Wednesday, June 28, 2006

No Ringy-Dingies

I still don't have a working landline. Tomorrow (June 29, 2006) I am promised repairs. Maybe this time the promise will come true.
Meanwhile, I will post when and where I can.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Deja Vu Downtown

Dear readers,
Plaintalker just reached 300 posts!
Interestingly, one in draft form from last June is very relevant right now.
The same half-block described in the story below is now under scrutiny again as part of a proposed expansion of the North Avenue Historic District redevelopment plan.
The former United National Bank block, now PNC, had previously been part of the proposed Downtown Station South redevelopment study, but is now also proposed to be added to North Avenue.
I am posting the old story "as is" just for informational purposes.

PLAINFIELD - Rejecting a redevelopment study on half a downtown block, planners called for a halt on more than a dozen other studies or plans now in the works.
At Thursday's meeting, board member Ken Robertson began by saying planners had just approved another study for another downtown block and said too many studies and plans were piling up without any indication of how they relate to the city's master plan.
The Planning Division study of seven properties off East Second Street said four - a bank and three sections of a city parking lot - were in need of redevelopment and that zoning rules would allow a five-story structure on each parcel.
But in a public hearing, merchants and residents objected, saying the parking lot is vital for businesses and the bank is one of just two left downtown, where more than half a dozen once existed.
Robertson had called for a summary of all the plans or studies and resident
Bernice Paglia: I read off a list I had compiled, ranging from two single lots to proposals affecting up to 23 blocks. I said the study of the south half of the block between Park and Watchung avenues and East Second and East Front streets did not take into account the effect on future condo residents and current business owners on the north portion. This study also needs to be correlated with two other plans near the main train station.
Lisa Cohen, whose family has owned Suburban Jewelers for decades, said the city backed establishment of a Special Improvement District that is now in operation, but members were not told of several redevelopment proposals that could affect their businesses. Her father, Irving Cohen, said he believed the city intended to put up a parking garage, which would block access to his eight parking spaces.
Other business owners said they need the lot for deliveries. Even some excluded from the recommendations spoke out. Jeff Brand of Planned Parenthood said the city could see an increase in unwanted pregnancies if his agency had to leave its Park Avenue building. A chiropractor said he had built up his business on Park Avenue over four years and it provided a livelihood for his family, including seven children.
The former Elks Club on Watchung Avenue, most recently a night club, was also excluded. At the end of the hearing, a city official in charge of development attempted to give the status of each plan or study. But with other matters yet to be heard, Planning Board Chairman Gordon Fuller asked Deputy City Administrator Pat Ballard Fox to submit a report in writing. The board will send its decision to the City Council, which can in turn accept or reject it.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Personal Update

I still have no landline at my house and still have to post elsewhere.

Today I am posting three stories, so keep scrolling down till you see all three below.

Pictures may be added later, so check back if you wish.

There are still a couple more stories I am working on. I have to wait at home tomorrow until a Verizon technician arrives. I will try to post as soon as I can.

Thanks for your patience and loyalty.

--Bernice Paglia

UCIA Deal Approved

The City Council agreed Wednesday (June 21, 2006) to put the Union County Improvement Authority in charge of four redevelopment areas, but only after getting a fuller explanation of the deal to allay worries over its perceived haste.

Council members only received packets Friday with information on the proposal. It was not on the agenda given to the public Monday and under the council’s new schedule, it was up for approval Wednesday. The sites the authority would oversee include the North Avenue Historic District, the former Macy’s block, the Marino redevelopment parcel and a new one around Richmond and East Third streets.

The news set off a flurry of phone calls and e-mails and several residents came to Wednesday’s meeting to ask questions and comment on the deal.

Councilman Cory Storch said he only read his packet Sunday and had little time to digest the agreement.

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said the agreement, hammered out over several weeks, merely sets “the parameters of the relationship” between the city and the authority.

UCIA attorney Ed Boccher said the agreement names the authority as the “redevelopment entity” for the city. The council and other city boards will still vote on all aspects of the redevelopment plans, he said. The city can also withdraw from the deal if officials become unhappy with it.

