FBI Subpoenas Lakewood Board of Education

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The Asbury Park Press is reporting  new developments in Lakewood, home to a beleaguered school district that struggles to balance the transportation and special education needs of the 25,000 resident kids who attend Orthodox Jewish day schools with the needs of the 4,600 kids who actually attend public school, almost all Hispanic and Black.

Things were looking up. Over the last two years new Board members elevated the previously-raucous tone of public sessions, and achieved the necessary backing to fire Attorney Michael Inzelbuch. Inzelbuch had served offically for many years as  board attorney and out-of-district special education facilitator, and unofficially as district Svengali. He ran all board meetings and was well-compensated for his time. A new attorney, Steven Edelstein, was hired last year.

(Side note: the Lakewood Board is now suing Inzelbuch for “actively recruiting clients to sue the district.”)

But here was the scene at this week’s Board meeting:

The standing-room-only board meeting began with the unexpected announcement and ended with four board members, Zecharia Greenspan, Jonathan Silver, Yizeriel Friedman and vice president Yechezkel Seitler, all trying to make a motion to remove Edelstein as the current board attorney, citing what they said were high legal fees.
The motion, however, failed, after Edelstein and Board President Carl Fink said it was out of order and inappropriate. Seitler, meanwhile, resigned as vice president, but said he will remain on the board.

Today’s article cites this chaotic regression of the board to previous practices as the “latest indicator that years of dysfunction may be returning to haunt the township’s troubled school district.”  But here’s the main indicator:  the FBI just “ordered the district to turn over all records and correspondence related to two of its vendors, Catapult Learning or Catapult Services, and Ocean Health Initiatives Inc.”  Edelstein, most likely, is cooperating. Maybe that’s why board members are panicking.

Catapult Learning provides remedial and special education services to kids. Lots of districts in NJ hire them. Lakewood is no exception, although it uses the company specifically to provide services to kids in yeshivas, or private Jewish day schools. This is from the Lakewood School Board agenda from this past February 12th:

22. Approval of addendum to the IDEA Catapult Contract from $4,300,700.00 to $4,350,700.00 to add an additional class for Bnos Devorah from February 1, 2013 to June 30, 2013 in the amount of $30,000 and Social Skills at NPSSP at $73.80 per hour not to exceed $20,000.00.

That’s one item from one board agenda for a contract addendum that increases that year’s payout to Catapult to almost $4.5 million dollars. That’s almost 5% of Lakewood’s total operating budget.

The Board has freely admitted that there has been a history of desultory accounting of Catapult services. But there’s more to this story than sloppy filing.

One other note, which points to some of the financial disarray in the district and was in the same agenda and the complex politics that infuse Lakewood schools. On the same agenda there’s this item:
Bais Rivka Rochel-

Student 313A- Placed at Bais Rivka Rochel- 1/2 -6/30/13 at a cost not to exceed $30,000.00.

Bais Rivka Rochel is an Orthodox Jewish day school just for girls, one of many yeshivas in the city. (There’s no website so I don’t have a link.) I don’t how much tuition Lakewood Public Schools shells out to private religious schools that don’t accept any non-Jewish kids (or any boys, in this instance).  This placement might have been justified by classifying Bais Rivka as a special education school, but that’s a guess. According to a local Jewish paper, however, this particular yeshiva is involved in one of the ways that some Lakewood residents work with the School Board to separate their kids from the riff-raff.

In 2010  Bais Rivka  put a bid in to the School Board to use its building to host a publicly-funded preschool program called Tiny Tots. From the Lakewood Scoop, a local Jewish paper:

Last night, the BOE turned down the bid from Bais Rivka Rochel to facilitate the former Tiny Tots program. Bais Rivka Rochel, owned by R’ Shlomo Chaim Kanarek, was the single entity to place a bid…to host the former program, in hopes of leasing the space to the State in an effort to keep the former TT children at the same location, only now under the State’s program. 

After the close of the Tiny Tots program days before the new school year, many parents refused to send their children to the Linden Avenue school, which would include children from other communities. 

How do you balance the rights of parents to segregate their kids from “other communities” with the rights of those “others” to receive their fair share of state and federal money? Maybe the FBI can figure it out.

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