As smoke finally clears from the Bayonne School District’s budget crisis, former Superintendent Patricia McGeehan spoke out about her experience through the politics, protest, and layoffs that ensued. McGeehan, who said she was blindsided by the accounting practices of a former district accountant, lost her job after 48 years in the school district.
In a 90-minute conversation with the Bayonne Community News, she talked about her career and her plans for the future.
“I miss my job,” said McGeehan, who now spends much of her time shuttling her grandchildren around town and remains active in local organizations such as the Bayonne Education Foundation and the Saint Barnabas Burn Foundation.
For students, staff, and parents who had become accustomed to seeing the superintendant in pearls and skirt-suits, McGeehan cut a stylish figure in pink jacket and jeans and gray suede boots.
The end of an era
McGeehan’s contract expired in December of 2016 after the Board of Education voted in July not to renew it against a chorus of support from longtime teachers and administrators who lobbied for McGeehan to stay. When news of the deficit broke months later, blame expectedly mounted on the highest administrative official.
“A secretive blame game started that led to the misperception that money was missing or stolen,” said McGeehan. “The big heartache was to see kids, angry on the street, yelling. Anybody in their right mind might have locked themselves in a closet. Not me.”
Amid mass teacher layoffs in the fall of 2016, students walked out of class in protest at Bayonne High School, some shouting obscenities and directing anger toward school administrators, particularly McGeehan, who lives only a few blocks from the high school. While not at school, McGeehan said people would shout at her from sidewalks and cars, “Where’s the money?”
“It’s so sad. I wonder how this all blew up,” she said, reflecting on a crucial period in the spring of 2016 when the district was preparing its mandatory Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for the NJ Department of Education.
Business Administrator Leo Smith was on sick leave until July, leaving the district’s fulltime certified public accountant as acting business administrator. An internal audit during that period revealed the accounting irregularities, leaving McGeehan, who had just hired a slew of special education teachers at the behest of the state, in a tough position.
“If I had known we didn’t have the money, I wouldn’t have hired anyone,” McGeehan said. “I would’ve called the state, we would have had a slap on the wrist, but we would’ve come up with a better plan for the next year. I asked [the accountant] if we were OK. He said we were. It didn’t have to be this way.”
According to McGeehan, the accountant, after the deficit was revealed, was aware that his accounting practices were improper.
The mystery remains, though, why an accountant would encumber funds knowing what would result from it.
“I don’t know,” McGeehan said. “That was his job, and I trusted him.”
That accountant would resign in January of 2017 and be hired at another school district. The rest of the business office has received rice letters, which notify public school employees that their employment will be discussed at a public meeting.
When the Office of the State Auditor made a public presentation of its official audit of the Bayonne School District, citing “improper” accounting practices noncompliant with state standards as the cause for the deficit, McGeehan quietly sat in the audience.
The good news from the auditor was that the money was never missing to begin with, rather encumbered in other accounts, a sort of vindication for McGeehan, who was frequently disparaged at public meetings and blamed for the district’s woes.
While acknowledging that the ultimate responsibility lies with the person at the top, she said, “I would hope that everyone learns from what happened here. That people are innocent until proven guilty.”
“The big heartache was to see kids, angry on the street, yelling. Anybody in their right mind might have locked themselves in a closet. Not me.”—Dr. Patricia McGeehan
Legacy and looking ahead
Noncompliant accounting practices and layoffs that turned out to be unnecessary aside, 2016 was not a bad year for the Bayonne School District. It received a much-needed $2.9 million in state funding as part of the school funding agreement reached in July between the state legislature and the governor. That agreement also sent additional funds to Bayonne to expand its public all-day pre-k program to 65 students, a bittersweet accomplishment for McGeehan, who supported a plan to install trailers to provide enough space for every pre-k student in the city.
Funding for the Bayonne School District under Gov. Christie’s tenure has fallen far short of what the governor and the legislature agreed to, a fact that McGeehan frequently reminded legislators of during her tenure. While McGeehan does not take credit for the additional funding, she believes that her years of public advocacy for fair funding did not go unnoticed.
“We can’t sit here on this little peninsula and expect things to happen for us,” said McGeehan. “We have to stand up and be counted. Someone now has to fight for Bayonne.”
The Bayonne Board of Education will search for a new superintendent to take the place of Interim Superintendant Michael A. Wanko. While McGeehan never wanted to give up the job, she’s moved on but continues to be a voice for the district. “We need a superintendent with a vision for the 21st century so that when students leave, they have a career and a focus of where they want to go,” McGeehan said.
She believes that the future of public education is strong and encourages aspiring teachers. “Continue your path,” she said. “It’s the greatest profession in the world. It’s a wonderful job. I loved every minute of every day.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at email@example.com.