Yesterday NJ Spotlight reported on the sorry fiscal condition of Lakewood Public Schools (Ocean County). On Friday Commissioner David Hespe announced that the State would appoint a fiscal monitor to oversee the district’s spending. That’s a step short of a state takeover and removes the School Board’s ability to dispense funds.
Currently, Lakewood has a $5 million deficit and is trying to get a loan from the state to cover costs. Its total operating budget is about $107 million.
Spotlight identifies the two drivers of this state action: the ballooning costs of transporting over 20,000 students to Orthodox Jewish yeshivas (day schools) — about $20 million a year — and Lakewood’s equally budget-busting special education costs. The special education costs have nothing to do with services provided to the in-district students with disabilities, who are 75% Hispanic and 25% African-American, because the district spends over $19 million in tuition to out-of-district special education schools that cater to the Orthodox Jewish community..
By way of a little background, Lakewood’s Board of Education is entirely comprised of representatives from Vaad, the council of religious and community leaders. Three years ago, after much press attention to the inequities, a few less partisan board members were voted in, but they were booted out this year after a large media effort by the Rabbinate. (See here.)
In 2002 an ad hoc committee comprised of non-board members looked at ways to reduce special education costs The committee focused on the favored school for children with disabilities among the Orthodox community, the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, or SCHI. At the time, the district was spending $2.5 million a year to send 53 white Jewish students there, and the final report suggested that some of those children could be educated in-district with expansion of appropriate programs.
The committee was chaired by Arthur Godt, who had been special education director in Passaic. He noted, “The first line is always ‘public education first. Well, Lakewood doesn’t do that. They just automatically go to the private school.”
Currently Lakewood sends about 115 children to SCHI at a tuition rate of $442.08 per day. Here’s more from Asbury Park Press.
Also, in 2006 the ACLU filed a complaint with the NJ DOE alleging that Child Study Teams at Lakewood, which determine the child’s placement, segregated children by race and/or religion by sending only white Jewish children to SCHI and either keeping all Hispanic and black students in district or sending them to cheaper schools.
Here’s one example from the ACLU audit of Individualized Education Plans, which compares the services provided to three students with Down Syndrome.
OA is identified as Hispanic. The Present Level of Education Performance (PLEP) portion of the IEP for OA reads, in part: “severe receptive and expressive language delays, attention span is significantly reduced and he requires intense/direct instruction to learn.”
JH is identified as Black. The PLEP portion of the IEP for JH reads, in part, “referred to child study team due to diagnosis of Down Syndrome and global developmental delays. he has speech and language expressive and receptive issues, oral motor issues (drooling) and fine motor issues (hand over hand tasks and placing shapes in their designated spot).”
BM is identified as White. The PLEP portion of the IEP for BM states in part: “Educational implications included the Speech and Language Evaluation completed by [speech language pathologist] indicated BM has significant global developmental delays and is functioning at a one-word expressive language stage.”
While the diagnoses and PLEPs for all three students are substantially similar, the district proposed a half-day, in-district placement for the Black and Hispanic students, while the White student received a full-day program at SCHI.
The ACLU complaint was dismissed.
Another complaint was filed protesting the district’s practice of obliging rabbis with gender-specific buses for transporting students to yeshivas. That complaint was also dismissed.
The new fiscal monitor for Lakewood, Michael Azzara, will have a full plate. Lakewood’s most recent audit repeatedly notes that “our auditing procedures disclosed instances of noncompliance” and “major deficiencies were identified.”
When the auditors attempted to review special education placements, IEP’s were “not able to be provided.” When the auditors attempted to confirm details related to transportation of non-public students to yeshivas, about half of the required forms“were not available.”
One sign of strength for the troubled district: a relatively new group, Lakewood U.N.I.T.E., has been protesting the Board’s plans to cut in-district programs in order to maintain yeshiva bussing. Maybe they’ll get a warmer reception from Mr. Azzara than they’ve received from the school board.