New Jersey’s Educational Caste System, Lakewood’s Elephant in the Room, and One Truth-Speaker

I’m awfully hard on Education Law Center so it is with pleasure that I salute Executive Director David Sciarra’s candor in his comments about the new Administrative Law Office ruling on whether the State violates its school funding formula by underfunding Lakewood Public Schools.  Judge Susan Scarola says the state does, in fact, provide enough money to pay for a “thorough and efficient” education for 6,500 in-district students, almost all poor and Latino* but the local school board fails to control the annual costs of transporting 40,000 ultra-Orthodox students to 135 private schools ($33 million) and paying tuition for ultra-Orthodox students’ special education services ($43 million). 

The district won’t try to control those costs because of what some call the “tyranny of the majority.” That tyranny extends to the school board, which is majority ultra-Orthodox. Only Sciarra has the moral rectitude to call Lakewood’s bluff and point to the elephant in the room.

This diversion of state money to benefit a privileged group is bigger than Lakewood. With its unusual demographics and culture, it serves as a useful caricature of the discrimination that pervades other NJ districts with more subtle caste systems, a cartoon-ish version of what sources describe in Asbury Park and students of color describe in Montclair and  staffers described at the State Department of Education under Commissioner Lamont Repollet. (Word on the street is that Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan is easier to work for, although some are withholding judgement.)

So we can thank Lakewood for this vivid illustration of inequity.

The case pitted original petitioner Arthur Lang (a math teacher in Lakewood), district attorney Michael Inzelbuch**, and Lakewood administrators against the State Education Commissioner, the State Board of Education, and the State Department of Education. In describing Lakewood’s lack of effort to curtail costs, Judge Scarola writes,

[I]n 2018-2019 Lakewood sent 343 special education pupils to private school placements at a total cost of $33M in tuition. That is an average of nearly $100,000 in tuition per student. Petitioners presented scant evidence of the district’s efforts to educate more of these children in-district, which could save Lakewood substantial sums and result in more aid.

Here she suggests that if Lakewood places some of those 343 students in-district, the Board would have more money to provide a proper education to its 6,500 students who have no choice where to attend school. But this will never happen because the parents of ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) students with disabilities will only send their kids to private ultra-Orthodox schools because public schools don’t lead students in saying blessings over food and don’t forbid books that would be contrary to ultra-Orthodox values and don’t ban girls and boys dancing together. In Lakewood Haredi girls and boys don’t even ride buses together. 

Two hundred Haredi students attend the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, a private special education school approved by the State that only admits ultra-Orthodox children. Current tuition there is $123,679.50 per year (not including transportation or one-on-one aides). Another popular placement for Lakewood Haredi students with disabilities is the Special Children’s Center, which doesn’t even pretend to be secular. (The school is referred to by the state as the Center for Education and tuition is a relative bargain: only $73,317.30 per student per year.

Lakewood representatives argue that the increasingly large gap between revenues and costs is due to unusual demographics of the district and their obligation to transport 40,000 students to ultra-Orthodox schools and pay for services for those who meet eligibility criteria for special education. That’s all true, and is why the district is in debt to the state for over $100 million in “loans” that it will never pay back. However, writes Judge Scarola, “there is an absence of evidence in the record to indicate that these rising costs are totally attributable to the rising number of nonpublic school students, and that Lakewood has done everything it can to rein in its transportation costs in order to free up more funds for [a thorough and efficient education] for its public school students.” She adds, “[p]etitioners presented scant evidence of the district’s efforts to educate more of these children in-district, which could save Lakewood substantial sums and result in more aid.”

(SFRA reimburses districts as much as 90% of the cost over $40,000 of educating special needs students if they do so in-district but only 75% of the cost over $55,000 if they do so in private placements.)

Judge Scarola concludes, “petitioners have failed to carry their heavy burden to show that the SFRA is the substantial or a significant reason Lakewood cannot provide such that the SFRA is unconstitutional as applied to Lakewood.” 

In other words, if Lakewood ultra-Orthodox parents would do what is forbidden by their culture and send their kids with disabilities to public school, then Lakewood would have more money for in-district students.

But that will never happen so nothing will change for 6,500 students who are cheated every day. 

