The Lakewood School District is now in its fourth consecutive year of crisis, with a gaping $15 million shortfall, and the state has proposed draconian cuts, including the firing of a full 22% of the district’s public school teachers. One hundred and forty public school employees already received official RICE notices, signaling their potential termination in the near future. Public school students, parents and teachers are all frightened at what the future holds for them.
By now, this is unfortunately a yearly occurrence. Already last year, the defects in the state of New Jersey’s funding formula came to a boil, as the district ran out of money for the third year in a row. As a result, the district stopped funding safety busing, sometimes called courtesy busing, for children in both private and public schools. A special state bill helped restore most but not all of the busing for the private school students as part of an agreement in which the municipality picked up the full cost of the safety busing for the public school students. Although that “fix” helped with busing, it did nothing to address the underlying defect in the state’s formula, which is universally acknowledged as faulty, unfair and discriminatory.
The future of the public school children is at stake, and the Lakewood Vaad, Igud Hamosdos and Agudas Yisroel, among others, have spoken up repeatedly to protect the public school students from these cuts.
According to Lakewood Vaad activists, this current battle over school funding is not a new one, as it has its origins in flaws in the state funding formula that were first highlighted over fifteen years ago.
Bottom line: You simply cannot plug a structural hole with a band aid.
Lakewood is a very unique district in which private school students outnumber public school enrollment by approximately a 5-to-1 margin. State funding is calculated by dividing the total value of property “ratables” in the district by the number of school-age children. Since the state only counts public students, Lakewood comes across as very wealthy, receiving one of the lowest per-student funding in all of New Jersey. The formula presumes that each Lakewood home is a multi-million dollar mansion, similar to a district like Colts Neck or those in Summit County, and it minimizes funding accordingly.
In addition, the district is required by state and federal law to provide various services to nonpublic school students, but those are not paid for by the state. With a population of 30,000 private school students, the district spends tens of millions on these mandated services, but it is reimbursed only a fraction of those amounts by the state and federal funding sources. While all districts have private school students with such needs, their percentage is very low, with only a minimal cost to the local district. By ignoring Lakewood’s glaring demographic reality, the formula is guilty of grossly distorting the Lakewood district’s real financial need and forcing it into bankruptcy year after year.
Rumors spread by the state that they will limit the cuts by lending $10 million this year to the district doesn’t remotely address the structural discrimination that the state’s formula imposes on Lakewood children and taxpayers. With local property taxes each year being raised to the maximum “cap” allowed by law, the problem won’t go away.
An ongoing battle to rectify the gross inequity has been taking place on many fronts, in the media, in the Statehouse, in the New Jersey Legislature, and in the courts.
One little known aspect of this battle has been an action called Alcantara v. Hespe, filed with the New Jersey Department of Education and currently before an Administrative Law Judge assigned by the Commissioner of Education to hear the case. Alcantara was filed in June of 2014 by a group of litigants, representing Lakewood public school students, led by a Bais Medrash Govoah alumnus named Arthur (Aaron) Lang, demanding a change to the state funding structure. The lawsuit is currently in the “discovery” phase, pending a trial date, and Lang and the public school district’s legal team, led by special counsel Eric Harrison and Marc Zitomer, are fighting, side by side, on behalf of the children.
If the Alcantara lawsuit succeeds, it could compel state policy changes that will account for the unique dynamic of the Lakewood school district and bring funding up to par with what New Jersey’s other districts receive.
Were Lakewood to receive similar per-student funding levels as Jackson, Toms River, Brick and similar towns do, that would mean another $40,000,000 or so a year, more than enough to avoid budget cuts and surely enough to elevate the quality of the education that the children receive. It would also mean fewer future tax hikes. Currently, essentially every time a new home is built in Lakewood, the public school’s district’s funding gets further cut by the state, as those homes do not have public school students living in them but they increase the total “ratable” value of the town.
While the underlying causes seem obvious, many articles in the media have scape-goated the “Orthodox” or the “Jews,” stating that the “Orthodox are diverting money intended for public school students and that this is the cause of the district deficits.” This narrative is false, insulting and divisive, and often generates online criminal hate speech. The online forums of the APP, the Star Ledger and social media feature calls for Jews to be murdered, gassed or driven out of New Jersey or arrested en masse.
The false media articles drive this hate, as they imply that the district’s woes are the Jews’ fault and that “Orthodox power and money are responsible for either the problem or for not fixing it.”
These media articles lie. The reality is that the district only spends on nonpublic school students that which is required by law. The only exception was the safety “courtesy” busing that nonpublic school students used to receive, as did the public schools. The busing for the Orthodox community was cut repeatedly over the past few years, with the mileage requirements made longer, and the grades receiving such becoming fewer until last year’s total cut, leaving not one remaining dime from the district for private school students.
It was the Orthodox members of the board who went to bat for the public school students, ensuring their busing via funding from the township.
Members of the Lakewood School Board – several of whom, including President Barry Iann, are Orthodox – have been at the forefront of the battle to avoid public school layoffs and other cuts. Mr. Iann has also worked aggressively to secure additional federal and corporate funding for the district’s public schools. This is in addition to his role in overseeing the litigation of Alcantara, which will hopefully fix the funding formula once and for all.
The Lakewood Vaad, Agudas Yisroel of New Jersey and Igud Hamosdos, as part of their efforts to stop the cuts to the children, are spearheading a petition drive for the public to voice its opposition to the cuts and urge a change to the state funding formula.
Unfortunately, the legal system moves very slowly. Alcantara v. Hespe is currently in the preliminary “discovery” phase, pending a trial date. With the situation of Lakewood’s public school children dire, and with an intense media focus on the district, the stakes are higher than ever. Yet, hope exists that real and permanent progress can be made in the weeks and months ahead and Lakewood school district crises will soon be a thing of the past.