The deal gives the city the benefit of the authority’s “particular expertise” in guiding redevelopment, he said.

The UCIA was in charge of the Park-Madison project that put a four-story office and commercial building on the long-vacant block at Park Avenue and Front Street. The building opened last year with numerous county and state government tenants and its ground-level commercial space is filling up this year.

Boccher said the new projects would always be “three-way agreements” among the city, the authority and the developers.

While saying the city is not set up to do development, Storch was still concerned.

“This is happening very quickly and I’m not comfortable with it,“ he said. “I’m trying to find a way to vote ‘yes.‘ “

Storch asked for an “escape clause” and a “sunset clause” of perhaps two years.

Boccher said he had never seen a sunset clause in an interlocal service agreement.

He said such details were best built into individual redevelopment agreements. He pointed out parts of the UCIA agreement that allow the city to withdraw.

Even after additional questions from Councilmen Don Davis and Rashid Burney, Storch continued to fret. But City Council President Ray Blanco said after studying the agreement, “I feel as good as you get in any agreement you enter into.“

Blanco said he based his opinion on the credibility of the authority, its financial wherewithal and the agreement’s safeguards for the city.

Storch finally said he would vote “yes“ for all the reasons Blanco cited.

But he added, “I’m very unhappy and I shouldn’t be,” calling the timing “really inappropriate and disrespectful.”

“Please never let this happen again,“ Storch said.

--Bernice Paglia

July 4 Concert Rejected

The City Council shot down a proposed July 4 concert Wednesday (June 21, 2006), with headliners Floetry and Howard Hewitt, by refusing to approve a $55,000 budget transfer to fund the event.

Council members were displeased on Monday (June 19, 2006) that Recreation Director Dave Wynn could not provide complete budget details for the city’s July 4th celebration.

The event has traditionally included a daytime parade with a concert and fireworks in the evening. But the city has lost the support of surrounding towns for the event and is now mounting the parade and related events on its own.

The council previously voted down the use of more than $100,000 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds for a concert at Cedar Brook Park.

The proposed transfer would have used unexpended funds from the Inspections Division to pay for the concert. Promoter Hassan Sharif told the council Monday the two performers had committed to the date, but needed written confirmation from the city regarding payment.

On Wednesday (June 21, 2006) the council first voted down the budget transfer, then rejected a resolution that would have paid Sharif’s firm, HSP Inc., $51,850 to serve as “marketing and event planner” for the concert.

The council approved spending $10,500 for fireworks at Cedar Brook Park on July 4, to be provided by the renowned firm of Garden State Fireworks.

Council approval Wednesday of an ordinance establishing an Independence Day Committee will only kick in next year, Council President Ray Blanco said.

Meanwhile, Wynn and an ad hoc committee are putting together this year’s July 4th celebration.

Wynn said he has 34 entrants for the parade, including an 80-piece band from Washington, DC. Wynn said the Plainfield Special Improvement District had agreed to pay for the band’s transportation costs.

Council concerns included knowing the total cost of the event, even the city Public Works and police expenses for cleanup and security.

“Someone should know how much it is going to cost us,” Councilman Don Davis said. “Someone should know how much it cost last year.”

City Administrator Carlton McGee said costs were “scattered all over the place” and made a pitch for a “budget function” approach to the data.

Councilman Elliott Simmons said, “This is the 83rd parade - how did you do the other 82?”

Since support from other towns waned and then ceased, the city has taken various approaches to organizing the popular event. On Monday, Wynn said the Recreation Division had nothing to do with last year's parade, because the city had hired a consultant for $20,000.

But council members chided Wynn for not having all the facts about this year’s plans.

“It’s two weeks before the event,” Councilwoman Linda Carter said.

--Bernice Paglia

Comcast Offers Station Advice

Comcast officials said Monday (June 19, 2006) they are ready to help the city improve its local cable channel, but said the city must first decide what it wants.

