ELIZABETH — A South Jersey congressman encouraged federal education auditors to pursue a witch hunt against the Elizabeth school board that Mayor Chris Bollwage could exploit for political purposes.
Rep. Rob Andrews instigated the examination in order to win state Sen. Ray Lesniak’s support in his 2008 campaign for US Senate. Lesniak emerged as a key supporter in Andrews’ challenge to US Sen. Frank Lautenberg in the Democratic primary election a year after the audit was performed and a disparaging article based on the leaked document appeared in the Star-Ledger newspaper.
Just weeks before the 2007 school voting, Bollwage released portions of an unfinished federal report that were obtained unlawfully and exaggerated for political purposes as part of an effort to unfairly disparage Elizabeth Board of Education members seeking re-election.
At the time, Bollwage was backing school board candidates who were challenging the three incumbents, who were re-elected anyway.
Over the years, city voters have rejected numerous attempts by Bollwage and Lesniak to exert political control of the schools.
The federal audit alleged that almost $2 million in federal funds were misspent and demanded that the money be returned, but the accusations lacked a basis in fact.
The state Department of Education intervened and determined that the vast majority of the money had been properly accounted for in spite of clerical errors or missing paperwork that was exploited by auditors who apparently intended to make the district look bad.
At Lesniak’s request, Andrews used his influence as a member of the House Education and Labor Committee to instigate the audit and produce an unauthorized release of preliminary statements that reflected its bias, according to a source close to the Congressman.
The source said the Congressman initiated the audit with a personal request to the US Department of Education’s Inspector General John P. Higgins, Jr., who appeared before Andrews’ congressional committee on April 20, 2007.
After the audit information was exploited by Bollwage, school officials provided support for $822,796 in expenditures and demonstrated that another $505,737 was used properly despite the audit’s assertion to the contrary.
The district was also given approval to exercise an option that officials inadvertently failed to indicate in an original application, which permitted the district to use $605,453.
Ultimately, records show that only $12,939 worth of computer equipment was unallowable under federal rules.
That happened where one of the schools fell short of a 40 percent threshold because only 39.91 percent of its students were in families with income under the poverty level.
“The sloppy approach to reviewing Elizabeth’s financial compliance used a handful of technicalities to try to disparage the outstanding educational accomplishments of our students that is made possible by the diligent effort of our school board, teachers and parents,” said education consultant Fred Wheeler. “It’s obvious that Mayor Bollwage got some help from politicians who do not care about Elizabeth’s students to encourage a witch hunt that he could exploit for political purposes.”
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