Lakewood Settles Case With Administrator Who Served as a ‘Scapegoat’

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The Lakewood Board of Education has settled the case with Helen Tobia, the district’s former supervisor who dealt, among other responsibilities, with non-public school students who were classified as disabled and, thus, eligible for special education services. In 2015, after the Board and attorney Michael Inzelbuch needed a scapegoat to cover up the district’s practice of paying tuition for these students at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas that don’t teach secular studies, Tobia was selected for that role.

In response she sued the Board for acting in bad faith and in ousting her. The Asbury Park Press reported earlier this week that Tobia said the “real reason she was fired was that she had become a whistleblower who exposed alleged wrongdoing. Tobia said she ’had become a liability to the  school board because she intended to cooperate with the FBI and any other entity investigating the highly questionable practices of the L[akewood] BOE.”

Also, “her lawsuit claimed that tenure charges against her were fabricated and certified by the school board in an attempt to force her to resign and undermine her ability to be a witness in any FBI prosecution.” 

Inzelbuch is quite the negotiator. Over the last two years in his position of school board attorney, the district has paid him $2.1 million. He also runs a private law practice on the side.

Tobia disputes the district’s claim that she complied with Orthodox Jewish parents on her own. In fact, she says, she repeatedly objected “to monies being reallocated away from public school children and used to provide speech, occupational and physical therapies for non-public school students attending private schools.”

She also claimed, says the Press,  that she angered the school board by refusing its repeated orders, which she termed “illegal,” to prevent the placement of disabled students at the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence in Lakewood because of the high tuition cost. 

The current annual tuition at the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence is $123,246.90. This doesn’t include transportation and one-on-one aides.

Last year NJ Ed Report calculated that Lakewood and state taxpayers shell out $32,190,941, or 15% of Lakewood’s annual operating budget, for the 227 Orthodox students it sends to this school. 

The settlement agreement is confidential; no details were reported. However, Lakewood has a long history of  firing employees who refuse to disregard the law; then the fired employees sue the district. In 2015, the same year Tobia was fired, former state-appointed Fiscal Monitor Michael Azzara told an attorney in a deposition, “this entire district, when it comes to the staff, I would say it’s a culture of fear.”

In 2017 NJ Ed Report covered Tobia’s litigation. For the full story, see here. For a summary, read on.

Helen Tobia was a 22-year employee of Lakewood Public Schools, a tenured Supervisor of Social Studies, Fine Arts, and Pupil Personnel Services. She was hired by Attorney Michael Inzelbuch who, at the time, held the bizarre position of “Board Attorney in Charge of Special Education Litigation” at LPS for twelve years. (Here’s something else that reveals Lakewood’s peculiarity: before Inzelbuch accepted the Board position, he made his living suing LPS on behalf of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva parents who wanted the district to pay for their children to attend Jewish day schools on the grounds that they were disabled. He won so often that the Board hired him to sit on their other side of the table. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  After he was fired from his district post, he went back to suing the Board.)

According to court documents Ms. Tobia was responsible for supervising Child Study Teams who classify children as eligible for special education services and, with parents, write Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) for eligible students that include placement decisions. In 2013 the Lakewood School Board charged Ms. Tobia with “unbecoming conduct,” a “pattern of inappropriate behavior,” and violations of state law that “had a deleterious effect on the District and its students.”

What did Ms. Tobia do?  She followed Lakewood tradition and placed children in non-public Jewish day schools with a parental contract (drafted by the Board attorney and signed by the Board) which is often done in many districts.The district did this before Ms. Tobia’s tenure. It continues to do so today. Ms. Tobia simply had the misfortune to play the role of scapegoat.

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