What’s At the Heart of Lakewood’s Problems? The Answer Is Bigger Than Cash.

On Tuesday, right after I put up this post, Lakewood Public Schools’ attorney Michael Inzelbuch filed an emergency motion to stop implementation of the budget produced by the Legislature (which Governor Murphy hasn’t signed yet).  You can see the full complaint at the bottom of this Lakewood Scoop article. An addendum notes that, in addition to the Legislature eliminating Lakewood’s $45 million in additional aid (unavailable to other underfunded districts), the Legislature’s proposed budget also “cuts all state monies to the LSTA and significantly reduces funding to the Special Children’s Center, SCHI, and other specialized programs.”

Is the problem in Lakewood solely due to a lack of state funding? Or does the lack of equity and accountability go deeper than that? Let’s go through the facts and you decide.

The Lakewood Scooop quote requires some translation. The “Lakewood Student Transportation Authority,” or LSTA, is an entity created by 2016 legislation sponsored by Lakewood’s patron saint Senator Bob Singer that is supposed to handle transportation for over 30,000 ultra-Orthodox students to about 140 yeshivas. The Singer legislation requires oversight of LSTA by an independent committee. I know some people on the committee. They have yet to receive the information necessary to exercise that oversight. I don’t know how much money is allocated to LSTA but it must be a lot: Stacey Barchenger reported that LSTA has created “10,153 stops that pick up only one student.” Not very efficient.

Also in 2017, the Asbury Park Press reported, “LSTA ended its first year with a $1.9 million — or 10 percent — deficit, which is documented in an independent audit released by the state Department of Education. The LSTA this year is providing courtesy busing to about 10,000 students that state law says should only be offered transportation if there are excess funds.”

In other words LTSA operates without oversight and in excess of its budget. I think the Legislature’s concerns about LSTA are reasonable.

Are the Legislature’s concerns about the Special Children’s Center and SCHI justified?

First let’s look at the proposed cut to the Special Children’s Center, an unabashedly all-Jewish preschool exclusively for ultra-Orthodox Jews: Here’s the website; just look at the pictures.  I don’t know why it’s approved by the state as eligible for state funding  at $68,924.10 per year per student. (Here’s the list of approved tuition rates.)  If there were a private special education school that only accepted Muslim or Christian students, would the state fund that school?  Seems unlikely.

SCHI, or the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence,  is a different matter. The school claims to accept students regardless of religion. But it doesn’t. At last count there were over 200 Orthodox children and one Hispanic child. For a sense of the outlay, see these Board minutes, pages 17-19, which gives a partial list of students sent to SCHI. The most recent State spreadsheet says annual tuition per student is $114,084.60 — even for kids with complex disabilities, that’s a lot of money.  You’ll see from the Board minutes cited above that some students also have an aide at $152 per day. You can also see on this set of Board minutes, pages 7-8, that the district pays parents from $14K – $17K a year to drive their child to SCHI.

So what’s that come out to? For 200 students, the total per year is about $22.8 million dollars. If half the kids have private aides then that’s an addition $3 million. If half the parents drive their kid, that’s an additional $1.6 million.  Lakewood’s total operating budget is $164,765,432.  So Lakewood Public Schools is sending about 17 percent of its total operating budget to SCHI.

Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Let me tell you a story (and here’s my earlier coverage). About six years ago a young Lakewood boy named Sha’Quan Peace-Doldren needed an out-of-district placement.  Sha’Quan, who is African-American, is developmentally delayed, as well as blind and deaf, and his parents wanted a specialized school to meet his needs.

An Asbury Park Press investigation uncovered  Sheldon Boxer, former principal of Oak Street Elementary School, where Sha’quan was a student. Mr. Boxer said he was told to lie to Sha’Quan’s parents in order to keep the boy in-district with inadequate services. Why would he do such a thing? Because, said Boxer, “he was afraid he’d lose his job if he didn’t keep a lid on special education expenditures.” In particular, he was afraid he’d “run afoul of Michael Inzelbuch,” who filed that emergency motion yesterday against cuts to Lakewood. In the APP article (no longer available online; you can buy a PDF or see here for earlier coverage), Boxer describes IEP meetings where Inzelbuch would “mistreat” and “humiliate those who disagreed with him.”

Nonetheless, Sha’quan’s parents prevailed and took a tour of their first-choice school, SCHI. Here’s Sha’quan’s mother:

Peace [Sha’Quan’s mother] said the administrator who led her on a tour of the school was very gracious but told her that SCHI wouldn’t have been a good fit for Sha’Quan because there were no other deaf-blind students being taught there.

When the Asbury Park Press followed up with Senator Robert Singer, who ardently represents Lakewood and whose nephew attends SCHI, he said,

“They (the school) have tried and worked with the school district in trying to entice Hispanic and African-American children to come there,” Singer said of the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence. “Here’s the problem, and it’s all of us. If I’m Hispanic or I’m African American and I walk into a school and see no other Hispanics or African American(s), is this where I’m placing my child?”

Senator Singer, I call bullshit on your sophistry. SCHI is a school, profligately funded by the state, that discriminates against children who aren’t Jewish. Parents of special needs kids don’t care about skin color; they care about school quality.

Shall we mention that SCHI’s founder, Rabbi Osher Eisemann, was found guilty of money laundering?

Nah, never mind. Here’s the thing: the New Jersey Legislature is exercising sound judgement and appropriate due diligence by questioning not just the amount of state money that goes to Lakewood but the Board’s allocations. Senator Sweeney said today that “additional funding for Lakewood schools was still a possibility but that he wanted more information from the Department of Education about why Lakewood needed the money.”

“The number just dropped,” Sweeney said of the $30 million. “When they just threw it out there, there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation with the Legislature of what it means and what it is.

That’s a reasonable stance. If I were a legislator, I’d want to know why the DOE approved such a sky-high tuition rate for a school that serves children with complicated conditions — the website mentions autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, and cerebral palsy — that are treated at plenty of other schools for less than $114K a year (plus, plus, plus). I’d like to know what the DOE regulations are about schools that only accept students of one religion or color. I’d want to know how both the Special Children’s Center and SCHI comply with the federal mandate of placing children with disabilities in the “least restrictive environment.” I’d want to know what would happen if a large group of, say, Amish families moved into a Jersey town and said they could only send their kids to school in horses and buggies with teachers who speak Pennsylvania Dutch; would we create publicly-funded schools for their children with disabilities?

Most importantly, while the district attorney files suits on behalf of SCHI and Special Children’s Center, I’d want to know why the Lakewood School Board gets away, year after year, with depriving the low-income Latino children who attend district schools with their Constitutional right to a through and effective education.

The answer isn’t more money. The answer is more balance. I hope the Legislature demands that. I wish Governor Murphy would do the same.

What do you think?

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