KIYC: State audit finds Belleville BOE practices caused fiscal crisis

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New developments in an ongoing Kane In Your Corner investigation into the Belleville School District. 

A state audit finds questionable practices by the Belleville Board of Education, some of which may have been illegal, caused a fiscal crisis that resulted in the state appointing a monitor to oversee the district’s finances. 

Belleville Schools were so broke in 2013 that the district couldn’t even afford textbooks, but school officials still managed to come up with nearly $2 million for a new security system. The deal was brokered by Joe Longo, then a Board of Education trustee, and there was only one bidder, the company that employed Longo’s son. As a Kane In Your Corner investigation found, while that company was given seven months to prepare its bid, competitors were limited to just nine days.

Belleville school officials also managed to spend $20,000 to buy flash drives emblazoned with the school district logo, even though its computers were so obsolete at the time that they could not use the USB drives. The salesman who sold the district the useless drives was Longo himself. He refused to talk about the deal, repeatedly declining an interview. And when News 12 New Jersey’s Walt Kane showed up to a public meeting, Longo fled to a back room to avoid questioning.

Now a report by the state auditor released late last week confirms many of the issues raised in the Kane In Your Corner investigations. “The district awarded contracts without proper competition or regard for cost,” the auditor wrote, adding that some issues were being referred to the attorney general’s Division of Criminal Justice. 

The report singled out several questionable deals, including the security system and flash drives. It said the security system “did not justify its immense cost” and the flash drives were discovered, years after they were purchased, sitting in a locked file cabinet.

“Now that we have this report in hand, you don’t have to take our word for any of this; we’ve been completely vindicated,” says Lee Dorry, a community activist and citizen journalist who runs “Essex Watch.” Dorry acquired many of the documents used by Kane In Your Corner to investigate Belleville Schools. He says in light of the auditor’s referral to the attorney general, “We’re going to take this report and wallpaper the state, every investigative division, the state AG, until we finally get justice.”

Belleville’s Schools Superintendent, Dr. Richard Tomko, who took office in 2015, says he also welcomes the audit’s findings. He says his administration has put in safeguard to prevent future abuses and insists on following proper procedures. 

“I think the history is important, so we don’t make the same mistake moving forward,” Tomko says.

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