PATERSON, NJ – For almost a week, Paterson education officials had been saying they would use private funds to pay for a $25,000 training trip to New Mexico. But they wouldn’t say where those private funds would come from.
Now that the trip has been canceled, the proposed source of the travel money has been revealed. It turns out that state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans was looking to tap into the revenue the district collects from vending machines at city schools, according to city and state education officials.
School Board member Corey Teague said he first learned of Evans’ plans to use the vending machine money on Thursday afternoon, after getting an email from a state education department official. District officials, Teague said, had not told him about the vending machine money despite his inquiries.
“It wasn’t really enough to say it wasn’t coming from taxpayers’ money,’’ Teague said. “People wanted to know where it was coming from. Not being transparent, that puts you in an awkward position.’’
The city’s nine school board members and Evans were supposed to fly to Santa Fe on Thursday for several days of training provided by the Texas-based Center for Reform of School Systems. But the trip was canceled on Wednesday after the state education department raised questions about the way the expenses would be paid. Exactly who canceled the trip – Evans or the state – remains a matter of disagreement among the various people who are involved.
Everyone agrees the state made it clear that the district could not use any form of taxpayers’ money to cover the travel expenses. The education department was particularly concerned about the fact that the $25,000 was part of a two-year $280,000 commitment for a district struggling with financial challenges, officials said.
School Board President Christopher Irving said Evans had two different lawyers review the legality of using the vending machine money for the training and they signed off on it. But the financial staffs of Paterson Public Schools and The Passaic County Superintendent of Schools were not able to come up with a proper way to transfer the money from the vending machine account into another one that could be tapped for the trip, Irving said.
“This should have been settled weeks in advance,’’ said Paterson School Board member Errol Kerr.
“I thought this training was extremely important for us,’’ said another board member, Jonathan Hodges, arguing it would have strengthened the commissioners’ governing abilities. “This would have helped us learn to do what the state says we can’t do.’’
Until 2008, the district’s vending machine revenue had been used to fund scholarships for Paterson students attending Passaic County Community College. That stopped when the demand exceed the amount of money available, roughly $100,000 per year, according to a story published in The Record four years ago.
Since then, the vending machine money has gone into a discretionary account used by the superintendent for projects of his choosing, Irving said.
Board members had mixed responses on whether they thought the vending machine proceeds should have been used for the training trip.
“You’re taking any money away from what we budgeted for the effective operation of our classrooms,’’ said Kerr, explaining why he favored the move.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate to use it this way,’’ said Teague. “I think it should be used toward the schools.’’