This Mom Is Fighting the History of Corruption in Elizabeth Public Schools

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We’ve been marginalized. We don’t matter. We are the leftovers.

That’s Maria Lorenz, mother of Juan and Pablo (not their real names) who are classified as eligible for special education services at Elizabeth Public Schools in Union County, New Jersey’s third largest school district. Lorenz is a fierce advocate for her children’s right to educational justice, undeterred by the district’s culture of nepotism and corruption, undaunted by the prospect of speaking out at district and State Board of Education meeting, willing to fill out innumerable forms to access public records, and cognizant of her access–rare among Elizabeth parents– to attorneys and her ability to exercise due process (as she did this past summer and not for the first time).

“I’m an educated Latina,” she told me. “If Elizabeth Public Schools District is treating my boys so poorly, flagrantly disregarding the rules that govern IEP’s (Individualized Education Plans, which set forth annual goals, services, and benchmarks for students with disabilities), imagine what they’re doing to the rest of the Hispanic population?”

That’s a lot of kids. While the city itself, NJ’s fourth largest, is 40% white, the school district, comprising 36 buildings and 28,300 students, is 74% Hispanic, with 56% of students speaking Spanish at home; in addition, 76% of students are economically-disadvantaged. In large urban areas, classification rates—the percentage of students eligible for special education—tends to align with the state average of 17%. For example, Newark’s classification rate is 17%, Camden’s is 18%, and Trenton’s is 15%. 

How about Elizabeth?

Elizabeth’s classification rate of students with disabilities is 12.6%, significantly lower. Lorenz says that’s because the district marginalizes parents in general but even more so for those with special needs children and English Language Learners, bullying parents who ask for federally-mandated support for their children. “We would go to board meetings,” she explained, “and there would be no interpreters. I was the interpreter! At one point I said enough — the district has to provide this service. I had a few Latino mothers who got up to speak [about the district’s failure to provide services to their children with disabilities] and they only speak Spanish.” An administrator claimed to be translating for them but “he only got every other word.” Lorenz would stand up and correct him.

As another Elizabeth parent says, “this is by far the WORST school that I have ever dealt with. They make absolutely no accommodations for children with special needs and instead they suggest that the child complies with what they think they should be doing. They give you absolutely no resources to what your child is entitled to by law–you have to do your own research and ask (demand) for what your child is entitled to by the district.” Julissa Reyes, who has a child with disabilities, says in order to get entitled services “you have to fight.” Dannette Torres’ four-year-old son has an IEP that calls for a personal aide but his aide has been absent and her child missed six months of speech therapy. “Unless you fight for it, you don’t get it,” she said.

All of this is patently illegal: IEP’s are binding contracts for services between the school district and the parent. This means that if a school does not provide services agreed upon within the IEP, it’s in violation of the law.

Yet when Lorenz contacted the office of the Executive Superintendent of Union County to file a complaint, Marie Mendez, the County Education Specialist replied in an email, “the Elizabeth Public School District stated that all parents are treated equal [sic] and there are no special privileges given to any parent.”

Elizabeth’s Corruption Is Both Criminal and “Soft”

It’s been about ten years since I dug into Elizabeth’s dirt, mostly recounting the great investigative journalism of Ted Sherman of the Star-Ledger, who wrote a series on the district’s deep-seated corruption and nepotism. Examples of this include the school board doling out jobs and promotions to staff members in exchange for political contributions;  hiring of unqualified teachers; the release of teachers’ confidential information to pad campaign war chests; and the undue influence of the city’s Democratic machine.  Sherman describes how the school board “paid out at least $1.5 million to teachers, administrators and other employees to settle charges ranging from political interference to discrimination and wrongful termination” while running up $5.6 million in legal fees paid by taxpayers. He described the district as a “relentless political machine fueled by nepotism, patronage, money and favors, using its nearly 4,000 employees as a ready-made fundraising base.”

Indeed, the corruption in Elizabeth runs deep and long. According to William Schluter, in “How Unethical Conduct Undermines Good Government,” Elizabeth City’s Democratic political machine “exercises its muscle through the city’s school board,” whose purpose is “to gain power for its school board leaders” who have appointed 20 relatives to the district payroll. The district’s teachers are “counted on to take time off on Election Day to serve as challengers at the polls or to get the vote out. More troubling, board members and other supervisory personnel solicit funds, generally in the form of tickets to events, from teachers and other employees. The proceeds are deposited in accounts used to finance political campaigns.”

Schluter makes the distinction between criminal corruption–one example is former president of the Jersey City School Board  Sudhan Thomas,who in 2020 was indicted for embezzlement, wire fraud and money laundering–and “soft corruption.”

Here’s Schuluter:

[Soft corruption] occurs when the people who hold public office figure out how to game the system in ways that enrich them and their cronies without breaking any laws. This is soft corruption: unethical transgressions carried out in the quest for political power or personal benefit, achieving results that work against the public interest; and it’s all legal. Most writers about corruption generally define it as political behavior that violates the norms of public office for private, selfish reasons. That definition is fine, except that such behavior can be perfectly legal.

