EDITORIAL: Where’s outrage over Lakewood?
When are the officials who are elected to represent all their constituents going to address the funding inequities and unequal treatment of the taxpayers and public schoolchildren in Lakewood? Where have state Sen. Bob Singer, Rep. Chris Smith, Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez been on this issue?
Absolutely nowhere. Thanks to the money and power of the Orthodox community, they have done nothing to address problems that could be easily resolved if they had the courage to speak up and the integrity to represent all of their constituencies equally.
Over the past couple of weeks, readers have been exposed to two more disturbing stories about Lakewood schools. The district faces a $15 million budget deficit, the possible layoffs of more than 100 teachers and deep program cuts. And the director of the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI), Rabbi Osher Eisemann, was indicted on theft and money laundering charges involving more than $630,000 in public school funds.
It’s a disgrace — two more in the steady drip, drip of outrages that characterize a school district that has had to squeeze resources and programs to accommodate the ever-expanding needs of the Orthodox community’s private schools.
The sad part is that there is virtually nothing in the works in Trenton to correct any of it. Without vocal, organized pressure from the nonOrthodox community inside Lakewood and in the communities surrounding it, there is no reason to believe things won’t get progressively worse.
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Why should anyone who lives outside of Lakewood care? First, everyone should be outraged by the injustice that it is taking place in Lakewood’s predominantly minority public schools. Second, the population pressures in Lakewood could, over time, eventually spill over into neighboring towns — something public officials and growing numbers of residents in those town are becoming increasingly conscious of.
If Singer, Christie and other legislators with the ability to influence what goes on in Lakewood had an interest in righting the wrongs there, here are five things they could do that would help:
•The state school funding formula is a mess. But changes proposed by Christie’s “Fair Funding formula” would likely make matters worse. Those suggested by Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli would be an improvement, but would not fundamentally address the unique circumstances confronting Lakewood — specifically, the fact that the busing costs to transport 30,000 Orthodox children to private schools and the extraordinary $97,000 per-pupil cost to educate special education students at SCHI in Lakewood absorb about 40 percent of the school district’s $90 million budget.
No other towns in New Jersey have similar public school budget stresses attributable to the prevalence of private schools within their boundaries. Lakewood is a special circumstance. It requires an aid formula that takes the special circumstances into account.
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•Offset the undue influence of the Orthodox community on the school board by requiring that a majority of its members have children in the public school system. Right now, the Orthodox members — all of whom send their children to private Orthodox schools — are in the majority, and decisions they make often are at odds with what is best for non-Orthodox public school students.
•Draft courtesy busing legislation that ends the practice in Lakewood of having separate bus runs to private schools for girls and boys, which dramatically increases the courtesy busing tab. Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for segregated busing. The Legislature also should reconsider the cost benefit of any courtesy busing.
•Require that private schools be certified by the state in order to be eligible for state funding. Unless basic educational, facilities, health and safety standards are being met, the state should not be providing funding assistance.
•Establish specific criteria and spending caps for private special education schools such as SCHI, where the $97,000 per-student cost is far higher than similar private schools. What is the justification? The short answer: There is none. What SCHI says it needs to implement its program, SCHI gets, on the taxpayers’ dime. The indictment of the school’s director should provide extra incentive to make sure money is being spent wisely and for the stated purpose.
At the same time, the state must ensure that the students who are enrolled at SCHI are representative of the community as a whole. Historically, they have been almost exclusively Orthodox. The state needs to ensure that placements there by Lakewood’s child study teams are based entirely on need.
Some of the valid criticisms about the inequities in the school district have been wrongly directed toward state monitor Michael Azzara. There is only so much he can do. He is bound by existing rules and hamstrung by public officials who have shown no inclination to address the problems.
Editorials, letters to the editors and complaints at public meetings aren’t likely to change the trajectory in Lakewood. Putting direct pressure on lawmakers who can change the rules of the game and challenging in court some of the rules that allow the situation to persist offer the only hope for relief — and justice.
Write, email and phone Singer, Smith, Christie, Booker and Menendez, and demand action. Otherwise, expect more of the same — and worse.