“Culture of Fear” in Lakewood Cheats Children of Color

The New Jersey Department of Education announced last week that it will give Lakewood Public Schools an “advance” of $8.5 million in state aid money (presumably from next year’s payments) to help bridge a $15 million budget gap. Superintendent Laura Winters told the Asbury Park Press that “it isn’t enough.” She’s right. It will take a lot more than $8.5 million — indeed, a lot more than $15 million — to adequately educate 6,000 low-income Latino and Black schoolchildren who are disenfranchised every day by a system that privileges non-public school students.

What will it take? A paradigm shift. A cultural revolution. An equity upgrade. A School Board that cares as much for the schoolchildren under its purview as for the schoolchildren who are not.

For a glimpse into Lakewood’s irreparable budget morass — a district that just made the Star-Ledger’s list of the top-spending districts in New Jersey ($26,477 per pupil)  yet can’t keep in-district class size within state parameters —   all you have to do is read a 2015 court case called “In the Matter of the Arbitration of the Tenure Charge between School District of the Township of Lakewood and Helen Tobia.”  It tells you everything you need to know about Lakewood’s educational and fiscal dysfunction.

Helen Tobia was a 20-year employee of Lakewood Public Schools (LPS), a tenured Supervisor of Social Studies, Fine Arts, and Pupil Personnel Services. She was hired by Attorney Michael Inzelbuch who, at the time, held the bizarre position of “Board Attorney in Charge of Special Education Litigation” at LPS for twelve years. (Here’s something else that reveals Lakewood’s peculiarity: before Inzelbuch accepted the Board position, he made his living suing LPS on behalf of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva parents who wanted the district to pay for their children to attend Jewish day schools on the grounds that they were disabled. He won so often that the Board hired him to sit on their other side of the table. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  After he was fired from his district post, he went back to suing the Board.)

According to the court document (see page 27) Ms. Tobia was responsible for supervising Child Study Teams who classify children as eligible for special education services and, with parents, write Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) for eligible students that include placement decisions. In 2013 the Lakewood School Board charged Ms. Tobia with “unbecoming conduct,” a “pattern of inappropriate behavior,” and violations of state law that “had a deleterious effect on the District and its students.”

What did Ms. Tobia do?  She followed Lakewood tradition and placed children in non-public Jewish day schools at district expense under the guise of special education law. The district did this before Ms. Tobia’s tenure. It continues to do so today. Ms. Tobia simply had the misfortune to play the role of scapegoat.

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What’s wrong with placing students with disabilities — any children, for that matter —  at Jewish day schools? For starters, Lakewood yeshivas, like many, tend to be secretive to the non-Frum world and so there’s no apparatus for fiscal and academic accountability. Few yeshivas have websites; some have no phone numbers. At a typical ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, students (separated by gender, usually at different schools) study limudei kodesh, or religious studies, from 9 a.m. until about 2 p.m.. Only then do students embark on “English,” or secular studies.  (Older girls spend longer on English because they typically will support their households while their husbands devote themselves to Torah.) According to a recent article in the New York Times regarding ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, “children ages 7 to 13 receive only an hour and a half of English and math instruction combined four days per week. Other secular subjects are not taught at all, and English instruction for boys stops at age 13.”

So there is no Common Core. There are no state assessments. There is no oversight. There is no accountability. With the exception of one yeshiva in Lakewood that is accredited as a private special education school (The School for Hidden Intelligence, which I’ve covered elsewhere: click here) there is no adherence to federal or state laws regarding children with disabilities. Yet Lakewood places children all the time in unaccountable religious schools at the financial expense of taxpayers and the educational expense of Lakewood’s Black and Latino students.

Actually, there is an accountability apparatus for these situations called the Naples Act. (See p. 83 of the court case for a full definition or see here.) In short, school districts that have valid reasons for placing students in a non-accredited school  must get a sign-off from the Commissioner or an Administrative Law Judge; the Naples Act also requires that the school be non-sectarian. Perhaps for that reason, Ms. Tobia placed students in yeshivas and never got the necessary signatures.

