N.J. says Winslow educator hid trail on various jobs

Posted: September 13, 2011

A top Winslow School District official who moonlights at three South Jersey charter schools misled state investigators assigned to look into her nearly $300,000 annual income, according to the New Jersey Department of Education.

Ann F. Garcia came under investigation early this year after state officials noted that she had worked the equivalent of almost three full-time jobs simultaneously since 2009, an "unusually high" number, authorities said in a report by the department's Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance filed last month.

The case is under review by the state Attorney General's Office Criminal Justice Division, a spokesman said. The State Board of Examiners, which reviews public education credentials, is set to conduct a hearing Thursday, Sept. 15.

A lawyer hired by one of the charter schools, who said he represented Garcia, disputed allegations that she had tried to divert the state's investigation.

"Their conclusions as to Dr. Garcia's intentionally misrepresenting anything is not backed up by the facts in the report," said Joe Betley, who was retained by the Vineland Public Charter School last week.

In addition to working as business administrator in the Winslow district, a full-time position, Garcia was executive director of the Vineland school and business administrator of the ECO Charter School in Camden and the Charter-Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 academic years.

Garcia continues to hold those positions. According to published reports, she and her husband, Esteban, cofounded the Vineland charter school. Esteban Garcia serves on the school's board.

The couple just opened another charter school in Millville. Ann Garcia will not hold a position there, Betley said.

Ann Garcia's combined income last year exceeded the base salary of the highest-paid public school official in New Jersey, the Newark School District superintendent, who was paid $280,000 during the last school year, according to state records.

State education officials did not find fault with the volume of work she performed.

"There is nothing in the statute or code that speaks to allowing or disallowing multiple employment positions," an Education Department spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

But holding multiple jobs with overlapping responsibilities "could involve criminality," the spokeswoman said.

At issue is whether Garcia ordered a subordinate to pass fake documents to investigators regarding her $60,000-a-year job at the Vineland school.

In contracts the charter sent to the state in February, Garcia's job was described as full-time, which appeared to be a potential conflict with her $156,000-a-year Winslow position.

On March 3, investigators received an unsolicited e-mail from the charter school's business administrator explaining that the contracts sent previously were mistakenly pulled from a file of voided contracts.

Attached to the e-mail were new versions of Garcia's contracts for the two school years, which described her position as part-time. But the 2009-10 contract was witnessed by the business administrator, whose signature was dated July 1, 2009, one month before he was hired.

After interviewing employees of the Vineland school and reviewing e-mail exchanges, the state investigators allege that Garcia "orchestrated what appeared to be a hastily developed and ill-conceived plan intended to provide misinformation" that would thwart their probe, according to the state's report.

The Garcias declined to answer questions during the investigation, the report said.

Garcia never intended for the documents in the March e-mail to be interpreted as the original contracts, Betley said. They were submitted simply to correct an error, he said.

In a letter attached to the e-mail, however, the charter school's business administrator stated that "we have attached the contracts for Dr. Garcia that were in our minute books."

While Garcia holds the title of executive director at Vineland, the day-to-day running of the school is handled by the principal, Betley said. Garcia's duties include establishing school policy, fund-raising, and other leadership tasks that are completed outside of her full-time job in Winslow, he said.

"At night, early mornings, that's when I get my conversations with her," Betley said. "She's a very hard worker."

During the state's investigation, officials and board members from the Vineland charter said that Garcia's position always was intended as part-time.

"There was no intent on anyone's part to make that a full-time job," said Betley, who estimated that Garcia puts in about 14 hours a week. "It seems to me [the Education Department] set out to find something wrong with Dr. Garcia's employment. They couldn't get that, so they went after her on this."

In addition to her Winslow and Vineland salaries, Garcia earns $56,000 a year for her work at the Somers Point high school and $18,640 a year from Camden's ECO Charter School, according to the report.

Winslow Superintendent H. Major Poteat and officials of the Charter-Tech school did not return phone calls for comment.

Antoinette Dendtler, founder and head of the ECO Charter School, declined to talk about Garcia.

"I am prohibited from discussing any personnel matters," Dendtler said.

The Vineland charter school, which specializes in the arts, opened in 2009 and educates about 200 elementary school students. Kathleen Pearce, the school's PTA president, also refused to answer questions about Garcia.

"The families are very tight and very dedicated to the school," Pearce said.

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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