PLEASANTVILLE — When she first arrived in the Pleasantville School District’s administrative offices in July 2020, Superintendent Natakie Chestnut-Lee wanted to learn everything she could about the district.
What she found was staff members concerned about wasteful spending and what she called “a lack of accountability” that was costing the district money.
For example, the district was paying for 119 phone lines that no one was using, costing a total of $173,000 over the last four years, she told the school board at a January meeting.
Since then, the new school chief in Pleasantville has been on a mission to straighten out finances in the district, which has long been plagued by budget deficits and expensive legal settlements. She has called on the state monitor to perform a “full forensic audit” of the district.
“What I found since being here, there was a lack of accountability,” Chestnut-Lee said. “Many people were lax. Policies that the district did have were not being enforced or implemented, or they did not exist.”
Because of its past financial situation, the Pleasantville School District has had a state-appointed fiscal monitor for more than a decade but has not been able to shed the state oversight. A lingering school food service deficit and large legal costs have kept the monitor in place. Last year was the first in at least four years that the district did not have to lay off employees to balance the budget.
Chestnut-Lee said she wants to see the state fiscal monitor, Constance Bauer, who is paid by the district, do more to help the district’s finances.
Since uncovering the cell-phone situation, Chestnut-Lee has also found that there was no tracking system in place for expensive district technology equipment like Chromebooks, and even found some employees receiving the wrong type of health benefits.
At the same time, she said she is working with an E-rate consultant to save another $500,000 for the district in just one year. E-rate is the universal service Schools and Libraries Program that provides discounts of up to 90% to help eligible schools and libraries in the United States obtain affordable telecommunications and internet access, according to the federal Department of Education.
Next, Chestnut-Lee is looking to eliminate duplication of positions and responsibilities among staff members. And she wants to cut legal costs associated with the many lawsuits and settlements the district has faced over the years.
“One of the things that we have done is being intentional in changing the culture of the district. We want to change the mindset of not just our district employees, but the community at large,” Chestnut-Lee said. “Pleasantville is not going to be an ATM machine. We’re going to defend those lawsuits vigorously.”
Chestnut-Lee said that the budgeting process for next year is underway. She is hopeful.
An influx in state and federal aid will help Pleasantville School District. According to state aid figures announced Thursday, Pleasantville will see a 3.8% increase, up about $2.5 million from last year. And an additional $4.9 million in federal COVID-19 response aid under the CARES Act will be used to complete desperately needed heating, ventilation and air conditioning repairs in several elementary schools, including Leeds Avenue.
The superintendent applauded her staff for their work in moving the district in the right direction. She said she has also heard positive feedback from staff and parents.
“We are in a healthy place, however I’m not finished,” she said. “And we are still evaluating our organization to make sure that we have the right people in positions, that we’re not wasteful in our spending and that we’re maximizing the work of the staff members that we have.”
Pleasantville school board President Julio Sanchez, who was elected in November and was seated in January, said he is still new to the district but was happy with the direction it was moving in.
“We’re largely a new administration with a new board, and yes we fiscally have a long way to go,” Sanchez said, noting the presence of state monitors. “We’re working feverishly to address those things where we can reach the point that we no longer need state monitors, and we can redirect those dollars back to the education of our children.”
He also said he wanted to see Bauer take a stronger role in the district finances.
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