“There’s nothing fraud hates more than a spotlight,” says Tom Gatti, head of the newly incorporated Senior Action Group (SAG) in Lakewood. The fraud he references is an utter lack of compliance with a newly legislated program, Senate Bill 2049, that awards $17 million a year to a private consortium representing Lakewood’s burgeoning sector of 130 ultra-Orthodox Jewish day schools. The bill mandates an oversight committee. None exists. And no governmental entity — the Christie administration, Department of Education, local school board, or bill sponsor Senator Robert Singer (R-Ocean, Monmouth) — seems to care.
So here’s some illumination.
American democracy is complicated. Elections pivot on the preponderance of votes but minorities are afforded protections (codified in the Bill of Rights) in order to avoid, as John Stuart Mill had it, the “tyranny of the majority.” That very tyranny is an apt description of Lakewood’s public education landscape.
The South Jersey city is home to the second-largest population of ultra-Orthodox Jews in America (Brooklyn comes in first) and this population is growing rapidly. The total population of Lakewood is about 60,000 and is projected to rise to 225,000 by 2030, almost entirely fueled by the continued influx of ultra-Orthodox families. Last year the town’s planning and zoning departments approved 10 synagogues, nine yeshivas and 1,175 new residences. Many ultra-Orthodox constituents vote in a bloc, taking instruction from the Vaad, a local council of rabbis. The elected municipal government is dominated by white male Orthodox Jews, as is the school board.
And that school board is in a bind. The budget for Lakewood Public School District, which serves about 5,600 Latino and African-American children, has a $12 million deficit out of an annual operating budget of $127,778,000. The two biggest bites are transportation and special education. Until this year the district paid $18,199,974, mostly to bus 10,000 non-public students on gender-specific buses to 130 different yeshivas. (The other big bite — a mind-boggling $31,485,495 — is annual tuition to private special-education schools, mostly for ultra-Orthodox children who attend Jewish yeshivas that accept children with disabilities.)
According to a recent analysis by Michael Hoban, senior educational consultant to Lakewood U.N.I.T.E (the group that represents Lakewood’s black students), most school districts allocate about 75 percent of annual budgets to student instruction. In Lakewood that allocation shrinks to 48 percent.
Hence, Senator Singer, Lakewood’s white knight, wrote a bill (or the Vaad did, depending upon who you ask) that awards $17 million a year to pay busing costs for yeshiva students, with enough left over for “courtesy busing,” or transportation for students within state walking parameters. (The town council has “pledged” to pay for courtesy busing for public school students.) The $17 million, according to the bill, is paid directly to a “consortium.”
That consortium, now registered with the state Division of Revenue and Enterprise Services, is an LLC called the “Lakewood Student Transportation Authority (LSTA) and the chairman of the board is Rabbi Yisroel Schenkolewski, who is also the municipal police chaplain, commissioner of the Ocean County Board of Elections, founder of a girls’ yeshiva, and, according to the Jewish paper Haaretz, in an article entitled “Only in America,” wielder of enormous power within the ultra-Orthodox community.
What about the accountability described in Senate Bill 2049 as an “oversight committee” consisting of five members, four appointed by the commissioner and one appointed by the state monitor or the school board?
According to SAG, Inc., at least three well-qualified residents dutifully filed resumes presenting credentials to all these entities and repeatedly contacted Senator Singer’s office. While there have been occasional responses, no action has been taken.
Certainly, there’s no point in prospective overseers contacting LSTA. According to Ocean City Politics, “The Lakewood Student Transportation Authority still has a nonfunctional public website and phone calls made to it are directed to an automated prompt. No public information has been released about the bids for busing by the agency, unlike local and county governments that publish bid documents on their websites.” (As of publication date, this nonfunctional status is unchanged.)
To date, $17 million of taxpayer money has been sent to an unaccountable consortium. To date, there is no oversight committee as stipulated in state law. To date, Lakewood public school students, 74 percent Latino, 20 percent black, and 86 percent economically disadvantaged, are summarily deprived of access to their constitutionally guaranteed thorough and efficient system of education.
Now, let’s be fair. Nonpublic school students are entitled to transportation within state parameters (although gender-specific, yeshiva-specific buses are a murky area). The district is underfunded because of New Jersey’s broken and unsustainable school funding-formula. But the state Legislature just handed over $17 million a year to an unaccountable group of powerbrokers (regardless of who is responsible for implementation of the Senate bill) and called it square. This disdain for rectitude and law perpetuates the inequities — indeed, the tyranny — visited upon the minority children who attend Lakewood Public Schools. “Fraud” is too nice a word.