Charles L. Smith III, area director for government and community affairs, and Peter J. Lyden III, senior director of franchise and government affairs for the New Jersey region, told City Council members the station can offer technical assistance and training once the city settles on whether it wants to show messages, live events, taped events or a combination. Comcast normally helps set up local channels and then, Lyden said, “We more or less back off - it’s the city’s channel.“

Smith said he was not aware of any ongoing issues with the local channel. Lyden said he would check with access coordinator Ed Robertson on whether the city has contacted Comcast about the quality of the local channel. He said the only way for Comcast to assess the quality would be to view Channel 74 inside the city.

“We do require the feedback from the viewers in the city,“ Lyden said.

As part of franchise negotiations in 1999, the city requested two local channels.

Comcast donated $150,000 for start-up costs and set aside 2 percent of its franchise fees, between $110,000 and $120,000, for operating costs. The city also received a $50,000 supplemental access grant this year.

Smith said no other municipality received more on a 10-year franchise.

At present, only Channel 74 is operating, largely on a message-board format. A school-based channel is not operating. Station Director Rebecca Williams was not retained by the new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. A board that is supposed to oversee the operation currently has no members.

Lyden said probably the first thing the council should look at is whether to have a full-time or part-time person in charge of the station. He said some towns have volunteer station managers. Others rely on a city clerk. Lyden and Smith handed out packets describing how Woodbridge, Cranford and Union manage their local channels.

City Council President Ray Blanco began the discussion with a brief history of legislation related to the franchise. Blanco said in recent years, the Comcast funds meant for operation of the station went into the city’s general fund. He now wants to use some city surplus funds to restore the operations fund.

Blanco also asked Comcast to allow council members Linda Carter and Rayland Van Blake to visit stations in other towns. The two serve on a new advisory committee on cable operation.

Carter asked Smith what he felt was minimum staffing for a quality channel. Lyden said the station should at least have a full-time coordinator.

Smith said the 10-year franchise expires in August 2009 and suggested that the city soon begin a three-year “ascertainment” process on its cable service. Negotiations usually start in the last twelve months of the franchise, he said.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

UCIA May Redevelop Four Sites

The City Council may name the Union County Improvement Authority Wednesday (June 21, 2006) as redeveloper of four city sites.

The council business meeting is 8 p.m. Wednesday at Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The news emerged at Monday’s agenda session, even though it was not on the printed agenda. At about an hour and fifteen minutes into the meeting, several lawyers entered the meeting from the city administrator’s and mayor’s offices next door to talk about the deal.

Daniel J. McCarthy, who said he is the city’s redevelopment counsel, and Ed Boccher, counsel to the UCIA, discussed an agreement for the UCIA to complete redevelopment studies of the North Avenue Historic District, the so-called Macy’s block that is now dominated by the Supremo supermarket in the former department store, the Marino’s redevelopment area on West Front Street and a site at Richmond and East Third streets that has not yet been designated for redevelopment.

McCarthy said the work would be done at no cost to the city. Costs would be recouped in agreements with developers. City Administrator Carlton McGee said Jennifer Wenson Maier, the director of Public Works & Urban Development, will most likely represent the city in talks with the UCIA.

Under questioning from council members, the attorneys assured the legislators that all city rights would be retained up to and including rejection of any deal the city officials didn’t like. While supportive of the proposal, council members Rashid Burney, Cory Storch, and Elliott Simmons wanted it made clear that the council would have the last say.

“The nice thing is that the City Council remains in control,” McCarthy said. “You will see everything.”

McCarthy assured Burney that if the council disapproved of something, “You say ‘no’ and we terminate the agreement.”

Storch asked whether the authority would select developers or make requests for proposals. McCarthy said the authority will probably make a request for proposals for the Macy’s block, but if a developer owns most of another site, that person would be given “the first shot.”

McGee said the city will rely on “friendly sales” to acquire property, “versus the E-word, which nobody wants to use.”

A nationwide debate is going on over the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment as well as public reasons. Formerly, governmental entities could only take land needed for roads and other such public uses, but now they are able to do the same for private redevelopment that will bring in more taxes.

Storch concluded by saying, "I think this is a worthy idea, but we're talking about doing this this week."

"You're absolutely right," Blanco said. "This is a major step, this is a major decision. But you know you ran for council to make changes.