Or as Michael Kinsley put it, the scandal isn’t what’s illegal, the scandal is what’s legal. 

Examples of soft corruption within Elizabeth’s school system abound: Former Board president Rafael Fajardo ensured that his sister was hired as a truant officer for pre-school children, even though there is no requirement that preschoolers attend school. Five years ago the district was flagged for offering money to students to campaign for the mayor’s preferred school board candidates. The school board has appointed twenty relatives of board members to jobs on the district payroll, despite a Code of Ethics that forbids this practice. Board members who make good money have falsely applied for their children to receive free lunch.

In one instance, Juan Tenreiro was hired as Elizabeth’s custodial supervisor, despite the fact he did not have a boiler license, which he said was a prerequisite of the job. In a subsequent lawsuit he claimed he was forced to spend most of the day “engaging in political activity to assist Fajardo’s political cause.” When he raised questions, he claimed, Fajardo told him, “Don’t worry about it. We have control of the union. We protect people that protect us.”

Indeed, there seems little oxygen among the county government, the county government, and the school board. Currently each of the school board members is backed by a City Council member politically and financially. They are also supported by Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage and the city Democratic Party.

As Lorenz has written elsewhere, of the nine school board members,

  • 5 work for Union County or have a family member that works at the county.
  • 2 have hired their family members to work for the Elizabeth Public Schools before they knew they were running for board and had politically supported the Mayor of Elizabeth; another member hired her cousin.
  • 1 member has her restaurant cater graduations; the School Board contracts food services with her restaurant.
  • 2 members work directly for the city and were found guilty of an ethics violation for creating a position and voting for a city council member, who in turns makes decisions on them. See OAL Docket EEC13553-16 SEC Dkt No C10-16.  

What happens when soft corruption is rampant? Those in power protect adults, not children. Well, let’s be fair: neuro-typical native English speakers do fairly well for a large urban district. It’s the students who don’t meet those criteria that suffer. One data point: in 2018, among students who are classified as eligible for special education in Elizabeth, 64 students moved or dropped out; only 93 graduated from high school. If 2018 is a typical year–and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be–41% of special education students either leave or drop out of Elizabeth Public Schools. 

In recognition of this, at one school board meeting six years ago, Lorenz presented board members with black ribbons that she said symbolized their failure to meet state targets for students with disabilities.

Elizabeth Fails to Meet the Needs of Special Education Students – and the State “Knows All About It”

Lorenz’s claims have been verified by staff members and other parents. “They want us to lie and say we provide services to make it look good for the district,” said one staff member. “Please know those in charge in Trenton”–i.e., officials at the state Department of Education—”know all about it and don’t care about the district violating the rights of special needs children on a daily basis.”

A former Elizabeth case manager whom I spoke with, Luann Breese, told me supervisors ordered her “to lie and sign documents for special needs students I didn’t even teach or know. I refused and was sanctioned and punished for not breaking the law, which they demanded we do.” Breese went all the way up the ladder to the State Department of Education “but nothing was ever done. The illegalities,” she said, “continue year after year on a daily basis and the school district has never been held accountable.” The environment, she told me, is “toxic.”

How toxic? For years the school board never supplied translators at mandated IEP meetings, a function mandated by law. In addition, says Breese, bilingual classes for English Language Learners often lack Spanish-speaking teachers.  Staff and parents offered documentation showing violations in the process of creating IEPs, including not informing parents of changes and hiring special education aides and educators who lack required licenses.

Case in point: Juan and Pablo. After Lorenz and her husband  learned from doctors that their children were on the autism spectrum, they both started learning about advocacy. Lorenz used all her vacation time from her job to take courses offered by SPAN, the Statewide Parents Advocacy Network, and they started talking to lawyers. Eventually Juan was placed in a private special education school at district expense.

But things went poorly for Pablo, their younger son. The district tried to de-classify him in order to take away the services mandated in his IEP, even though he has what Lorenz calls a “huge speech delay, one or two standard deviations behind the norm.” The district fought her about transportation and placed him in inappropriate settings without necessary support. “I feel like I’m in a vicious abusive relationship,” she said. “As much as I’m trying to protect my kids, I can’t. I have procedural safeguards but what do I do when the deck is so stacked against us? You know–you have all the data neatly lined up–that the district is not in compliance. You try to reason with them and nothing happens.”

She added, “some would call me a PITA –a pain in  the ass. I laugh at that because I consider PITA to stand for ‘Parental Involvement Towards Academics.’ It doesn’t matter. I’m fine with that label either way because it means I am holding the district accountable with my involvment and advocacy.

When the district shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic (and stayed closed until July 2021), Pablo’s educational programming really went south. (Lorenz  says he learned far more during virtual instruction when compared to in-person school, but his deficits remained and he suffered socially.) In addition, Lorenz and her husband ran into a series of roadblocks that ended in a courtroom. Their experience is instructive; even parents with sharp advocacy skills, indefatigable persistence, and resources can find their children cheated by the district. 

