Lesniak Bill Would Require Attorneys To Refund Unlawful School District Fees

Measure Would Restore Funds Cut When State Department of Ed. Determines Services Provided Were Not For Education Purposes

TRENTON – State Senator Raymond J. Lesniak issued the following statement today regarding his bill, S-1983, which would require an attorney to refund fees to a school district when the State Department of Education (DOE) has reduced a school district’s State aid because it has determined that taxpayer funds were spent on non-allowable services. Senator Lesniak said his bill, which was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is intended to address a situation in Elizabeth, in which school district funds were spent on litigation which was determined to be a misuse of public resources:

“The Elizabeth Board of Education has a history of abusing its authority and using tax dollars for political purposes. On September 19, 2006 the Commissioner of the Department of Education determined the Elizabeth BOE expended $88,373 in State funds for political advertising. That decision was upheld by Administrative Law Judge Jesse H. Strauss on May 22, 2007 and by the Appellate Division on August 18, 2009.

“The taxpayers of the State of New Jersey and the City of Elizabeth as well as the children attending Elizabeth’s public schools lost an additional $63,621.28 as a result of a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Elizabeth Board of Education, its President Rafael Fajardo and its Superintendent of Schools Pablo Munoz, that was determined by the New Jersey Department of Education to be ‘a misuse of school district funds and should not be permitted’ and ‘litigation…more geared to the superintendent and Board president’s personal interests.’ Also, the litigation was commenced and pursued by special counsel who was never hired by the Board, who was never authorized to file a lawsuit, nor were funds approved to be expended for the lawsuit.

“In addition to the NJDOE determination, Union County Superior Court Judge Katherine Dupuis ruled, in litigation filed to stop this unlawful expenditure of school funds, that the Board could not bring the litigation because it was not related to education. Judge Dupuis also ruled it was clear the litigation could not be brought because there was no legal basis for it.

“As a result of this inappropriate and unlawful action taken by the attorney on behalf of the personal interests of the school board president and superintendent’s personal interests, the NJDOE withheld $52,048.57 as the State Aid percentage of the $63,621.28 unlawfully paid to the attorney.

“S-1983 requires that funds improperly paid be returned by the attorney unjustly enriched. Withholding state aid only hurts children and allows the unjust enrichment of those who unlawfully received the benefit of tax dollars that were supposed to be spent, and were legally required to be spent, for education.”

The bill was amended to also require repayment of funds spent for personal needs of a school board member or superintendent of schools.

The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.