There’s no shortage of news from Lakewood: even the Wall Street Journal takes notice today. Of course, they’re late to my party; no, on second thought, late to my shivah, the Jewish ritual mourning period, typically seven days but in Lakewood an eternity. I probably cover Lakewood’s morally and fiscally bankrupt schools too often, but this Ocean County school district that enrolls almost entirely Latino and Black low-income students pushes all my education reform buttons: tyranny of the majority (in this case the ultra-Orthodox residents who control the municipal government and the school board); lack of accountability; lack of school choice for poor kids of color but anything goes (at public expense) for children of the ruling class; discrimination against minority special education students. As a mother of four children (one with multiple disabilities), as a former school board member, and as a Jew, I take Lakewood’s offenses personally.
So, here’s the latest.
- The Lakewood School Board voted this month to rehire Michael Inzelbuch as their board attorney. From 2002-2012 Inzelbuch controlled the Board, running Board meetings, serving as “board spokesman” (for $250/hour, a position typically filled by the Board President for free), and orchestrating how the majority of the Board voted. He held three positions: Board Attorney, Nonpublic Special Education Consultant, and Title 1 Coordinator, a trifecta unheard of in any other district. After he was abruptly fired in 2012, the Board sued him for “actively recruiting clients to sue the district..”
- Also this month the Asbury Park Press profiled Lakewood’s School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI), an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school for children with disabilities that is somehow approved by the State as a non-sectarian special education school. According to the Press, “of the 202 New Jersey public school students sent to the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence during the 2016-2017 school year, just one is non-white, public school documents obtained by the Press show.” (See here for NJLB coverage.) Average annual tuition at SCHI is about $112,000 per student.
The founder and Director of SCHI, Osher Eisemann, was charged this year with stealing and laundering more than $600,000 in public funds, no doubt siphoned from district payments. A recent audit also found that SCHI overcharged Lakewood and other school districts by more than $340,000 in one year.
Last year Lakewood Public Schools, which enrolls almost entirely Latino (85%) and Black (8.3%) schoolchildren, sent SCHI $22.9 million in tuition. In total, according to a recent piece in the Star-Ledger, the Lakewood Board spent $33,837,924 for special education for 1,254 students classified as “special needs” during this last school year. The total operating budget for the district is about $127 million.
- A former — as in fired — special education staff member, Tobree Mostel, is suing the district, claiming harassment by the Board because she went to them with concerns about “questionable and unethical” practices in placing students in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. From the Ledger: “She is the second Lakewood schools’ special education employee to sue the district in recent years over alleged intrusion by the Orthodox community.” (For an NJLB deep dive on a related matter, see here.)
- Last year the Lakewood VAAD (ultra-Orthodox leaders) and Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean, Monmouth) finagled a bill that hands over $17 million a year to a consortium of four rabbis to manage busing for 21,000 yeshivas students, a task historically handled by the district. Last month the consortium, presided over by Avraham Krawiecz (who makes $150,000 a year, more than Lakewood paid its busing coordinator to run the same buses), said the cash-strapped district owes them an additional half a million dollars. The district disputes the findings and points out that the consortium is required to file an annual audit.
There is supposed to be an oversight committee to hold the consortium accountable. Lakewood resident and educator Al Longo is a member of that committee. He said,”we still have no idea who makes up the entire consortium, if they’re drawing up the most efficient routes, when they’re going to hold public meetings, or how they’re spending the state money.”
From the Star-Ledger:
A particular sticking point, Longo said, was the refusal by Orthodox school owners to allow installation of curtains to separate girls and boys on the buses so that they could ride together.
“Imagine the savings if we didn’t have to bus them separately,” he said.
- Speaking of demographics, the Star-Ledger takes note that Lakewood’s Black population is declining, from 14% in the 1990 census to 3.9% today. The word on the street is that Black families are fleeing Lakewood because of the quality of the public schools. Smart move. According to the Department of Education‘s most recent School Performance Report, 23% of high school students are proficient in language arts and 7% are proficient in math. No student achieved a 1550 on his or her SAT’s, a benchmark of college/career readiness.
- Yesterday four ultra-Orthodox couples were arrested, reports Leslie Brody of the Wall Street Journal, “on charges of defrauding Medicaid and other public assistance programs,” and at least another dozen arrests are pending, part of a “crackdown on financial abuse of public aid in Lakewood.” According to the prosecutor, “arrested couples collected a total of about $1.2 million in housing, health and food benefits by understating their incomes.” One example: Mordechai and Jocheved Breskin were arrested for receiving $585,662 in Medicaid, food stamps, housing and social security benefits from 2009 through 2014. During that time they wrongfully collected $338,642 in aid.
It’s too early to say Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead), but it won’t be if the State doesn’t step in. In a letter to the community, District Superintendent Laura Winters confirmed that “the Lakewood School District is unable to provide its students with a ‘thorough and effective education’ required by the New Jersey State Constitution.” Non-Orthodox students, she wrote, receive instruction that is “tragically inadequate and inferior.” I’ll say it again: it’s time for a state takeover of Lakewood Public Schools. Contrary to Ronald Reagan’s famous quip — the most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” — non-Jewish Lakewood families need that help, and they need it right now.