Fifteen Years Ago

August 22nd, 2017
Fifteen Years Ago

[Editor's Note: At 12:00 p.m. on August 23, at 9:10 a.m. on August 24, at 9:00 p.m. on August 26, at 3:52 p.m. on August 27, at 7:01 a.m. on August 28, at 9:06 a.m. on August 30 and at 8:35 a.m. on September 4, 2017, this story was edited for style, content and accuracy.]

Before there was an editor/reporter for NJ News & Views, there was a staff writer for The Tri-Town News.

Fifteen years ago, I was that person.

I didn't know what I was getting into.

One year after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, jobs were still hard to find, harder still writing jobs in an industry that relied on a shrinking advertising base to support it.

I was determined to succeed in the field I had chosen to pursue years earlier.

Instead of attending law school, I chose to be a writer.

In 2002, I got my chance to write full-time by applying for a position with a local weekly newspaper. As a beat reporter, I wrote news articles and feature stories for the paper's print and growing digital audience.

My beat was challenging.

I covered Lakewood, even then the fastest-growing municipality in New Jersey, and Jackson, its' 100-square-mile neighbor to the west.

My first reports were published 15 years ago this week, in the August 22, 2002 weekly edition of The Tri-Town News, at that time owned by Greater Media Newspapers.

Fifteen years ago, I reported that the Pinelands Preservation Alliance was expected to reach a settlement with Paramount Homes, represented by attorney Raymond Shea.

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance sought to protect the habitat of an endangered species, the northern pine snake, which was located near the site of a proposed residential development called Highcrest Chase.

Under the terms of the reported settlement, Paramount Homes agreed to withdraw its' application from Jackson Planning Board consideration and redesign it.

Despite the agreement, market demand for residential housing in Jackson exceeded supply. Jackson, like Lakewood, continued to be a magnet for homebuyers seeking to live and grow their families there.

My second week on the job, I reported in the August 29, 2002 edition of The Tri-Town News that the Jackson School District expected a 900-student enrollment increase during the 2002-03 school year, bringing overall K-12 district enrollment to 9,067 students.

"Parents in this district have always expected excellence from us," Jackson Board of Education President Kathleen Kelly Mallette told me in a 2002 interview. "That isn’t new. What is challenging now is to do a lot more with a lot less."

That was and continues to be a challenge for the Lakewood School District as well.

The Jackson School District was growing in 2002, and so was student enrollment in neighboring Lakewood. Unlike Jackson, however, Lakewood's growing population of K-12 students was increasingly enrolling in non-public or out-of-district special education religious schools, not in state-aid-subsidized public ones.

Critics were vocal in their opposition to public policy that did not ensure a thorough and efficient education for all Lakewood students.

Fifteen years ago, I reported that the Rev. Jimmy Wilcox, Co-Chair of the Coalition of Advocates for Public School Students (CAPS), called for an end to courtesy busing.

Non-remote transportation is also referred to as courtesy busing because it is not mandated by the state.

During a press conference held at the Lakewood Municipal Building my first week on the job, CAPS members announced plans to file a petition with the state commissioner of education in Trenton. The petition called for an end to taxpayer-subsidized courtesy busing.

"Cease taxation without representation," CAPS Co-Chair George S. Osborne said at that time. "It don't get no simpler than that."

Public support for Osborne's position has grown throughout Lakewood's taxpayer base since I reported his comment 15 years ago today.

As the Township of Lakewood developed into the City of Lakewood, hazardous traffic on undersized local, county and state roadways and a lack of police department crossing guards to safely transport all students to class created increased demand for a service the district could not afford to provide to every student that requested it.

Instead of changing district policy, members of the Lakewood Board of Education asked state and municipal government for a taxpayer bailout each year their administrators announced another transportation shortfall.

In 2002, the Lakewood School District not only struggled to meet increased demand for a non-mandated transportation service, it also struggled to budget the cost of tuition at expensive out-of-district special education schools that provided religious instruction public schools by law could not.

For years, Lakewood attorney Michael I. Inzelbuch solicited clients in area newspapers, including The Tri-Town News that employed me, that wanted an "appropriate" education for their special needs child.

Inzelbuch had found a loophole in the law that he exploited to his advantage and that of his clients, and to the disadvantage of Lakewood taxpayers and public school students. By enrolling their child in Lakewood public schools, parents and guardians of special needs students could then demand that the district provide a religious education at an out-of-district special needs school they could not otherwise afford.

The district could not afford the tuition either.

Inzelbuch sued to force payment of the expenditure and won.

Taxpayers lost.

According to recent media reports, Inzelbuch successfully sued the district at least 80 times.

Each time Inzelbuch's client prevailed in the Office of Administrative Law (OAL), the district also had to pay his fee, as well as the cost of tuition at an out-of-district special needs religious school.

According to former Lakewood Board of Education President Chet Galdo, members of the school governing body decided in 2002 that the most cost-efficient way to reduce their legal expenditures was to hire Inzelbuch to represent district interests, instead of his own.

