NJ schooling commissioner delays determination
LAKEWOOD – The state education commissioner has postponed a critical decision about the future of funding for Lakewood schools for at least a month, according to an email to school officials from their office.
The Ministry of Education sent the email on behalf of the acting education officer Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan to the parties involved in the 2014 lawsuit brought by Lakewood High School math teacher Arthur Lang.
Lang, who is also an attorney, challenged the state school allowance formula, claiming it did not allow Lakewood to provide adequate education because it was underfunded.
An administrative judge ruled the complaint in March, ruling that the district was unable to fulfill its constitutional mandate to provide “thorough and efficient education” to students, but found the state funding formula to be unconstitutional.
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In a non-binding decision, Judge Susan Scarola Allen-McMillan recommended that a needs assessment of the school district’s ability to meet its obligations be conducted and “appropriate recommendations to the district” be made.
The decision does not require the Commissioner to make any changes, but it does help her conduct a study and, if necessary, modify Lakewood’s state aid.
In the June 15 email to School District, Lang, and other parties, Brigid C. Martens, Regulatory Officer for the Department of Education’s Office of Controversies & Disputes, stated:
“The Ministry of Education commissioner needs an additional 30 days to make a decision on this matter. Since the previous due date for the Commissioner’s decision was June 16, 2021, the new due date is July 16, 2021.
“This extension is in accordance with Executive Ordinance No. 127, issued by Governor Murphy on April 14, 2020, and PL 2021 c.103, which was approved on June 4, 2021. These authorities are extending the deadlines for the adoption of the agency heads. to reject or change the original decisions of the Office of Administrative Law due to the public health emergency. “
Lang called the delay “disappointing”.
The sticking point for Lang and other advocates of funding is how government funding is rated for Lakewood, given its unusual situation as a public school district serving tens of thousands of non-public students who live in the community.
The district has had annual budget deficits for the past few years that have forced administrators to take out tens of millions of dollars in government loans, including the recent application for a $ 70 million loan to cover expenses.
If the recent borrowing is approved, the financially troubled district’s total debt would reach nearly $ 200 million, with borrowing dating back to the 2014-15 school year when it was raised $ 4.5 million.
Since then, the district has borrowed $ 5.6 million in 2016-2017; $ 8.5 million in 2017-2018; $ 28.1 million in 2018-2019; $ 36 million in 2019-2020 and $ 54.5 million in 2020-2021.
Because of this debt, the district will have to allocate more than $ 14 million in the new budget to repay the state loan alone after paying off more than $ 5 million in debt in the current budget.
The government funding formula, which roughly pinpoints each district’s needs based on general public school enrollment and estimated wealth in each district, has failed Lakewood to meet its true needs, Lang and other experts contend.
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The main reason: while Lakewood has nearly 6,000 public school students, it also has more than 30,000 non-public students who rely on the public school district for many services, most notably bus transportation.
Lakewood Superintendent Laura Winters and Board Attorney and Spokesman Michael Inzelbuch did not respond to requests for comment on the delay.
In a 22-page response to the April Scarolas judgment, Inzelbuch disagreed with the finding that adequate training was not guaranteed: “The information and decision summarily ignores the significant progress made during this time and the progress made during the The original decision made has been pending for several years. “
Inzelbuch argued that the case should be reopened so the county can provide more information, while at the same time opposed the claim that the state funding formula was unproblematic.
“ALJ Scarola himself recognized (and explained) exactly the funding problem … that negatively affects (the) district,” he wrote, later calling it a “Ponzi scheme”.
As for Lang, his then 23-page response welcomed the finding that the district did not provide adequate training, but said that state aid should also be held responsible.
“The heart of the matter is that the (government funding formula) does not recognize the existence of 30,000 children and growth,” Lang wrote. “By excluding six-sevenths of students, Lakewood is mistakenly viewed as wealthy and the neediest children in the state are neglected by public education.”
One of the largest unfunded government mandates Lakewood has to fulfill is to employ approximately 30,000 non-public students.
State law requires school districts to pay private school students if their school is two miles or more from their home. In Lakewood, where many Orthodox Jews and other private school students live, the cost is immense for those attending more than 100 such private schools.
Lakewood’s district budget for 2020-2021 exceeded $ 204 million, with more than $ 24 million allocated for non-public school transportation. That’s more than $ 1 in every $ 10 spent moving students to other private schools.
In addition, there are additional costs for non-public students who are autistic or in need of other special education and services, as well as related materials, staff, and equipment.
District officials filed their own lawsuit in 2019, claiming the state funding formula discriminates against students and failed to provide $ 30 million in needed aid this year.
The proceedings were closed in 2020.
The differences in funding come from the district’s rating, experts say, noting that the state only takes into account enrollment in public schools and the overall size of the community.
Lakewood has nearly 24,000 homes averaging $ 335,000 each and an average income of more than $ 52,000, according to the U.S. Census.
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years of experience covering education and multiple local communities for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of two books, including Killing Journalism, on the State of the News Media, and an adjunct professor of media at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. You can reach him at email@example.com and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter @joestrupp