"This city cannot afford the luxury of time," Blanco said.

The city previously designated the UCIA as redeveloper of the downtown Park-Madison site, which was razed in the late 1960s in an ill-fated urban renewal project. It was a dilapidated parking lot for decades before being made into a park in the early 1990s. It now has a four-story governmental office building and various commercial tenants including Baskin-Robbins, Dunkin Donuts, Quiznos, a newsstand, a florist and a pharmacy.

The city also contracts with the UCIA for vehicles and equipment that the authority can buy at a discount for quantity and then lease or sell to municipalities.

The chairman of the authority, Charlotte DeFilippo, is also the chairman (correction: executive director)of the Union County Regular Democratic Organization. All of Plainfield’s elected officials are Democrats and Assemblyman Jerry Green, mentor of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, is the chairman of the local Democratic party.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, June 19, 2006

BOE Meeting Tuesday

Forgot one brief:

The Board of Education will vote Tuesday (June 20, 2006) on hiring teachers, support staff and administrators for the 2006-07 school year.

The business meeting is 7 p.m. in the Plainfield High School Library, 950 Park Ave.
Among top appointments up for a vote are Superintendent Paula Howard at a salary of $150,800; Board Secretary Victor Demming, $133,00; Curriculum & Instruction, Lillie M. Sipp, $127,500; Chief of Staff/Human Resources, Angelina Chiaravalloti, $110,093; and Director of Security Donald Moye, $98,000.

The board will hold a special executive session Monday to discuss appointments of labor counsel, general counsel and auditors. Those contracts will also be up for a vote Tuesday.

--Bernice Paglia

GOP Reorg, SID Expansion,Working Conference

I am still without a land line. More on that later. I will be filing much later than usual due to the logistics. Meanwhile, here are some brief items.

GOP Reorganizes

The Plainfield Republican Municipal Committee has chosen Sandy Spector as its leader for another two years.

The committee reorganized on June 12 with members elected in the June 6 primary.

Other officers for two-year terms are: 1st vice-chair, Bo Vastine; 2nd vice-chair, Keith Biddulph; secretary, Sean Alfred; and treasurer, Angela Perun.

The GOP candidates for City Council this year are Arlington Johnson in the 1st Ward and Perun running for the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat. They will face two incumbent Democrats, 1st Ward Councilman Rayland Van Blake and 2nd & 3rd Ward At-large Councilman Rashid Burney, in the November 7 general election.

SID Expansion

Fifty new properties will be added to the Special Improvement District in a proposed expansion.

More than 400 commercial and industrial properties in the central business district and the South Avenue business district are currently assessed an extra tax that pays for improvements within the SID to make it cleaner, safer and more attractive. The expansion adds eligible properties from West Front Street north to the Green Brook, and some south of Seventh Street.

Last month, the City Council gave initial approval to an expansion that included 84 properties. But some residential apartment buildings were listed in error.

The council will discuss the proposal Monday and will hold a public hearing Wednesday at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. The complete list is available at the City Clerk‘s office or in the Office of Economic Development at City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave.

Working Conference

The City Council’s second Working Conference Session will be held Tuesday (June 20) at 7 p.m. in City Hall Library.

The topic will be the Plainfield Organization for West End Revitalization (POWER), a community-based non-profit group that is working in conjunction with Homefirst, Inc. (formerly Interfaith Council for the Homeless of Union County) and Rutgers University’s National Center for Neighborhoods and Brownfield Redevelopment. The organization’s aim is to bring more affordable housing, retail development, job creation and greater safety to the West End.

The council added conference sessions to its new calendar that began in April. The meetings are meant to help the council develop policy.

The first one, on April 10, was on the topic of crime and drew a large crowd to Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center’s Centennial Hall. Speakers included Police Chief Edward Santiago, Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig and Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow. Public comment was supposed to be limited to 15 minutes, but went on for about two hours.

