A Few Questions for Lakewood’s School Board, Superintendent, and Lawyer

Life is full of surprises but here’s one that blows me away: Michael Inzelbuch, attorney for the Lakewood Public Schools District, board spokesman, and garrulous commentator on all things Lakewood, is suddenly mute. According to Gustavo Martinez at the Asbury Park Press, when queried about the Board’s purchase of mobile devices for students, Inzelbuch said he was “not authorized to answer at this time.”

What’s up with that? How can Inzelbuch not be “authorized to speak” when he’s the one with all the authority?

I’m no mind-reader, Lakewood is sui generis, and there is quite a bit of conflicting information out there about how the district is managing full-time in-school instruction in one of New Jersey’s most feverish COVID-19 hot spots. But my best guess is that Lakewood has made minimal progress in closing its gaping digital divide.

Back in March  40% of Lakewood students lacked access to internet and/or a laptop. This was the justification for holding in-person, full-time schooling, despite teacher objections. (Inzelbuch is also fond of chanting, not inappropriately, “Zoom is doom!”) 

Eight months later, with coronavirus cases spiking, the district is finally signaling its intention to equip students for remote instruction. It’s worth noting here that other districts with larger, equally poor enrollments are much further ahead. At tonight’s school board meeting the district seems to be trying to catch up. Here’s one action item from the agenda:

N. Approve the appropriate [sic] of additional 2019-2020 extraordinary aid in the amount of $517,572.00 to purchase 1,800 HP Chromebooks from CDW-G an ESCNJ approved vendor contract 18/19-03.

Also in tonight’s agenda, this note from Superintendent Laura Winters:

As of this writing, the District has distributed 1,987 Chromebooks/devices to students for the purpose of remote learning, since March 17, 2020. The District ordered an additional 1,800 Chromebooks that have been on backorder since June. We are hoping to receive some or all of them in the very near future. Administration has also been given permission to order 1,625 additional Chromebooks utilizing 2019-2020 Extraordinary Aid funds. We are currently, again, soliciting distributors as we have attempted to in the past. In part, upon advice of counsel, who continues to review, at the request of the Board, the numerous legal issues involving the “Digital Divide” we are exploring additional methods to deliver remote instruction that will further recognize the unique needs of our students, primarily at the High School level. Information will be forthcoming.

So where’s Inzelbuch? Why isn’t he out there with his bullhorn? When intrepid reporter Martinez asked specifically about the district’s digital capacity, “[n]either Inzelbuch nor Winters would directly answer questions about the disposition of the schools’ supplies, namely the computer stockpiles.” So Martinez filed an Open Public Records Act request and found this:

Information obtained through an Open Public Records Act request shows that the school district had 2,825 computers at the start of the 2019-2020 school year. That number dwindled to 838 when the school year started on Sept. 7.

To add a little more mishegas to the mix, this morning NJ Spotlight published a handy widget that reports on every NJ school district’s digital divide, i.e., how many students lack laptops and/or internet access. According to Spotlight, Lakewood has no digital divide: There are zero students without the necessary technology to access remote instruction. (I’m guessing the district information is self-reported?)

Either that or Lakewood has a total of 838 laptops for over 6,000 students. (Did they give the others to the students attending ultra-Orthodox yeshivas?)

Meanwhile, New York City just announced that all public schools will shut down tomorrow because the city just reached a 3% COVID test positivity rate. In Ocean County, where Lakewood is located, the test positivity rate is 10.3%. The most recent data says there are 18,734 coronavirus cases and a third of those cases are in Lakewood.  (The district has reported 54 cases.)

So does Lakewood have a digital divide or doesn’t it?

And just how many students are showing up for in-person instruction? Lakewood officials claim everything is going swimmingly but the Press reports that “hundreds of parents kept their children home anyway, relying on virtual learning instead.” At the last school board meeting, which lasted 6 minutes, community activist Jenifer Garcia was unable to get her questions answered on behalf of Lakewood parents. These questions included whether parents were being denied remote isntruction for their kids and why there weren’t enough laptops for students. (Garcia wrote in an email to Winters they the school board was “in violation of the Emergency Remote Meeting Protocol for Local Public Bodies of the Open Public Meetings Act” and demanded public participation going forward.)

One more question: Why do I believe it’s imperative that the State Department of Education mandate no-stakes tests to ascertain student growth?

Exhibit #1: Lakewood.

What do you think?