That’s not all. She also ordered case managers to stop writing 504’s for children (protections for children with mild disabilities who learn in general education classrooms) so that the children would have to be classified as more seriously disabled and eligible for an IEP.  When a case manager wanted to classify a (presumably non-Jewish) student, she told her that she couldn’t. When a case manager told her that another student (Orthodox Jewish) could be educated appropriately in-district, she overruled her and told her to write in the name of a yeshiva although she had no authority to do so. In fact, Child Study Teams were told to “write IEPs for each [Orthodox] student” and place the students “wherever the parents wanted to send the children.” When the new Board attorney (Inzelbuch was back at his previous gig suing Lakewood) worried that this was illegal,  Tobia responded that “she wanted to avoid litigation with Michael Inzelbuch at all cost.”

Here is one of many examples cited in the court filings.

A six-year-old identified as Y.T. attended the accredited if yeshiva-like School for Hidden Intelligence via an IEP issued by the district. But Y.T.’s father decided that he wanted his son to attend the (unaccredited) Yeshiva Tiferes Torah instead. The district, decreed the father, would pay all tuition and associated costs (including an aide). When the case manager, Ms. Nussbaum, demurred,  the father said he had spoken to Ms. Tobia and “they had already reached an agreement to place Y.T. at the yeshiva as a public school student. “

Ms. Nussbaum testified that “Ms.Tobia gave me a directive. Y.T. was to be a public school student while attending [Yeshiva Tiferes Torah] and the District would enter into a parent agreement with Y.T.’s parents, by which the parents would be reimbursed for costs related to YT’s education, rather than the school itself.”

This was (is) a pattern, not an anomaly. The court document recounts that when the Department of Education ordered a Corrective Action Plan for Lakewood because of violations of state and federal education law (for inappropriately paying for yeshiva educations and for refusing to provide appropriate out-of-district special education to non-Orthodox public school students), “a large number of the parents of the affected students, if not all of them, filed requests for mediation, seeking to maintain the students’ placements in yeshivas.”

The Orthodox parents won. The Orthodox parents still win.  Meanwhile, Lakewood Public School District is contemplating class sizes of 50 students.

More? School Board minutes from last August (see p.10) approve two placements of children at Yeshiva Emek Hatorah, one at $3,000 per month and the other at $6,125 a month. Depending on which google hit you click on (there are not many) the yeshiva has either 26 or 56 Jewish Orthodox boys  and serves either grades 9-10 or 9-12. There is no website or phone number available. Three months ago Board minutes memorialize approval of a placement (see p.13) at Bais Faiga School for Girls for $6,864 per month, plus an aide for $3,500 per month. 

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The State has tried to intervene but without a state takeover (which I’ve argued for before) there’s little recourse. In 2014 the Department appointed Michael Azzara as Lakewood’s Fiscal Monitor after a flurry of FBI raids, charges of civil rights abuses, and district auditing errors.  He testified in the Tobia case that when he first came to Lakewood he immediately sensed a “culture of fear” of reprisals from the Orthodox community, especially from those who were Orthodox themselves. So when any controversial decision had to be made, he explained, they went to Ms. Tobia, who isn’t Orthodox.

There is a spark of hope in Lakewood. A Latino group, La Voz, is active, as well as U.N.I.T.E., which represents Black parents. Other non-Orthodox residents have organized themselves to support parents of color. And yet the head of U.N.I.T.E., Pastor Glenn Wilson, told the Asbury Park Press that “this system has been going on since before Helen Tobia. Helen Tobia inherited this system. . . . She continued that system.”

The latest boon to the ultra-Orthodox community is a celebratory note in this week’s Yeshiva World News that local yeshivas in Lakewood will be “able to gain greater access to Title I funding for their students.” Title 1 is a federal school funding line for economically-disadvantaged children. Because 86% of Lakewood’s public schoolchildren meet that parameter, next year’s budget anticipates that the district will receive $14,120,217 in Title 1 money, a significant piece of its $127,778,005 total operating budget.

Or not. Let’s send it to the yeshivas.

 

 

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