Ritacco Scandal Creates 'A Year of Challenges' for Toms River School District
State's fourth largest school district outlines changes, challenges that came after Ritacco
As guilty pleas were made this week by former Superintendent Michael J. Ritacco and former insurance broker Francis X. Gartland, 50 miles away in Toms River, the state's fourth largest school district has for the last year and a half been living in the wake of scandal.
A Year of Challenge
School officials said previously that over the last year the district has put in place competitive bidding, close oversight and more transparency.
"We know it will continue to be a challenge, but we will continue to do what we believe is in the best interests of our students and our district, while being cognizant of the financial impact on our taxpayers," said a joint statement of Superintendent Frank Roselli and Business Administrator Bill Doering on the year anniversary of Ritacco's arrest.
The shocking arrest of the leader of the school district, who in his 18 years as superintendent also for a time held the position of business administrator, came in October 2010.
However, Roselli and Doering said district pride survived in spite of the scandal.
"The last year has been a year of challenges for the district, and yet the stakeholders that comprise our regional school district continue to take great pride in our schools, and that hasn’t changed," the two administrators said jointly in October.
District Spokesperson Tammi Millar, as well as Roselli and Doering, today did not immediately respond to calls at this time.
On the board for a year now, Ben Giovine said that today's plea was a step toward healing and closure, and hopefully more transparency.
"I think when I first read the news, my first thought was that this certainly gives the district some closure," Giovine said by phone this afternoon. "It's time for the board to move on and move forward, to increase transparency of the board."
He praised the district's move to put meeting minutes online but has been pushing for citizen's oversight and televised meetings as options to increase transparency.
"Hopefully as a result, we'll see how those who oversee the budgets, oversee different policies make sure they've provided enough sunlight into the process," Giovine said, adding that the district cannot operate in the dark.
There was wrongdoing, and making sure it doesn't happen again means the process needs much greater transparency, Giovine said.
"You have to blame those who plead guilty. Mike (Ritacco) and Gartland were doing the wrong things. The healing process will be to make sure we increase the transparency," Giovine said.
School Election Impact
In the time since Ritacco's arrest, the district has had one election for three board seats and approved two school budgets — one that narrowly passed voter muster.
Running in the 2011 election as a "Clean Slate" ticket, board members Alex Pavliv, Loreen Torrone and Ben Giovine said they were all motivated to run by lack of transparency in the district, specifically saying how they hoped to impact the district and create greater public oversight.
"The results of the April 2011 budget vote, where the community made a strong statement that, despite the negativity and the challenging times, they believe in their schools," said Roselli and Doering in their joint October statement.
Nels Luthman, who ran in previous years for the school board and battled Ritacco during his years as a teacher, said that he was surprised at the longtime board members who did not resign after Ritacco's home was raided, or after Ritacco's arrest.
"I'm not saying they were involved, but it is still a disgrace," Luthman said.
"The board, after the raid, allowed Ritacco to stay on, allowed him to push the agreement with Seaside Park," Luthman said. Ritacco, who lived in Seaside Park, oversaw an agreement where Seaside Park students could attend tuition-free Toms River high schools instead of Central Regional.
Luthman, who is president of the Toms River Democratic Club, said that the last thing he wants to see is the school board election becoming political, but expects that the November election of the school board will be dramatically impacted by the Ritacco charges.
Administrative Changes After Ritacco
The corruption was centered between the former superintendent and the former insurance broker for the district. Gartland admitted setting up contracts for the district with intermediaries that were inflated, with excess fees being kick backed to pay Ritacco, himself and the intermediaries.
Doering and Roselli said in their joint statement that "great strides" were made to the oversight of insurance since Ritacco's arrest.
"We have insurance contracts in place, and they are carefully administered with close oversight. We have board policy requiring that insurances are competitively shopped. We have appointed new auditors, through a competitive public proposal process, as well as appointing new construction related professionals," said the October statement. "The district has made great strides in a variety of areas where we needed to focus our attention, most notably insurances."
However, when annual contracts for professional services were on the agenda, the board voted to maintain professionals such as Thomas Monohan as board attorney, who worked as board attorney under Ritacco previous.
Low Impact on Students?
On the year anniversary of the arrest, the district officials said the impact on classroom activities was negligible. The message on October 2010, when the district held an emergency meeting to address Ritacco's retirement, was similar, saying buses would still run, classrooms would fill with students for the day's lessons.
"It seems that most people fully realize that the quality of the Toms River Regional school system comes from the diligent day-to-day efforts of the entire staff of this large and complex school system, and that, fortunately, has not changed," said Roselli and Doering in October 2011.
When asked in October how she thought the previous year had went, District Spokesperson Tammi Millar said that student life saw less of an impact.
"For almost all students, the most important administrator is their principal. The principals have worked closely with Mr. Roselli to continue a safe, calm atmosphere where students feel comfortable learning and strive to achieve in academics, clubs, sports, and social activities," Millar said. "Toms River Regional is a strong district proud to educate 17,300 plus students from K-12."