An independent financial audit of the Jersey City Schools found serious concerns regarding how the district manages all aspects of its finances, including missing payroll information, late federal payroll tax payments, and months of utility bill arrears. Some of the other most serious infractions include failing to report paid time off data, failing to monitor bank reconciliations, and failing to fully account grant expenditures.

The Annual Comprehensive Final Report and Auditor’s Management Report for the district’s fiscal year ending June 2022 outlined a total of 23 financial, planning, accounting, and reporting findings that the Board needs to address, several of which were repeated from previous years and have yet to be fully remedied. The district learned of many of these concerns last year and successfully corrected some of the deficiencies before the end of the audit.

Despite the substantial areas of concern, the overall opinion of the Independent Auditor’s Report presented at Monday night’s caucus is that the financial statements pass muster as materially fair representations of the district’s financial situation.

The report was issued “without qualification or disclaimer.” Having multiple serious findings could lead the State can reject the independent audit and send in their own auditors.

Dr. Dennis Frohnapfel, Acting School Business Administrator, confirmed that a Corrective Action Plan and forthcoming policy changes, such as mandatory audits every three months, are planned to avoid so many financial problems in the future.

Auditor Mauricio Canto asserted that the relatively high number of significant or material findings for the past two audits stem from pandemic hang-ups. Replacements to experienced personnel that left during the pandemic could not be properly trained and transitioned, leading to some of the administrative oversights found in the audit.

This year’s audit built on last year’s findings and dug deeper. Canto specifically cited Superintendent Norma Fernandez’s decision to grant the auditors increased access to staff across the district as a driving force in the depth of findings.

The resolution to accept the audit and approve the corresponding Corrective Action Plan was voted by the Board almost unanimously—Trustee Christopher Tisdale was the sole abstention.

Trauma-Informed Policies

During the public comment portion of the caucus, Jessica Taube, an organizer and social worker with an expertise in school climate, said she was concerned about the high number of suspensions in the district. According to Taube, “Detention, suspension, expulsion, and other punitive practices are harmful to students, and they do not change behavior,” contributing to a negative school climate.

Further, “Suspensions are a racial and a disability justice issue” due to the disproportionately high number of students of color and neurodivergent students who receive out-of-school suspension.

Superintendent Fernandez said, “We’re looking to implement restorative practices within the code of conduct, so students are not just punished; they learn from their actions and to find better ways to resolve issues.”

Trustee Afaf Muhammad said she was concerned about the district’s implementation of these policies, referring to recurring allegations of racism and favoritism in hiring and promotion, “How are we going to be a trauma-informed district if you’re firing, suspending, and removing people from their position who are informing you of what is going on?”

Lingering Tensions

Trustee Lorenzo Richardson addressed the lingering tensions from a rumor that six Board members were planning to force a vote of no confidence against Superintendent Norma Fernandez at the last meeting, calling it a “political assassination attempt.”

Demanding action, Trustee Richardson said, “There was an attempt to accuse six Board members of doing something that was not true, and … my concern is that we don’t have answers and we probably need an investigation as to who all was involved with the process with that political assassination attempt.”

It was “uncivilized and very unethical,” said Trustee Muhammad about the controversy. “You gotta stop seeing Black people as a threat. We’re not a threat. We’re here to tell you these are the issues, there’s things going on, and to blame us for things that you’re not even questioning us on is out of control.”

Superintendent Fernandez responded to allegations of racism and favoritism in district-wide hiring and promotion processes, which she recounted from an email, “Based on Policy 3351, which makes for a healthy workplace environment, I was going to refer all these allegations of discrimination and harassment to an outside entity to investigate the allegations.”

Ahead of Thursday’s public meeting, Superintendent Fernandez offered Board members the opportunity to refer specific employees to receive Rice Notices, which are required to inform school employees that their employment will be discussed at an upcoming meeting. 

Ryan Kilkenny was born and raised in New York. He graduated with a BS from Tulane University and a JD from Rutgers Law School. Ryan worked as an attorney for almost two years before switching careers and...