Four years ago, in 2017, NJ Education Report started covering the contract between Lakewood Public Schools District and attorney Michael Inzelbuch, particularly the school board’s agreement to pay him $600,000 per year–$50K a month– along with complying with a bizarre list of conditions way outside the purview of a school board attorney. This was Inzelbuch’s second stint with the district: he was the district lawyer from 2002-2012 but was fired for sharply increased spending on private religious schools for ultra-Orthodox children, charges of racial bias (against the district’s 6,000 Black and Hispanic students), and a cheating scandal.
Today star reporter Joe Strupp of the Asbury Park Press has a lengthy analysis of Inzelbuch’s earnings. In 2017 he indeed took home about $625K, close to his (crazy!) contract. But over the last two years he’s been billing the district $475/hour for tasks that are typically not handled by district lawyers and that has raised his payments from the cash-strapped district to over a million dollars a year.
Remember, this is a district that currently has loans from the state (that it will never pay back) of $138 million. It will need another “loan” of $70 million this year to balance its budget, which is disproportionately devoted to tuition to ultra-Orthodox-only schools like the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (NJER calculates that this year Lakewood will pay this particular school $32,190,941, or 15% of the district’s operating budget) and busing 30,000 yeshiva students in gender-specific buses to 130 different sites.
Here are the highlights from Strupp’s analysis; he got the information by filing an Open Public Records Act request. He notes that many of the records he received “were redacted in whole or in part, the names or initials of people Inzelbuch said he communicated with were omitted, and matters were described in general terms, making it difficult to discern, in many instances, what legal service Inzelbuch provided.”
- “Over the last two years, as the Lakewood public school district pleaded poverty to the state, took on tens of millions of dollars in new debt, cut back on programs and laid off teachers, it paid its chief lawyer more than $2.1 million.” Specifically, Inzelbuch got $1 million during the 2019-2020 school year and $1.12 million in 2020-2021, not including benefits. For context, the largest district in the country, New York City, pays its lawyer $363,000 a year. Newark, NJ’s largest district, pays its board lawyer $200,000 a year. Also worth noting: when the State Attorney General saw Inzelbuch’s contract he said it wasn’t consistent with regulations from the NJ Department of Education.
- Back in 2017 Inzelbuch was reprimanded by the state because district lawyers have to file invoices specifying how many hours they work to justify the hourly rate and those hours have to be “fully itemized and verified.” But “none of Inzelbuch’s general counsel invoices includes the minutes or hours spent per task or per month. Inzelbuch has consistently billed for the entire $50,000 set forth as the maximum each month — for every month since 2017 — despite omitting such details as the actual time he spent on each task.”
- For example, this past June Inzelbuch billed the district for $160,548. The invoice is sketchy but notable because that’s the most he has ever been paid in a one-month billing since rejoining the district in 2017. Also, last year the school board raised his hourly rate from $350 to $475, presumably at Inzelbuch’s command.
- “The challenges of COVID do not fully explain what has been a quick rise in Inzelbuch’s compensation. He nearly doubled his 2017-2018 school year compensation of $625,000 by the close of the 2020-2021 school year, which paid him $1.12 million and ended as the pandemic was still underway.”
- Inzelbuch’s paychecks have “jumped more than 80% since 2017.” He also gets reimbursements for health insurance at $2,565 per month.
- “Set forth in the May 2020 bills were several instances where he was paid more than $5,000 in additional fees in one day — amounting to at least 10 hours of work paid out at his hourly rate of $475 — while he also billed taxpayers for unspecified time spent on board business as part of his maximum $50,000 monthly charge.” For example, on May 8th he billed the district for $6,135 for “litigation services,” which comes out to 12 hours of work at his $475-per-hour rate. Another invoice only makes sense if he spent 16 hours in one day on litigation for the district.
- “The state education code does not require a board attorney contract to be put out to bid but says it must be “issued in a deliberative and efficient manner that ensures the school district receives the highest quality services at a fair and competitive price or through a shared service arrangement.”
- Some months Inzelbuch billed the district for 62 hours per week of work. It’s worth noting that he also has a private practice where he works for other clients.
- The district has a State Fiscal Monitor from the state Department of Education, David Shafter, who gets $100,000 a year and is supposed to oversee spending. (He doesn’t.) Former Fiscal Monitor Michael Azzara said the district had a “culture of fear.”
Gov. Phil Murphy (who is supposed to hold the state DOE accountable) did not respond to requests for comment (maybe because he and his wife give large donations to the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence). Inzelbuch and all other board members or administrators also declined comment.
But Strupp was able to get others to weigh in.
Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators: “There is no compensation for any school district employee that approaches his compensation. Those numbers are unheard of anywhere else in the State of New Jersey.” Also, “The most unusual part about this is there is a fiscal monitor in Lakewood who has a responsibility for reviewing and approving his contract.”
The State DOE: “We are looking into the matter, but we can’t comment further.”
Paul Tractenberg, a former Rutgers law professor and an expert on public education, on the state DOE’s failure to rein Lakewood in: “The state is anteing up ever increasing amounts of money because the superintendent is certifying it is in need and, meanwhile, (Inzelbuch) is ratcheting up his outrageous fees and getting the district to pay more than it can spend. It is discouraging that the state is doing nothing at all to control this.”
Trachtenberg more generally on Inzelbuch’s contract: “My own view was, it was outrageous when it started and it sounds like it is doubly outrageous in a handful of years. The notion that a district that is struggling to find dollars to educate its students is laying out (hundreds of thousands of dollars) to its attorney is obscene and immoral as far as I am concerned.”
Bob Fishman, expert with the National Association of Legal Fee Analysis, on Inzelbuch’s invoices: “That would not be the way my firm would have handled it and it is not the way most firms would handle it.”
Education Law Center’s David Sciarra on Inzelbuch’s jacked-up invoices: “They don’t need a lawyer to deal with OPRA or talk to the press. He is coming up with a whole list of things to justify $50,000 a month, things that are typically done by administrators.” (See here for Ed Law Center’s formal complaint about Inzelbuch’s contract.)
Dawn Hiltner of NJEA, noting that Lakewood teachers are the lowest paid in Ocean County: “We can only hope that the board is as generous with the teachers’ contract as it is with Mr. Inzelbuch’s.”