As he outlined his sentence for the former schools superintendent who admitted to 12 years of corruption at Toms River Regional, Judge Joel Pisano decried the level of trust school board members gave Michael Ritacco over the years while he stole from the district.
Michael Ritacco had the complete trust of the Toms River Regional School Board, said Pisano as he sentencing to Ritacco to more than 11 years in prison, and the board members shouldn't have trusted him.
"As superintendent, Mr. Ritacco had authority over virtually all aspects of school district operations. He had virtually complete control — whether that was by specific granted authority by his contract or pursuant to state law or via what became the increased tacit approval by the members of the board of education," Pisano said at the Sept. 14 sentencing in Trenton.
"Suffice it to say that the sin of the members of the boards of education that Mr. Ritacco was to serve was basically that they trusted him," Pisano said.
Ritacco put the blame on himself, saying he betrayed the school board, who was trusting of him.
"My boards of education, who I had the great privilege of working with, their trust and confidence has been breached. They took more leaps of faith that allowed us to do things that a lot of us wouldn't even consider," Ritacco said. "The town fathers, we would do mutual projects...recreation... all these people were put under increased public scrutinty because of my bad decision making."
Toms River Regional Spokesperson Tammi Millar, who attended the sentencing, said a statement the board released through President Ed Gearity after Ritacco's guilty plea was released again after Ritacco's sentencing Friday. The statement focuses on what the district has done to move forward, but also addresses how the board felt betrayed by Ritacco.
"This activity was very much concealed from this Board of Education, as well as others. The Board never abdicated their responsibility. Those who have attended the public committee meetings can attest to the fact that the Board asks many questions and seeks justifications for administrative recommendations. As a high functioning Board should operate, by the time we get to the regular action meeting, the issues have been discussed and hashed out through the committee system, leaving the Board to vote on the recommendation. This is not rubber-stamping, as recommendations have previously been fully vetted through the Board committee process and through addressing board member questions and concerns," said Gearity in the statement.
It continues: "As a board we feel betrayed by the former Superintendent, and the entire community was betrayed by the former Superintendent. What happened here was not a failure of the system, it was a failure of an individual and a violation of the trust imparted to him, both statutorily and in practice, by the very nature of his position."
In their own statement, three members of the board of education said the district still needs to increase transparency and better oversee the school's business. Board members Ben Giovine, Loreen Torrone and Alex Pavliv called for further reform.
The three members, elected in 2011, said they were disappointed some of the reforms suggested in the previous year lacked the majority of board votes to pass.
Giovine said he hoped many of the initiatives would change the culture of Toms River Regional to allow for more open school government.
The votes that failed included creating a personnel committee and televising board meetings. The switch to put the school budget to school board vote and not to the public voters on a ballot was also disappointing, the three said.
“We must clean up the culture that let this occur," Giovine said. "There must be renewed transparency in the district’s budgeting and personnel decisions.”
Pisano said it was problematic that Ritacco held the position of superintendent while simultaneously serving as business administrator for several years.
"I don’t know how common that is around the state," Pisano said. But it allowed Ritacco to "single-handedly" put his plan into place, installing co-schemers into district contracts and given them district jobs.
"He had among other things the authority to select professional services providers including insurance brokers, and could recommend personnel," Pisano said. "It would not surprise me that he also had the authority that he single handedly chose these professionals."
Pisano continued: "Essentially Mr. Ritacco had complete control of the school district...There is no question that you abused that authority."
Pisano said that while superintendent Ritacco managed to install innovative programs. Ritacco's Attorney Jerome Ballaratto made Ritacco's successes as superintendent a large part of his presentation during sentencing, commending his client.
"Even while he’s committing this crime he’s doing good things for the school district," Ballaratto said.
However, Ritacco said he managed to create an environment where the school board and district "did anything I asked."
"The employees of our district, they did anything, anything I asked. I was superintendent, there wasn't one greivance, one arbitration," Ritacco said and later finished: "I accept responsibility for my actions."