The last Working Conference Session for 2006 is scheduled for Nov. 13.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Plaintalker At One Year

A year ago, Plaintalker was launched to provide city residents with information that seemed to be lacking in the print media.
With more than 290 posts, Plaintalker now has an archive of information that can be helpful to citizens wanting history on city issues. To see whether Plaintalker has details on subjects of interest, go to the top of the blog and put in a keyword, then click "search this blog."
Try it and see what you think.
Plaintalker may be changing in weeks to come, but it is my hope that it will continue to be a resource for Plainfielders as the city also goes through changes.
--Bernice Paglia

Friday, June 16, 2006

Abbott Woes Detailed

In the face of hardening attitudes toward Abbott districts, Plainfielders will have to organize and fight to get badly-needed new schools, officials said Thursday (June 15, 2006).

Joan Ponessa of the Education Law Center gave details of the Abbott school construction history and present situation, followed by remarks from Assemblyman Jerry Green, Schools Superintendent Paula Howard and school board member Vickey Sheppard. The forum was organized by the New Democrats of Plainfield and took place at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, with sponsorship by the church’s Social justice Committee.

As part of a $7.3 billion program to improve educational facilities in the state’s 31 poorest districts, Plainfield was to receive $185 million in new construction or repairs through the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp. But after an investigation last year uncovered waste and mismanagement in the corporation, the state halted all projects, leaving about 200 in limbo.

In Plainfield, the worst blow was a stalled middle school that had already received numerous layers of approval and was in the stage of property acquisition. Its centerpiece was a large city-owned tract on South Second Street.Ponessa gave what she called some “cold, hard facts” about the whole program that promised better facilities at no cost to the 31 Abbott districts.

The plan began after a 1990 New Jersey Supreme Court decision that proper facilities were part of a “thorough and efficient” education. But it never moved into high gear until former Gov. Jim McGreevey signed an order in 2002 creating the Schools Construction Corporation. After its collapse, Acting Gov. Richard Codey ordered a review and Gov. Jon Corzine appointed a Governor’s Working Group to recommend reforms. The group’s final report to Corzine is due in August.

Meanwhile, the Education Law Center is working to get more funding for school construction projects, but districts will have to convince legislators to support their particular projects.Ponessa said there was never enough money for all the proposed projects. Over the years, new needs have come up in the Abbott districts‘ aging schools, construction costs have risen dramatically and a building boom in China is making steel and concrete scarcer here.

She said the state legislators assumed most of the work would be renovations, but old schools beyond repair had to be replaced. And notions that the work could be done in five years were unrealistic, as it was more likely to take 20 years. The “very, very slow process” of reviewing and approving work in each district also resulted in a backlog of 24 districts for which the state needed more information.

“Plainfield is in this group,” Ponessa said.

One very sticky problem in planning for new or expanded schools is demographics, or projecting enrollment numbers five years into the future. Howard said enrollment figures are usually calculated on local hospital births, but 50 percent of students in Plainfield today were born in other countries.

Issues for the NJSCC boiled down to deciding which districts had the most need, in terms of health and safety in schools, bringing preschool up to 90 percent participation and overcrowding, Ponessa said.“I can’t tell you how difficult this will be,“ she said.

The balance is to get a process fair to taxpayers of the state and to remove “politics or other outside influences” from the process, she said.

Howard said the district’s priorities are a second high school to alleviate overcrowding and a new middle school. Just this week, the district celebrated receiving approval to go ahead with a $14 million new Emerson School on the site of the old one. Emerson students have been housed in a “swing school” on West Front Street while awaiting state approval for their new school. Expansions at Cook and Woodland schools are in the design phase at NJSCC.

Green said the school district may not get its “wish list,” but he said the whole community must join in support of the most-needed improvements. Green said Abbott districts may have to come up with more tax money to help pay for the cost. Plainfield’s school tax levy has remained at about $18 million for many years, while the overall budget has risen to nearly $140 million. The balance comes from state and federal aid and grants.

School board member Vickey Sheppard said residents may have to sign petitions, join rallies and recruit all their neighbors and friends to join in a campaign to make legislators pay attention to Plainfield’s needs.