During an IEP meeting in the Spring of 2021, the Lorenzs asked for summer programming for Pablo that would include a reading and math component, due to his learning losses during the district’s long period of virtual instruction. The district refused, so they exercised their right to due process and took the district to court. The transcript from the settlement conference reveals the disconnect between what students need and what Elizabeth will offer. 

First, their lawyer states that the district has agreed to provide both reading and math compensatory programming during the summer because assessments showed significant learning losses in both reading and math. But Elizabeth’s Special Services Director, Diana Pinto-Gomez, says “we can’t do math and reading” because it’s “a three and a half hour program and we can’t get that all in.” Maria says sarcastically, “I have to choose which subject my child will fail at first so let’s flip a coin?” She was given the impression, she argues, that both math and reading would be provided. “Why don’t we cut it into quarters,” she suggests, “maybe he goes for one hour for basic math and then one hour of algebraic and then an hour for reading.”

From the transcript of the settlement conference:

PINTO-GOMEZ: No, you do not, and I mean, that’s just not fair to the staff and then I have to do a pre and a post [test], Ms. L., and then it wouldn’t show that he’s made progress.”

LORENZ: What’s fair to P.? Since we’re all here in the best interest of P., what’s fair to P.?

PINTO-GOMEZ: “You can pick, Ms. L. What is fair for P. [He] can go to reading or math in the summer.”

LAWYER: “Is that acceptable, M. and D.?”

LORENZ: Well, I guess it’s going to have to be acceptable at this point. I mean, I don’t know what to say, I really don’t. P [has deficits] in both areas and — and obviously, clearly, I have to choose, I have to be the executioner and choose at which subject he will fail over the summer and not  get any help — because it’s not fair to the staff, you know, that we divide it so much and try to customize the program for a child that clearly has an Individualized Educational Plan.”

So it was set. Pablo would spend the summer with intensive math tutoring. After all, he was heading into sixth grade where the course content includes logic and algebra yet he had yet to master calculation. Reading would have to wait.

Except it wasn’t all set: the district reneged on its promise and refused to provide the agreed-upon math programming due to a “lack of staff.” With nothing offered, Maria and her husband paid a private tutor to provide math instruction, then asked the district for reimbursement of $2,730.00 ($70 per hour for 39 hours). The district refused, Maria believes, in retaliation for her history of public advocacy efforts. So she sued the district in Small Claims Court. The district’s machinations (saying the tutor had to be registered with the district, etc.) remain unresolved. 

Elizabeth’s Corruption Starts at the Top

This systemic failure to meet the needs of children like Pablo, Lorenz told me, goes right to the top and includes Superintendent Olga Hugelmeyer and the New Jersey Department of Education. For example, the federal government’s pandemic aid of $92 million to Elizabeth’s public school system includes the requirement that districts conduct “meaningful consultations” with the community in deciding how to spend the money. Lorenz maintains this consultation was not meaningful, limited to a public presentation (not translated into Spanish) where Hugelmeyer refused to take questions although the public was allowed to email in comments. The biggest insult, Lorenz tells me, is “our superintendent is a Cubana” like herself.

“Sure, she allocated money for special ed kids, Saturday social skills programs and after school, for a total of $406,859. What she doesn’t tell you is that the social skills programs have enrollment caps. Meanwhile we have parents who say their kids aren’t getting math instruction.” 

Just this week, Lorenz sent a registered letter to County Superintendent Daryl Palmiere, the Elizabeth School Board attorney Richard Flaum, the State Special Education Ombudsman, the Office of Civil Rights, and assorted district personnel. In the letter Lorenz, citing various district policies, explains that Pablo requires an epi-pen but, per doctor’s orders, “cannot self-administer and would require epinephrine administration from a nurse or trained staff in case of severe allergic reactions.” Yet the district refuses to comply with doctor’s order and have someone on the school bus–Lorenz says the busdriver or bus aide would be fine– trained to use the epi-pen. From her letter:

“Policy 5141.20 states under Family Responsibility that a parent should ‘Work with the school team to develop an individualized emergency health care plan (IEHP) that promotes food allergy management and accommodates the child’s needs throughout the school including the classroom, in the cafeteria, in after-care programs, during school sponsored activities, and on the school bus, as well as defined emergency allergic reaction plan.’ I am unable to fulfill my responsibility when I am being threatened with a cease or desist order by Flaum from further communication with the school nurse about the epi-pen and [Pablo’s] medical needs. These sewer tactics and threats not only limit my involvement as a parent but impedes fostering open communication and fulfilling my ‘family responsibility’ in my role of parent. This bully type behavior is counter productive and takes away the focus from addressing [Pablo’s] medical needs to ensure that he is safe both at school and while he is transported home.”

Lorenz says this battle to overcome the district’s refusal to  honor her family’s  rights isn’t over. She’ll continue to fight for her children. “I’m an educated Latina and I believe in empowering parents and holding districts accountable” she said. “I’m never giving up.”

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