The agenda for Wednesday evening’s Lakewood Board of Education meeting included two items, both involving BOE attorney Michael Inzelbuch, well-known for his $750,000 annual salary and complete dominance over district matters. These agenda items may be clues to his and the Board’s concerns over pending litigation that alleges the districts retaliated against an employee who was, in effect, a whistleblower.
It’s not that complicated. Here are agenda items 38 and 39 (page 3):
38. The Board and District agrees to fully indemnify, defend, and assume all costs including any increase in his liability insurance, judgments, and /or liability (ies) with regard to any lawsuits filed against and /or involving General Counsel Michael I. Inzelbuch, Esq. involving any and all actions that may have and /or are alleged to occur during his service to the Board from 2017 thru his term of representation, specifically the matter of Rita Roe, whether commenced /instituted /filed during said time of service or thereafter. General Counsel shall have the absolute right to select counsel and experts, etc. of his own choosing.
39. Board shall hire the firm of Methfeebel and Werbel (Eric Harrison, Esq) to review potential CEPA and any and all other claims of General Counsel, at the following rates; $185.00 per hour for all attorneys, $65.00 per hour for all paralegals, for the 2020-2021 school year.
What does all this mean? As the Asbury Park Press reported last week,
A former township public schools grants facilitator is suing the Board of Education and several officials alleging she was wrongfully terminated after expressing concern in 2019 over what she considered improper and unethical practices by board employees.
The plaintiff (who is using the pseudonym Rita Roe) worked in the district for six years directing observations of special education services in non-public schools, which in Lakewood are almost all ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. Students with disabilities who attend private schools are eligible for therapies paid for by federal and state money. Lakewood spends a lot on this: The most recent budget on the DOE website shows $24 million for non-public handicapped, nursing, and auxiliary services and another $42 million for tuition for special needs children’s tuition. At least half of that goes for 200 Lakewood children to attend the School For Children with Hidden Intelligence, which enrolls either exclusively or almost exclusively ultra-Orthodox children. The state-approved tuition to this school is $127,446.90 per year per pupil not including transportation, summer school, and one-on-one aides.
Roe says she was told “explicitly and specifically” in 2018 by her supervisor to not conduct Title 1 observations (for children in yeshivas who qualify for free and reduced lunch). The instructions she received, she said, “had something to do with the outside vendor Tender Touch Educational Services” (which provides special education therapy for children in non-public schools) and that someone at Tender Touch had said she was “disruptive.”
“As plaintiff was leaving the meeting, she heard defendant Inzelbuch state: ‘You know there will be terminations or transfers,'” the suit alleges.
She also claims that as she was leaving the meeting, Inzelbuch advised Winters to write a new job description for her.
“The retaliation had begun,” the lawsuit contends…She claims that the retaliation against her escalated until the June 24, 2019, board meeting where she was “illegally, and inexplicably” terminated a month after she had been reappointed as grants facilitator for a sixth time.
In response, Inzelbuch says she was fired because the job of grants facilitator requires a license as a special education teacher. I was told by insiders that this was never a requirement but was added to axe Roe. Your guess is as good as mine.
Back to the agenda: Item 38 says the Lakewood Board and District will pay for any increases in Inzelbuch’s liability insurance and any future judgments (since he, as well as the Lakewood Board of Education, board President Moshe Bender, Superintendent Laura Winters and supervisors Adina Weisz and Malka Spitz-Stein) are being sued by Roe. Inzelbuch can choose any lawyers or experts he wants. (Not sure where that leaves the rest of the plaintiffs, although district insurance most likely covers them.)
Item 39 says the Board will hire a law firm called Methbeebel and Werbel to review “potential CEPA claims.” CEPA is the Conscientious Employee Protection Act:
New Jersey has one of the country’s broadest whistleblower laws, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”). Among other things, CEPA makes it illegal for your employer to retaliate against you if you object to or refuse to participate in something you reasonably believe is illegal, criminal, fraudulent, or violates a clear public policy requirement that relates to public health, safety, welfare or the environment. If you are a licensed or certified health care professional, CEPA also applies if you objected to or refused to participate in an activity you reasonably believed constitutes improper quality of patient care.
Is Inzelbuch worried that he could be held liable for violating CEPA? Is that why the Board is agreeing to hire this firm?
Hey, I’m not a lawyer. Your guess is as good as mine.
Clarification: I spoke to Mr. Inzelbuch yesterday (you can also see his comment below) and he expressed that his intention was to protect public school children with disabilities, whose rights and entitlements exceed non-public school children. In addition, “Rita Roe” was hired while he was not representing the Lakewood Board of Education.