“We Won’t Have Any More Money”

That’s Lakewood Board of Education President Ada Gonzalez upon hearing that the bids from bussing companies to transport Orthodox Jewish children who attend private day schools came in $6 million over budget.

This Ocean County school district serves about 5,300 children, mostly Hispanic and poor. But $19,000,000 (which is apparently not enough) of its $114,661,752 operating budget goes to transportation costs to get non-public school students to the city’s 180 yeshivas, even though students often live within state-mandated walking distance.

From the Asbury Park Press:

The development sets up a possible showdown between the school board and the district’s state-appointed monitor, Michael Azzara, who wants to hold an emergency referendum on Jan. 26 asking voters to provide an additional $6 million to keep the buses rolling.
With Azzara absent from Wednesday’s meeting due to illness, the board promptly shot down that idea, then huddled with its attorney in closed session to discuss its legal options should Azzara exercise his veto power and order the referendum anyway.
“The referendum is dead. It’s not going to be approved,” board member Isaac Zlatkin said.
“I don’t feel comfortable asking taxpayers for another dollar,” said Joel Schwartz, the board’s vice president.
Winters said Azzara could decide how to proceed as early as Thursday.

Lakewood is one of the 16 “Bacon” districts that, according to Education Law Center, don’t receive enough state aid. An Appeals Court last week shot down E.L.C.’s arguments, at one point suggesting that Lakewood could find more money by economizing on bussing. (See N.J. Education Aid for more on this.) In fact, Lakewood’s total budgetary cost per pupil is very low: $11,682. But that’s because so much of the budget goes to transportation of yeshiva students and tuition for Jewish students with disabilities who are placed in one particular private special education school called The School for Children with Hidden Intelligence ($95,123.70 per year). The district’s total tuition costs for out-of-district special education placements is $25,276,951 per year, or almost 25% of its total operating budget.

Meanwhile, Lakewood’s public school students, mostly Hispanic and poor, attend chronically-failing schools. The Reverend Glenn Wilson, who represents those students through an organization called Lakewood U.N.I.T.E, believes, according to the Press, that “the state should adjust the way it doles out school aid to provide more support for a district like Lakewood where the number of children in private schools is several times greater than the public school enrollment. But there are no signs such a remedy is likely anytime soon.”

What do you think?

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