June 8, 2016
The Honorable David Hespe
Commissioner, New Jersey
Department of Education
Dear Commissioner Hespe:
Attached please find a petition containing 5,491 signatures of Lakewood residents. While each signature reflects frustration and concern over the performance of the Lakewood School District, the signatures are, most importantly, a call to action on the part of the State of New Jersey.
A tremendous amount has been and will continue to be done by Lakewood citizens to try to improve the education of the public school students and to insure fair and effective use of the taxpayers’ money. However, the concerted and ongoing local action has proven to be insufficient to induce the necessary changes.
We respectfully call upon you to:
- Remove the local school board until such time that the District is able to successfully educate the public school students within the limits of a balanced budget. We believe the operating deficit, which has occurred for four consecutive years, is sufficient to provide the basis for this action, even if the membership of the Board has changed over that four-year period.
The ability of the state monitors to move the District forward is consistently impeded by the sitting Board. Direct control by the existing monitors or a complete state takeover is necessary. A recent example was the Board action to adopt a budget that included an 11% increase in private school tuition while at the same time eliminating public school teacher positions.
- Notwithstanding the existing Office of Special Education requirement to implement a corrective action plan, cause a comprehensive review of the special education assessment process and the resulting out-of-district assignments and expenditures.
To summarize, a cottage industry has developed at the expense of the public school students and taxpayers. The actions of the board demonstrate support of this cottage industry. In addition, there is a complaint pending before the U.S. Office of Civil Rights alleging discrimination in the evaluation and placement of special education students. A review of the placement patterns appears to lend credence to the complaint. We believe a concurrent NJDOE investigation focusing on the special education practices is both appropriate and necessary.
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- Cause a comprehensive review of the hiring and retention practices of the District staff. At present there is one former employee under indictment, one former employee who recently settled with the district and another former employee who is contesting his termination in court. There are indications that the indicted individual was coerced into taking actions that are now the basis of the indictment. This is not contradictory to the arbitrator’s decision dated February 4, 2016 in which inappropriate conduct on the part of the respondent was found. Two other portions of the decision are noteworthy.
First, the decision summarizes the attempt to disqualify the Board’s counsel. Second the arbitrator wrote that the respondent “directed the District’s Child Study Team (“CST) to find certain students eligible or ineligible, as the case may be, for special education related services. . . she also directed CST members to place students in yeshivas giving case managers the exact wording for insertion into said student’s Individual Education Plans (IEPs).” (P. 31, 32)
It is highly implausible to think that these actions were taken unilaterally by the respondent, particularly in light of the protections afforded by the granting of tenure. The 2010 audit (P.3) noted a conflict in that the Board attorney also worked as a paid “Non-Public Special Education Consultant.” Even if the actors cited in the 2010 audit and the 2016 arbitration decision are different, a culture of conflict and coercion appears to exist.
The appearance of a pattern, particularly in the Office of the School Business Administrator, merits review particularly in light of a Board’s responsibility and potential culpability. As noted in the Eells audit, “The district has not been able to maintain continuity in leadership. The business administrator changed eight times since February 2008 . . . The lack of stability in key administrative positions has inhibited the development of long-term goals and has interfered with the ability to establish and enforce internal controls.” (P.3) This staff turnover has continued since this audit was published.
- Request that the Attorney General initiate an investigation into what appears to be illegal interference in the public bidding process. At a meeting hosted by Senator Singer on May 17, 2016 a member of the Township Committee and a representative of a nonpublic school consortium repeatedly said they had talked to bus companies regarding the upcoming transportation bids. They went on to predict what the bid prices will be.
- Related to #4, request that the Attorney General investigate the circumstances under which it has been reported that a contracted bus company stopped their
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services prior to the conclusion of a signed contract. In addition to forfeiting their performance bond and foregoing revenue for services they did not render, hundreds of school children were left without transportation. We believe there may have been an inducement for this action that is possibly related to a current
legislative proposal giving a private consortium public money for nonpublic school transportation expenses.
- Insure that entities located in Lakewood that claim to be a school are indeed a school as defined by the NJDOE, and, insure that any entity that does not meet this definition is denied all forms of public funding. There are approximately
137 nonpublic “schools” in Lakewood. Given the unusually high number, it is appropriate that steps be taken to insure that every entity receiving state or municipal support meets the minimum NJDOE requirements. We believe that entities that are strictly religious education centers should not be receiving municipal or state aid. The recent appellate decision published on May 26, 2016 regarding grants to two sectarian institutions appears to affirm this concept. Specifically, “The majority opinion of Resnick rules that Article I, Paragraph 3, when fairly read, specifically prohibits the use of tax revenues for the maintenance or support of a religious group.” (P. 31)
- Insure that mandated bussing of both public and nonpublic students is conducted without regard to personal preferences. In Lakewood the inclusion of personal preferences increases the cost of bussing tremendously, possibly by as much as $11,000,000. The recent legislative proposal to give public money to a private consortium for the purpose of transporting selected students is yet another example of a cottage industry being built on the backs of the taxpayer. We also believe that it would continue the discriminatory bussing practices. (Please see the attached (second) letter to Senator Singer outlining a proposal that would honor these personal preferences in a manner that does not unfairly burden the state or the local taxpayer.)
We understand that a state agency traditionally respects the tenets of home rule. Notwithstanding this norm, state monitors were assigned to the Lakewood School District. In spite of their best efforts, there does not appear to be any material change or improvement, particularly in the administration and management of student transportation and special education.
The ongoing problems in the Lakewood School District are sufficient to cause the additional actions outlined above to be taken. A strong argument can be made that
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the cost of a state takeover will, in the long run, be less expensive than if nothing is done. Without additional corrective action the District will continue to provide an
unacceptable and potentially unconstitutional level of education to the Lakewood public school students at an irrationally high cost to the taxpayers.
On behalf of the petitioners, the public school students and all Lakewood taxpayers we remain
Thomas G. Gatti William Hobday
Senior Action Group SWAG Chapter, Senior Action Group
- Signed Petitions
- Letter to Senator Robert Singer dated May 19, 2016
- Analysis of School Expenditures. Dr. Michael Hoban, Ph.D.
- Page, 31, 32: Arbitration decision dated February 4, 2016
- Page 3, 2010 Audit
- Page 31, May 26, 2016 Appellate Decision (Docket A-4399-13T2)
Page 3, Stephen Eells, Office of the State Auditor, “Township of Lakewood School District