Inzelbuch's services came at a price the district, taxpayers and township students could not afford either.

The Lakewood Board of Education not only contracted to hire Inzelbuch as board attorney, he also demanded that members hire him as a part-time non-public special education consultant.

Inzelbuch later renegotiated his consultant's contract as a part-time administrative position, making him eligible for premium health and dental benefits, life insurance and participation in the state pension plan.

While Inzelbuch benefited from his secondary appointment as a district employee, the position also required him to file a state ethics disclosure that his primary position as board attorney did not.

In 1999, the N.J. School Ethics Commission issued Advisory Opinion 15-99, which stated that board attorneys hired as independent district contractors that did not make recommendations regarding hiring or the purchase of property or services, were not "school officials" subject to the School Ethics Act.

Instead of resolving the ethical conflict, Inzelbuch ignored it.

As a part-time district employee making recommendations for out-of-district special education student services, Inzelbuch filed only one ethics disclosure upon his hire in 2002, and never did so again.

Ten years after the Lakewood Board of Education hired Inzelbuch, members dismissed him in 2012.

Inzelbuch returned to private practice and resumed solicitation of clients to sue his former employers.

Last week, board members voted unanimously to rehire their former legal counsel.

It was cheaper to keep him.

This time around, Inzelbuch will receive a $600,000 one-year retainer, payable in monthly installments from August 17, 2017-June 30, 2018, beginning September 1, 2017. He will be paid at the rate of $350/hour for litigation work, and at the rate of $200/hour as advisory counsel to the board's special counsel.

Under the terms of his new contract during the 2017-18 school year, Inzelbuch will not only receive compensation for his services as board attorney, he also will receive the same salary he was earning as part-time non-public special education consultant upon his dismissal in 2012.

Inzelbuch's new contract ensures that he will continue to prosper in public service, as well as in private practice.

So will others, according to an August 22, 2017 post by NJ Left Behind blogger Laura Waters, entitled "What's A Little Extortion Among Friends? Lakewood School Board Rehires Inzelbuch," at the following Internet address:

Waters, a 4-term member and 9-year president of the Lawrence Township Board of Education in Mercer County, reports that in negotiating the terms of his new contract with Lakewood, Inzelbuch demanded personnel appointments and reassignments of other public employees, including Lakewood Superintendent of Schools Laura Winters.

Prior to expiration of Winters' contract at the end of the 2016-17 school year, sources told NJ News & Views that members of the Lakewood Board of Education voted to spend $25,000 to search for her replacement after she received an unsatisfactory job performance evaluation by a majority of board members.

Because Inzelbuch reportedly demanded her return as superintendent as a condition of his new contract, she will not only continue her duties as superintendent for the next three school years, she also will receive a raise - but not as much as Inzelbuch.

According to The Asbury Park Press, Inzelbuch reportedly will be the highest-paid official in the State of New Jersey, courtesy of state monitors overseeing the cash-strapped district's finances.

"Having Inzelbuch working for the schools, instead of suing the district, makes the salary cost-effective," state monitor Michael Azzara reportedly told a reporter for The Asbury Park Press. "If he’s (on) our side, he's likely going to be on top of special education issues before anyone is paying extra legal fees."

In a comment posted on the Heferkervelt blog on August 20, 2017 at 5:18 p.m., in response to an Asbury Park Press report, Anonymous expressed his opinion of the board's action to rehire Inzelbuch as the highest-paid public official in the state.

"Best cost-saving measure yet!" he exclaimed. "LOL! I wish I could take over his job as Mr. Government Fleecer. George Bush once said, 'We don't negotiate with terrorists.' Wish they would learn that here."

Some things never change with time.

Sometimes, that can be a good thing.

Fifteen years ago, Lakewood advocates recognized a public need and brought it to the attention of reporters that gave them a voice in a public forum.

Another one of those advocates was 2002 Republican candidate for Lakewood Township Committee, Hannah Havens, whom I interviewed my first week on the job.

Although Havens was unsuccessful in her bid that year for public office, she used her position as a party nominee to propose giving the Lakewood Heritage Commission the authority to preserve historic buildings by designating them landmarks.

The Lakewood Heritage Commission was created in 1984.

Fifteen years ago, historic buildings without public protection were coming down for redevelopment as something else.

Last month, so did the trees on public property that once brought tourist dollars to Lakewood.

The Tri-Town News did not report the story.

Past and present ownership had eliminated my former beat.

The state's fastest-growing municipality had become dead wood in the pages of the newspaper that first gave me the opportunity to cover it.

My reports of Lakewood are now posted on the Internet pages of the blog I started on March 16, 2006.

My blog, NJ News & Views, identifies public policy issues through investigative journalism and provides solutions through editorial commentary.

That is also what Hannah Havens did 15 years ago.

"I don’t think they saw this as something they needed, but the world’s changed in almost 20 years," Havens said in a 2002 interview with a new reporter for The Tri-Town News. "We have to have some responsibility to the past. It’s naive to believe that history has no value."

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