Besides the school construction woes, the Plainfield district and all other Abbott districts had to submit a “zero-base budget” to the state Department of Education for 2006-07. Plainfield had new costs such as a charter school opening in September, teacher and staff contract resolutions, energy costs and tuitions at special schools that were allowed to raise their prices, Howard said.

“We were not able to hold an exact zero base,“ she said.The district now faces a $14.2 million cut to achieve the state mandate. The district proposed cuts that are now under state review.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Still No Phone

My wiring problem remains unresolved. AT&T jollied me along with various stories and sent technicians four times, each telling me something different. Now it is supposed to be my landlord's problem to solve.
Lily Tomlin's Ernestine would be proud.
Meanwhile, don't forget there are three City Council meetings next week - agenda on Monday, conference on Tuesday, regular meeting Wednesday.
Stay tuned for bulletins. There is also a Board of Education meeting that should be very interesting.
Well, the meter at the internet cafe is running out, so I will sign off.
--Bernice Paglia

Friday, June 09, 2006

Cody For Freeholder

A call to the Union County Clerk's Office revealed that one person from Plainfield had filed as an independent to have his name on the November ballot.
But the contender was not after a City Council seat. Melvin Cody wants to be a Union County freeholder.
Cody, 61, is the current president of the Rushmore Avenue Block Association and serves on the Plainfield Zoning Board of Adjustment.
"I decided if anybody really had an interest in helping the city or the county out, they should become an elected official," Cody said Friday (June 9, 2006). "I believe in community."
Cody said while he has never run for elective office before, he has been involved with civic organizations. A retired letter carrier trainer, he has a business, Cody Events, that organizes special parties, such as Sweet Sixteen or anniversaries.
Making himself known to voters countywide may seem daunting for a first-time candidate, but Cody said he has a strategy. But he refused to elaborate. Even though the Democratic primary winners seem to have a firm grip on the board, Cody said, "I am not worried about the incumbents."
He sees lowering county taxes as a prime issue, saying senior citizens and poor people are suffering.
"The solid majority of middle class people are struggling to make ends meet," he said.
Cody is confident of his chance to serve.
"I have a heart for the people and I am willing to give my all for the people," he said.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, June 08, 2006

No Phone, No Computer

A wiring problem has cut off my phone service for the time being.
Now that I have discovered Plan B, I will try to post soon.
Meanwhile, here's a bit of news.
Former Schools Superintendent Larry Leverett is leaving the Greenwich, Conn. school district at the end of the month. There was speculation that he might be in line for a state job, but it turns out he has taken the prestigious position of executive director of the Panasonic Education Foundation.
See for details.
Congratulations to a memorable person who in this writer's opinion served Plainfield well for seven years.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, June 05, 2006

Local GOP To Reorganize After Primary

Republicans make up only about 6 percent of Plainfield’s registered voters, but still, this is their year to elect a municipal committee and pick a chairman for the next two years.

Democrats and Republicans reorganize municipal committees in alternate years, on Mondays after the June primary that falls on the first Tuesday. With no local primary contests, the Republican reorganization takes the spotlight this year. Polls will be open Tuesday (June 6, 2006) from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Plainfield Municipal Republican Committee Chairwoman Sandy Spector said candidates submitted petitions for about half of the 68 possible seats. Plainfield has 34 voting districts, with male and female seats in each district. The municipal committee becomes part of each party’s county committee.

After a tumultuous primary and general election last year, Spector said this year will be one of “revitalizing and reorganizing” to build party strength. The elected committee and campaign committees will be busy getting out the vote for Republicans in the general election. Republican City Council candidates Angela Perun and Arlington Johnson are now forming their campaign committees, she said.

In the Nov. 7 general election, Perun will face Democratic incumbent Councilman Rashid Burney in the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large contest and Johnson will challenge Democratic incumbent Rayland Van Blake in the 1st Ward.

“We’re all going to be working actively for our two candidates,” Spector said.

The Republican reorganization will take place at 7:30 p.m. June 12 in the Fitch Quality Conference Room at Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, Park Avenue and Randolph Road.

