West Orange School District Retains Third-Party Law Firm for Special Investigations

Credits: Cynthia Cumming
Millburn Township Council adopts resolution to return funds to West Orange Board of Education on April 19, 2016
Portion of the Corrective Action Plan adopted by the West Orange Board of Education in December 2016
The Gregory Elementary financial transaction in question was specifically documented by the board of education's Independent Auditor in the November 2016 Auditor’s Management Report

WEST ORANGE, NJ  — Accusations of improper use of student funds by a school employee in 2016 is now the center of an official investigation by a third-party law firm hired by the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) to look into the matter.

In order to ensure a “complete, thorough and impartial review” of an incident involving a Gregory Elementary School employee who is accused of using school funds to pay her personal property taxes in Millburn, the WOBOE approved a resolution Monday to hire special legal counsel to conduct an investigation into this and other issues brought forth by the public.

At a recent WOBOE meeting, West Orange resident Micaela Bennett brought up the incident she and others uncovered during an open-records request and she accused the employee of embezzlement. Bennett also alleges that Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky covered up the incident by not informing the board, stating that she and others uncovered records showing that Rutzky penned a request to Millburn requesting the money be returned because of the “tax payment made in error.”

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The chief financial officer for Millburn Township confirmed earlier this week that he did receive an electronic payment (ACH) of $2,764.40 from the employee in question in 2016 as well as a letter from the superintendent requesting a refund in the same amount. He also confirmed that the Millburn Tax Collector refunded this amount to the WOBOE at the time, and reiterated that the payment did not come from a checkbook owned by Gregory Elementary School.

In response to inquiries on Thursday regarding the school’s financial transactions and the improper use of funds, the board declined to say whether the employee had been disciplined, stating that it would be unlawful to comment on any personnel matters. However, her name remains listed on the school’s website. It should be noted that TAPinto West Orange is not disclosing the name of the employee because she has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

On behalf of the WOBOE, Vice-President Mark Robertson shed light on the situation in question in a written statement.

“The public should be aware that the Gregory Elementary financial transaction in question was specifically documented by the board’s independent auditor in the 2016 Auditor’s Management Report, which was completed on Nov. 21, 2016 and presented in public session at the board meeting on Dec. 12, 2016,” said Robertson.

Robertson provided the auditor’s management report as well as the agenda for the December 2016 meeting, during which the board adopted a “Corrective Action Plan” that the independent auditor presented. This is public information and can also be seen on the district website.

He did not address whether the board had knowledge about the incident prior to the audit, which occurred and was published several months after the event. It remains unclear at what point the WOBOE was made aware of these actions.

The WOBOE has retained Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi (CSG), which is headed by former New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, whose firm has extensive expertise in conducting special investigations, according to Robertson.

“The board’s purpose of engaging an independent third-party law firm is to ensure that the special investigations are impartial and devoid of the possibility and/or appearance of any possible conflicts,” Robertson said. “The board looks forward to receiving the special counsel’s investigations and recommendations in order to resolve fully these matters. The board of education takes all allegations and/or concerns by the public very seriously.”

Robertson added that the members of the WOBOE have investigated and will continue to investigate all such concerns brought before them.

Concerned citizens bring issue to light

Bennett, who alerted the public about the incident via a private Facebook group for West Orange residents, said she is part of a small group of concerned citizens who have been looking into Rutzky’s past and keeping tabs on school board actions.

“Shouldn't we all be passionate about our children?” said Bennett, who has lived in West Orange since 2005 and whose son is a graduating fifth-grader at St. Cloud Elementary. “Our children being well-educated and supported through their school years should be a common denominator.”

Her concerns about the superintendent go beyond what she categorized as a “cover up” regarding the Gregory school funds.

“I hope the board recognizes that they have a responsibility to supervise the superintendent,” Bennett said.

She noted that Thomas Volscho, another member of the group, made several public records requests to find information about the incident involving the misuse of funds.

Bianca Prieto contributed to this article.

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