actions?
It would stand to reason that if Mr. Meola the resident is concerned about the tax dollars of Roselle Park residents, then Councilman Meola would be concerned with all aspects of spending in all types of government – be it with the school district or with the municipality, be it for $1,000 or $1,000,000.
The next BOE budget presentation is tonight at 7 p.m. in the Roselle Park Middle School auditorium. The next municipal budget workshop, which had to be re-scheduled due to a lock of a quorum last week, is set for Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. at Borough Hall.