Last year, former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams became a Republican after losing the Democratic primary to Sharon Robinson-Briggs. Denied the right to run as a Republican in the general election after running as a Democrat in the primary, McWilliams and his New Democrat and Republican “fusion” supporters ran a write-in campaign in the general election, but again lost to Robinson-Briggs. She was sworn in Jan. 1 as the city’s first African-American female mayor.

Spector said McWilliams is still a Republican and was the “celebrity of the moment” at the annual Union County Republican Lincoln Day celebration this year. But she said he is also enjoying a well-deserved break from the political battles of last year.

Even though McWilliams became a Republican, many of his supporters are still active with the New Democrats for Plainfield organization headed by Union County Freeholder Adrian Mapp. The group is sponsoring a June 15 community forum on Abbott school construction, 6 p.m. at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, 724 Park Ave.

Plainfield’s hopes for a new middle school and other new school buildings were dashed when the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp. ran out of money.

Meanwhile, though unopposed, Van Blake and Burney recently put out lawn signs. Just making sure, guys?

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, June 02, 2006

"Flat Budget" Means $14 Million In School Cuts

Faced with a state mandate to keep the 2006-07 school budget to this year’s level, the Plainfield school district cut more than $14 million to come up with a “flat budget.”

All the 31 Abbott districts had to freeze their budgets after Gov. Jon Corzine got state Supreme Court permission May 9 to order the move. The districts had to send the revised budgets to Trenton by Wednesday (May 31, 2006) and the Plainfield Board of Education held a special meeting Tuesday to vote on the cuts. The state Department of Education will review the changes and may approve them or disallow specific cuts if they are deemed harmful to the educational program.

School district spokesman Louis Rivera said the cuts included costs for travel and consultants, general supplies, savings due to retirements and elimination of the adult education program. He said Superintendent Paula Howard, Business Administrator Victor Demming and cabinet members met with officials at each of the district’s 13 schools to decide on the cuts.

Rivera said he wasn’t sure when the state would get back to the district, but he said officials hope it would be “sooner rather than later.” Once the state DOE has its say, the district will have to hold follow-up conversations at each school.

Sixteen of the Abbott districts asked for a clarification of the Supreme Court order, asking whether there was an expedited schedule for DOE determinations and appeals and whether new facilities for 2006-07 would be exempt from the flat-funded budget, among other questions. The Court responded that the DOE did not anticipate taking more than two weeks to respond, and that the state is committed to provide all funds necessary to bring the new facilities online. It dismissed the other questions as having already been addressed in the May 9 order.

See for the full text of the May 22 order.

The only new facility for 2006-07 in Plainfield is the Central Jersey Arts School, a charter school with an expected enrollment of 248 students in grades K-5 for September. Charter schools are public schools and Rivera said the district budget includes $2.64 million for the new one. It will be the city’s third charter school. A fourth one lost its charter a few years ago.

New board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq said he voted ”no” on the cuts, because he did not receive the information in writing.

“I can say clearly I was not fully aware of precisely what the cuts were,” he said.

Abdul-Haqq added, “There’s something wrong if you can cut $14 million from what you said you needed.”

Several Abbott districts have been told to ask more from taxpayers for educational costs, though Plainfield is not one of them. But Abdul-Haqq expects the day may come when that will happen. The school tax levy has been fixed at about $18 million, while the overall budget has grown to about $140 million.

“It’s been $18 million as long as I can remember,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with paying more.”

State aid to Abbott districts, about $ 1 billion in the 2006 fiscal year, is meant to achieve parity in poor districts with per-pupil spending in wealthy districts. See http// for an Abbott overview.

The flat-budget mandate appears to signal increased scrutiny of the Abbott districts’ fiscal management.

Corzine’s statement after the May 9 ruling was, “We have a great deal of work ahead of us to ensure that all children across New Jersey receive a thorough and efficient education, and that public, local and school officials are accountable for the public funds they receive. Our focus will be to get resources to the children. We must meet their needs and prepare them for the challenges they face upon graduation. Only when that goal is met, and not a moment sooner, will we have achieved a victory.”

“This is serious stuff, and Plainfield, like a lot of other places, is going to have to figure out something new,” Abdul-Haqq said.

--Bernice Paglia