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In a blow for Lakewood’s public school students and a loss (sort of) for district administrators, Department of Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan just ruled that the New Jersey school funding formula provides 6,000 low-income Hispanic students with the constitutionally-mandated “thorough and efficient education.”
As reported by NJ Education Report, back in March Judge Susan Scarola ruled in a suit brought by Lakewood math teacher Arthur Lang that the State does in fact provide enough money to educate Lakewood in-district students but but the local school board fails to control the annual costs of transporting 40,000 ultra-Orthodox students to 135 private schools ($33 million) and paying tuition for ultra-Orthodox students’ special education services ($43 million).
Lang had argued that Lakewood had, in effect, an unfunded mandate to transport over 30,000 non-public ultra-Orthodox students to yeshivas, as well as pay special education costs for those eligible. Judge Scarola said that Lakewood could save money by not sending ultra-Orthodox students with disabilities to Jewish-only special education schools like the School for Hidden Intelligence, which this year will cost taxpayers $32,190,941, or 15% of Lakewood’s annual operating budget.
[I]n 2018-2019 Lakewood sent 343 special education pupils to private school placements at a total cost of $33M in tuition. That is an average of nearly $100,000 in tuition per student. Petitioners presented scant evidence of the district’s efforts to educate more of these children in-district, which could save Lakewood substantial sums and result in more aid.
Judge Scarola suggested that NJ’s Commissioner do a needs assessment. Allen-McMillan complied and ruled that the district has shortcomings (here’s the latest on student outcomes) but Lakewood is fulfilling its constitutional duties to public school students and there is no need for any change in the state school funding formula, despite Lakewood’s need to “borrow” millions of dollars from the state every year. (Current debt is over $100 million. Lakewood will never pay this “loan” back.)
District officials, especially attorney Michael Inzelbuch, whom the district pays over $700,000 a year, more than any school district anywhere in the known universe, want the state to say that Lakewood in-district students are just fine, thank you very much, but the school funding formula is inapplicable to Lakewood because of its unusual demographics. The district filed a lawsuit in 2019; that suit was dismissed for lack of merit.
David Sciarra, Executive Director of Education Law Center, is critical of Judge Scarola’s ruling, and, presumably, Allen-McMillan’s as well. He cites as evidence “the lavish and unprecedented payments to the district’s lawyer in recent years” and says the New Jersey Commissioner is ultimately responsible for not demanding changes to the way Lakewood privileges ultra-Orthodox students.
(Photo courtesy of the Lakewood Scoop.)