Special Education Parents in Elizabeth Speak Out: ‘We Have Been Snubbed and Shunned’

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Maria Lorenz is a parent leader in Elizabeth, NJ and the mother of two boys. She has completed her SPAN Resource Parent Training and her Special Education Volunteer Advocates Training. She is also a member of the Council of Parents Attorney and Advocates. Below is testimony she gave last week at the Elizabeth Board of Education meeting.

My name is Maria Lorenz and I am from Elizabeth, NJ. I came here to talk about our public schools in Elizabeth. 

First I want to present you with some facts about deep-seated nepotism and patronage within the Elizabeth School Board.

Each of our 9 Board members in Elizabeth City is backed by a city council member politically and financially, as well as supported by the Mayor and the Democratic Party. Contrary to state law that says school board candidates must be unaffiliated with political parties, the people in Elizabeth are lied to because our school board elections are partisan. Yet nothing is done to enforce state law. Why?

8 out of 9 board members are conflicted. How?

  • 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.  

As you can see, nepotism is alive and well in Elizabeth. I am a special needs mom and one of the founding members of the Special Education PTA in Elizabeth. We are a community-based PTA and the members of my Executive Board and I have asked our Superintendent Olga Hugelmeyer for a seat at the table. Instead we are snubbed and shunned. The reason our SEPTA was established was because our Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) was broken. You see, the Board members control who participates in the SEPAC and they set the policy to exclude certain individuals such as myself from participating.  I was also the first President of the SEPAC and the board created a policy in March to exclude me and control others’ participation. 

As a  mom of special needs children and an advocate for other Elizabeth families, we are outraged. Here are some facts: 

  • Across New Jersey school districts, the average classification rate for the percentage of enrolled students eligible for special education services is 17% 
  • When compared to other districts the size of Elizabeth,  Jersey City has 4,038 SPED children with a 13.8% classification rate, followed by Paterson with 3,901 children and a 14.1% classification. However, Elizabeth has 3,668 children and a 12.78% classification rate. In other words, Elizabeth has 370 fewer students than comparable districts yet 1,070 more students not classified.
  • In the exit information for classified students, in 2018  64 students either moved or dropped out; 93 graduated with a diploma. This tells me that 41% of special education students either leave or drop out of Elizabeth Public Schools. 

Some of the challenges we are facing in Elizabeth are: 

  • Negligence in adhering to Child Find: Child study teams say they do not see anything wrong and the child does not warrant an evaluation. That child will never be classified or get modified supports to succeed. I was a witness to a preschool student who was declassified by the Child Study Team. After the mom exercised her procedural safeguards, her child was given a 504 instead of reclassifed. This is a child that was totally declassified and nothing else was considered. 
  • I have a parent here today who has had her daughter in Intervention and Referral Services (I &RS, a pre-classification process) who has requested evaluations and been denied even though I&RS is not working. THe child is being re-tested on a routine basis and the district refuses to classify her.
  • Attorneys for the district willfully misrepresent themselves at meetings and become participants in IEP meetings. Let’s be clear: We parents show up with no representation and yet the district sends an attorney to every meeting where a parent brings a friend for support. The district arbitrarily calls them “advocates” and use this pretext to intimidate parents. This is fraud, waste, and abuse of funds; worse, it is a retaliatory practice towards parents. 
  • At the state level I had the misfortune of seeking support and clarification from an employee within the Special Services Division. I was given biased information and my question  was addressed to the state only after I included the Director of Special Services in my response. This  only made my relationship with the district even more contentious. I found the “gift” of the attorney at my child’s IEP meeting challenging, to put it mildly. 

We the parents have reached out to the Union County Superintendent’s Office. If you asked, you would find that our County Superintendent knows that all is well  in Elizabeth.


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