BELLEVILLE - The Belleville School District has a budget deficit, classroom computers that are nearly 15 years old, and textbooks in such short supply that high school students say they are often asked to share.
"Our science books are outdated and our history books don't have 9/11 in them," says Michael Mignone, of the Belleville Education Association.
But last spring, the Belleville Board of Education spent $2 million on a brand new security system so advanced that no other school district in America can even come close to it, according to Clarity Technologies, the company that installed it. "Was it suspicious? Yeah, yes it was," says Jeff Mattingly, a Belleville resident and member of a concerned citizens group.
READ MORE: Education Stories
And a Kane In Your Corner investigation raises questions about the way the security project was awarded, Clarity Technologies’ relationship with the Belleville Board of Education, and jobs that were offered to relatives of school district officials once the contract was approved.
Clarity Technologies, based in Mine Hill, was the only bidder for the $2 million security upgrade, which includes more than 700 cameras and ID swipe cards with radio frequency chips that allow students and faculty to be tracked. "We were the only bidder because we were the only ones with an understanding of that particular project," says Bruce Kreeger, Clarity's president. "That's not negating the competition, but nobody else chose to compete."
But Kane In Your Corner's investigation reveals Clarity's competitors would have found it extremely difficult to compete, given the way the Belleville School District handled the bidding process. Four months before the project was sent out for bids in May 2013, the Board of Education hired Clarity to evaluate security districtwide, which means its competitors would essentially have been bidding against Clarity on its own plan. They were also given very little time in which to do that. Public records show that while Clarity took approximately six weeks to deliver its initial security recommendations, the timeframe for competitive bidding, from the day bids were advertised until the day the Board of Education awarded the winning bid, was just 12 business days.
"When you see something moving at that rate of speed, it tells you one of two things," Mattingly says. "Either your bid is just being used for ballast or it's already a done deal."
After it obtained the job, Clarity also hired relatives of two key people at the school district, the brother of school board attorney Alfonse DeMeo, who approved the contract and first introduced Clarity to board members; and the son of Board of Education Trustee Joe Longo, who spearheaded the security upgrade. Longo insists he never asked for special treatment for his son and Kreeger denies that politics were involved in either hire. Kreeger also says he eventually terminated Longo's son because of public criticism, even though he was a model employee.
"The toughest thing that I ever had to do was fire a decorated Marine because of politics, and we chose to do that just because it made no sense to continue to fight a battle that there was no winner in," Kreeger said.
News 12 New Jersey isn't the only one with questions about the way the Belleville School District is spending its money. Last week, the New Jersey Department of Education hired an independent monitor to oversee the district's finances. That stemmed from an audit of spending from the prior year. However, a source tells Kane In Your Corner that the Department of Education is now investigating the security system contract as well.