A few other highlights:

  • Judge Scarola is critical of demographer Ross Haber’s testimony for Lakewood. She writes, “his numbers did not match up” and notes he admitted “it was possible he was double-counting tuition and services.” There were typos and missing numbers and years. This goes on for several pages but here’s a sample:

In Table 9, the tuition costs did not match, and the transportation costs did not match. The projections for school year 2020–2021 were missing. The adequacy numbers did not match other tables and budget numbers. The most accurate year was 2015–2016. He came to his conclusions by taking the average from 2015–2016 and 2016–2017, but the number was wrong. And his conclusion was based on data that did not match historical data from Table 6. He was not sure if he omitted one year from his calculations and was not sure if he had the right draft.

(How much did state and local taxpayers spend on Haber’s testimony?)

  • Superintendent Laura Winters, also ignoring the elephant in the room, said the reason there were 400 out-of-district placements was because “there is insufficient space in the district for all special education students.” (She knows “space” is not why Haredi students with disabilities don’t attend district schools.)
  • Interim Lakewood Business Administrator Robert Finger “was not aware that Lakewood Township’s school tax rate was one of the lowest in the state based on equalization value and reassessment.”
  • Michael Azzara, former Fiscal State Monitor (Lakewood has had a state monitor for many years due to fiscal irregularities) testified for the State that Monitors have “proposed ballot questions” — public referenda in order to raise school revenue for projects — “but the Lakewood Board of Education has rejected them.”  Also, “in 2016, the state monitor ordered the school board to put to a voter referendum a tax increase for courtesy busing, a non-T&E item; however, the Lakewood Township voters defeated the proposal for payment of courtesy busing by approximately 7,000 to 100.”
  • Also, last year the teacher who brought the suit, Arthur Lang, was transferred from Lakewood High School, where he taught for many years, to Lakewood Middle School, even though there weren’t enough math teachers at the high school. He said at the time the transfer was “being undertaken to discipline and retaliate against me for my involvement in the foregoing litigation.”

So where are we? Still in the funny papers. Lakewood Board of Education will continue to underserve its minority students (recent outcomes: three out of four third-graders don’t read at grade-level, four out of five middle schoolers don’t reach proficiency in math, and 28% of high school students are chronically absent) due to an inability to control costs for its privileged majority. Now if only others would join David Sciarra and point to the elephant in the room.

*StateAidGuy, a NJ Ed Report contributor, argues that the state does underfund Lakewood and the SFRA doesn’t work for this district.

**Sciarra also describes the School Board’s “lavish and unprecedented payments” to district lawyer Michael Inzelbuch.” He even complained to the state that the payments were egregious. Here he has company: Senate President Steve Sweeney has “has publicly chastised the district for seeking more state support while at once employing a board attorney, Inzelbuch, at an annual salary of some $600,000.” (Note to Senator Sweeney: an Asbury Park Press investigation found that in 2018 Inzelbuch actually made $715,000: $50,000 a month plus “miscellaneous” litigation work for the district.)

Laura Waters

View Comments

  • While I'm not directly familiar with Lakewood public schools, it's clear that Judge Scarola's recommendation is coming from a legal perspective as opposed to an educational one. If the district would in fact expand its in-district special education program, it's really not that likely that this would improve the quality of the program and benefit those students already there. I've spent some time working in Trenton, where a judge issued a similar order, and the results really did not benefit the students, who were placed in overcrowded, and sometimes inappropriate, settings that lacked the life skills programming of the out of district programs where these students were previously placed. I could give specific examples, but I am committed to professional confidentiality.
    Judge Scarola's ruling seems to have as its premise that the playing field must be leveled by decreasing services to students who do not attend public schools, with no regard as to how exactly that would improve educational quality for those who do. Unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer for that, as amply demonstrated by Abbott districts who receive plentiful funding yet continue to fail their students. As an educational professional, I can certainly think of a few possible suggestions, such as expanding access to early intervention, increased parental outreach and programming, availability of parental advocacy and coaching during the IEP process, push-in therapy services, and smaller schools. I'm sure others in the field would have suggestions as well. But I think we need to move away from the fallacy that the presence of nonpublic students in Lakewood is the cause of student failure; we need to move to the broader picture of how our educational system as a whole can better meet the needs of minority students, from an educational as opposed to purely fiscal perspective.

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