Follow the Money All the Way to Lakewood; Or, Kneel to the Vaad

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This just in from Matt Rooney of Save Jersey, who speculates how Governor-to-be Phil Murphy so easily secured the Democratic nomination. Says Rooney, “he bought it, Corzine-style,” but with one difference.

[W]hereas Corzine did it the old fashioned way (donating HUGE sums of cash to Democrat county organizations who decide the nomination), Murphy spread the cash around through various front organizations over the course of years.

Rooney is dinging Murphy here. I’m not; it’s de riguer, sadly, for most politicians to buy their seats. But here’s where it gets interesting: Rooney’s point is not whether or not Murphy acquired his silky ride to the nomination through boatloads of money. His point is where Murphy funneled his money. The calculation behind one particular donation sheds light on the perils of local control and the tyranny of the majority.

Which brings us back, once again, to Lakewood.  

You can browse at your leisure through Rooney’s thorough dissection of Murphy’s $17,317,450.21 shopping spree. What caught my eye was the Lakewood connection: “between 2014 and 2015, the Murphys gave $70,000 to the strangely-named “The School for Children with Hidden Intelligence”; the Lakewood branch was soon after raided by law enforcement.”

The School for Children Intelligence (SCHI) is the private special education school in Lakewood that is the pride of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community. Their special needs kids get sent to SCHI at $112,000 tuition per year;  last year, in fact, the school district sent  $22.9 million to SCHI, about 20% of its total operating budget. (There’s a second Jews-only Lakewood private special education school, The Special Children’s Center, that was originally started as a competitor to SCHI but there’s plenty of students for both.)

However,  non-Haredi Lakewood children with disabilities, almost all Latino, Black, and poor, get  in-district programs, some no doubt stellar and others less so. This is due to  the “culture of fear” that pervades Lakewood (although a growing list of fired whistle-blowers is suing the district), the Haredi-controlled School Board, and the correlative lack of resources for minority students. For example, the Board just eliminated the position of director of special education.

“We’ve been saying it, we’ve been screaming it, and nobody wanted to listen,” said the Rev. Glenn Wilson, the head of Lakewood U.N.I.T.E., a local group that advocates for families in the public schools.

Another example: This year the Board paid for 56 ultra-Orthodox kids who attend SCHI to go to sleepaway camp in the Catskills at $7,900 per kid for seven weeks. (See pages 21–22 of this Board agenda; there’s probably more listings in other agendas.Camp Menuchah’s mission “is to offer respite and programs for families struggling with the challenge of raising a child with significant disabilities.” As a parent of a son with significant disabilities, I would have loved a seven-week respite paid for by my district but instead we received the state standard Extended Year Program, just like the non-Haredi special needs children enrolled in Lakewood Public Schools, usually four hours a day, four days a week, for four-five weeks.

There your have it: race-based inequities in special education in Lakewood. But it doesn’t end there. As is often the case, children with disabilities function as a kind of canary in the coalmine, spotlighting systemic inequities that would otherwise remain hidden.

Let’s look behind the canary.

The Haredi community is controlled by the “Vaad,” or council of rabbis, which instructs its rapidly-growing constituency who to vote for on Election Day. So if you want to win a seat in Lakewood — or Ocean County because Lakewood is its largest municipality — you better kneel to the Vaad.

In this past June’s primary, the Lakewood Vaad issued decrees for every seat. Their selections were endorsed by Harav Aron Kotler, the CEO of Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha, which is the largest adult yeshiva in America. See Rabbi Kotler’s letter  and the accompanying article in the Lakewood Scoop; Rabbi Kotler writes, “the Vaad have been at work for many years, and their focus is always on the benefit of the community. Let us strengthen their hand to raise the statue of Torah and the honor of Heaven.”

For example,

County Freeholder – Joe Vicari has been serving as County Freeholder for over 30 years and has proven himself to be a true friend of the Kehilla [congregation or local Jewish community]. Please note that the County is the primary address for the social services that help needy yechidim [Jews]  and mishpochos [extended families] (WIC, HUD certification, Food Stamps, HEAP, NJ Family Care).

The Vaad is so powerful that it also has a say in state-wide seats. Another endorsement:

State Assembly and Senate – The team of  Bob Singer, Sean Kean and David Rible have ably represented us in Trenton on multiple issues. Last year, they were crucial to the implementation of the heavily opposed school bussing deal, which saved bussing for thousands of Lakewood’s Yeshiva and Bais Yaakov students.

You know who won. When the Vaad talk, ultra-Orthodox voters listen. And this tyrannical power, while beneficial for the majority, disinherits the minority community.*

So why would Phil Murphy choose SCHI as a beneficiary of his largesse? He’s simply doing what you need to do to win in Ocean County. It’s no different than his deference to NJEA, making promises like he’ll “get rid of PARCC.”  (Build that wall!)

And then I read this public comment at a Lakewood School Board meeting six years ago by a brave Lakewood High School student named Adriana Williams. (Note: the superintendent addressed is no longer the superintendent and the current high school principal is no longer the high school principal mentioned by Adriana. Lakewood Public Schools is poor in resources but rich in turnover.)

Excuse me, I have something important to say. As concerned students, we would like to address the decisions that are being made by the Board and the Superintendent. There are rumors, that once again, Lakewood High School will have different administration. For the past five years there has been no consistent leadership. It appears that the Board in conjunction with the Superintendent has a desire to see the school fail. You have repeatedly made decisions that are not in the high school’s best interest or the high school students. We have not had a Guidance Director for a whole year. Neptune High School hired one of our Guidance Counselors, but Ms. Silva refused to hire her in Lakewood. Our district spends more money on busing than anything. Other schools have technology that is way better than ours, they have smart boards, we are still using chalk boards. The school is slowly falling apart, when it rains the windows leak. It is cold, y’all made a decision that we should not wear hoodies, did you take in to consideration that it is cold in the building?

We understand that we are not Jews, however, we deserve an opportunity to be successful. Invest in the high school the same way you invest in your schools and in your community. It is time for the misuse and abused power by the Board and the Superintendent to stop. I would like you to reevaluate the Superintendent and the Assistant Superintendent. Also, our principal has done a lot for us, y’all may not see it, but we do. To y’all it is just a jungle, but to us she has made it a home. The teachers and faculty really do care about us. Y’all our trying to break us apart. We came here as one today, because we believe in our principal and I want you to take that into consideration.

Six years later, nothing has changed.

Think of it like the concentric circles produced when you throw a stone in a pond. First circle: the disparate services and resources afforded to Haredi and non-Haredi students with disabilities. Second circle: the disparate services and resources afforded to Haredi and non-Haredi students without disabilities. Third circle: the disparate political power afforded to followers of the Vaad and everyone else, which comprises its own set of widening ripples: the School Board, the municipality, state legislators, even the governor. I know, I know, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. But when has it gone too far?

Feel free to weigh in in the comment section. But if you’re wondering why Phil Murphy donated $70,000 to SCHI, that’s why.


*For readers who think that districts should be able to vote for charter school approvals, a position advocated for by Save Our Schools-NJ, imagine this scenario: an application is submitted for a charter school devoted to the needs of students of color in Lakewood and, per N.J.’s charter school funding law, Lakewood Public Schools would pay up to 90% of tuition.  How would that vote go?

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