Public Officials Ride to Financial Rescue of Lakewood School District

May 12th, 2017
Public Officials Ride to Financial Rescue of Lakewood School District

[Editor's Note: At 1:03 p.m. on May 13, at 1:52 p.m. on May 14 and at 7:48 p.m. on May 16, 2017, this story was edited for style, content and accuracy.

In a May 16, 2017 press release, three days after the posting of this story, the N.J. Department of Education announced that it would provide a state-aid advance of $8,522,678 to the Lakewood School District to ensure a thorough and efficient education for the public school students of the township.]

Lakewood parents, educators, and public and non-public school student protesters can thank public office knights in shining armor who are riding to their rescue.

According to N.J. Senator Robert Singer (R-30th Leg. Dist.), representing Lakewood in the state Senate, state and local officials are working together to stave off a Doomsday budget that will cut 119 public school jobs; non-remote student busing, referred to as courtesy busing; and numerous student programs, while increasing class size to 50 students.

Singer spoke to NJ News & Views in a May 12 telephone interview.

He had good news for worried Lakewood parents with students enrolled in both public and non-public schools.

Singer said that township officials were prepared to provide $1.5 million to the financially struggling school district, whose administrators reported a $14.7 million budget shortfall on May 8.

District finances may significantly improve even sooner, as a result of Singer's efforts to secure an interest-free state loan.

"Last year, Atlantic City schools found themselves in a desperate situation, (too)," Singer said.

He said that the Atlantic City School District was about the same size as the Lakewood School District, but was even deeper in debt.

"In the past two years, the state sent $82 million in funding to Atlantic City schools," Singer said. "Nobody said 'Boo' when it happened. Lakewood is no different (in also deserving state funding)."

Two decades ago, members of the Lakewood Township Committee might have agreed.

Times change.

For years after the turn of the millennia, the Lakewood Township Committee had to bail out the Lakewood Board of Education after local school government reported year-end million-dollar budget shortfalls that increased in size as the years became decades.

Members of the local governing body indicated in comments made during public discussions of district finances that in their opinions, municipal stewardship of taxpayer dollars under the Lakewood Township Committee was more efficient than that of district stewardship under the Lakewood Board of Education.

Last year, committeemen balked at having to make good on yet another bailout of district finances. As a result, state officials at the Department of Education (DOE) made continuation of non-remote busing, commonly referred to as courtesy busing, contingent on the committee's 2015 promised payment of $1 million to the Lakewood School District.

Taxpayers on fixed incomes are struggling as much as the school district they help support.

Committeemen could earn significant political capital just by annually budgeting a tenth of that bailout amount for a service previously provided to Lakewood's public schools, which instead is now paid to private contractors at taxpayer expense.

At the May 4 hearing of the 2017 Lakewood Municipal Budget, a reporter for NJ News & Views asked why members of the Lakewood Township Committee had not funded the line item for trash removal at Lakewood public schools.

In a December 16, 2014 article published in the Asbury Park Press, the newspaper reported that the district was paying $100,000 per year in school taxes to hire a private contractor to pick up public school trash, instead of the township removing it, while the township spent at least $1 million annually to pick up private trash from non-public schools, houses of worship and downtown businesses.

Two years later, the Asbury Park Press reported on June 16, 2016, that seniors living in the township's adult communities were continuing to demand that the municipality reverse public policy regarding trash removal.

Committeemen at that time continued to decline to do so.

One year later, their position has not changed, even though it is to the political benefit of committeemen that it does.

Mayor Raymond Coles publicly told a reporter for NJ News & Views at the May 4 budget hearing that the committee had discussed funding the line item for removal of public school trash, but said members were not prepared to do so at this time - despite a healthy surplus reported in the 2017 municipal budget.

That does not mean committeemen will not help the cash-strapped school district.

On May 9, Singer said that at the invitation of Coles, he met with the mayor, as well as Lakewood School Superintendent Laura Winters; Lakewood Municipal Manager Thomas Henshaw; Lakewood Township Attorney Steven Secare; state Department of Education (DOE) monitor Michael Azzara; Rev. Glenn Wilson and Dr. Michael Rush of U.N.I.T.E., a Lakewood public school advocacy organization; and former Lakewood Board Attorney Michael Inzelbuch.

At the May 8 meeting of the Lakewood Board of Education, Inzelbuch informed members in a letter read in public that he was declining the board's offer to rehire him as board attorney.

Singer said he did not know why Coles also invited Inzelbuch to the May 9 meeting, or what the participants discussed with the Lakewood lawyer.

Prior to Inzelbuch's hire as Lakewood board attorney in 2002, and following his dismissal a decade later, in 2012, he built a successful law practice by soliciting clients in local newspapers that sought to give their child an "appropriate education" at out-of-district special education schools, such as the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI).

SCHI charges significantly more for its' special education services than Lakewood public schools, but offers a religious education that public schools, by law, cannot.

For years, SCHI reportedly used taxpayer dollars for purposes other than the education and training of society's most vulnerable citizens.

In a March 30, 2017 article published in the Asbury Park Press, the newspaper reported that a state Grand Jury had charged Rabbi Osher Eisemann, founder and director of SCHI, with theft of more than $630,000 in public funds in order to finance an unrelated private business venture.

SCHI reportedly provides educational and vocational services for "medically fragile, and socially-emotionally challenged children," according to the school's Web site.

Inzelbuch did not return a call for comment.

No members of the Lakewood Board of Education were present at the May 9 meeting. A reporter asked Singer why they had not been invited. He said he did not know.

Coles did not respond to a request for comment.

Neither did Winters.

That does not mean that well-intentioned citizens in public and private positions of influence could not find common ground on which to help Lakewood's growing student population.

Singer said that everyone walked away from the May 9 meeting with a good feeling.

"We want (kids) to get to school safely," he said. "We don't want to lose any of the dedicated public school teachers either."

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