By Mark Di Ionno
Posted with permission from NJ.com
Perception and reality in Lakewood these days are like fraternal twins. Close but not identical.
The township struggles with heightening tension over many issues, centering mostly on education and development, which translate into taxes and congestion.
Lakewood’s population has more than doubled since 1990 to over 100,000, spurred by an influx of Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, New York State, Israel and all over the world.
A once popular year-round Jewish resort of lakes and fresh air, this 25-square-mile township on the northeast edge of the Pine Barrens, seems an unlikely place to now be New Jersey’s fifth largest city in population. But it is, and still growing faster than any town in the state. If it keeps expanding at this rate, Lakewood will become New Jersey’s third largest city in about 25 years.
The reality is that traffic clogs the main arteries of Routes 9 and 88, and multi-family housing units are replacing single-family homes on the downtown’s modest lots. Larger developments have sprung up, too, with another 2,500 housing units in the final phases of approval.
The perception – becoming more pronounced at public meetings – is that the Orthodox Jews who today dominate the school board and municipal committees run everything to the benefit of their religious community.
Sometimes this perception is expressed through vandalism. A sign for a new housing tract called Sunset Grove on the west side of town was spray painted with JESUS SAVE LAKEWOOD over the name of real estate broker Mordechai Eichorn.
“There are three groups at loggerheads in Lakewood – the Hispanics, the seniors and Orthodox,” said Michael Inzelbuch, the former school board attorney who graduated from Lakewood High School and identifies himself as “Orthodox by choice.”
“Unfortunately, perception becomes some people’s reality,” Inzelbuch said. “But if the Jews control everything, why am I representing 30 Orthodox families (against the school district) to get them the education they’re entitled to. If the Jews controlled everything, I wouldn’t have to do that.”
The motto of Inzelbuch’s law practice is “Every Child Deserves an Appropriate Education – at the District’s Expense.”
He represents clients from across the state but says he has sued the Lakewood School District “about 75 times” to get students placed in the “best special education programs for them.”
Special Education is the most expensive item in the Lakewood school budget, followed by transportation. A column on May 14 addressed the annual transportation cost of $24,582,735 for the township’s 6,000 public school students and the 30,000 children who attend private schools. Of those 30,000, almost all attend Orthodox Jewish schools. The boys and girls, according to Haredi tradition, must be bused separately to gender-specific schools. And unlike the public schools, the Orthodox schools have no uniform start or dismissal times, making busing efficiency impossible.
While the $24.5 million price tag for busing is enormous, it is nearly $10 million less than the cost of special education for Lakewood students.
In 2016-17 the district spent $33,837,924 for special education. Lakewood has 1,254 students classified as “special needs.”
The most recent numbers obtained by The Star-Ledger show that 908 of these students are serviced “in-district,” meaning they attend Lakewood public schools.
But 346 are sent “out-of-district” to private special needs schools in Lakewood or surrounding towns.
“There is a lot of pressure from the Orthodox community to get their kids into these cultural settings,” said a source with knowledge of special needs placement in Lakewood who is not authorized to speak on the record.
According to a list of the 346 out-of-district students, identified only by age, gender and race, 193 of them are enrolled at the School For Children with Special Intelligence (SCHI) in Lakewood.
SCHI was founded and is run by Rabbi Osher Eisemann, who was indicted in March by the state attorney general’s office on charges of transferring $630,000 of publicly-paid tuition funds into SCHI’s foundation accounts and using the money for personal investments and expenses.
The average school-year tuition at SCHI is $97,000, but there are summer programs, including a sleepaway camp in the Poconos, that can add as much as $10,000 per student. The Lakewood School District pays SCHI an estimated $1.8 million per month, during the school year.
Another 30 go to the Orthodox-run Special Children’s Center (which is registered as the Center for Education with the state Department of Education), where tuitions fall in the $55,000 range, plus another $10,000 for summer programs.
Also feeding the perception that the town’s special educational system is controlled by the Othodox community, one of the agencies hired by the district to prepare evaluations on the “out-of-district” special needs kids is On Track Resources, created in 2008 by two Orthodox women, Shulamit Tropper and Sharon Kleinband. Their company is one of three contracted by the board of education. The other two are large companies called Catapult Learning and Psych-Ed.
The private schools are given a choice of which company to use and On Track gets about 95 percent of work, according to district information. But in addition to being Orthodox-owned-and-operated, they are the only local company in the mix. Psych-Ed is located in Bergen County and Catapult, which employs 5,600 evaluators, is headquartered in New York.
A lawsuit filed last month by Tobree Mostel, an Orthodox woman and a member of the district child study team, claims there have been “questionable and unethical” practices by an outside vendor that does “about 95 percent” of Lakewood’s out-of-district evaluations. The suit does not name the company. Mostel’s suit said she had concerns about “excess billing” and student assessments by “evaluators from companies that would be receiving (district) monies.”
The suit claims Mostel was harassed by the Lakewood Board of Education when she brought these concerns to their attention and specifically names several Orthodox members of the board. She is the second Lakewood schools’ special education employee to sue the district in recent years over alleged intrusion by the Orthodox community.
Is that perception vs. reality? Or where there is smoke, there is fire?
“It’s like a monopoly,” said Alfred Longo, a member of the Seniors Action Group (SAG), which has concerns about education, rising taxes, and a master development plan that is turning Lakewood into an urban center. “What other factors go into deciding where these kids are educated? Religious observances? Kosher meals? And if the school district balks at sending a kid to one of these places, right away there’s a threat to sue.”
Lakewood School Superintendent Laura Winters, whose contract is not being renewed by the Orthodox dominated school board, said the district “could absolutely not handle” many of the students sent to SCHI.
“These are severely handicapped kids, some who require nurses,” she said. “It’s expensive, but the cost is mandated by the state. I can tell you, we (the district) have no kids at SCHI that don’t belong there.”
Longo, who is a retired Holmdel schools’ administrator and has a doctorate in education, thinks otherwise.
“We’ve asked the state to come and do better audits of these schools,” he said.
He points to state department of education statistics that show the percentage Lakewood’s special education students make up 39 percent of the school population, three times higher than cities such as Newark or Paterson.
“Let’s face it,” he said. “Being in special education is a pretty good business here.”
Winters disputed the value of those numbers.
“That’s because the state bases the percentage on a 6,000-student district, when we actually serve the special education needs of 36,000 (including all the private school students),” she said.
And this seems to be the bottom line problem with all the education problems in Lakewood. It is unlike any other district in the state in that its private school population is not just larger than the public school population, but six times greater. Under state law, those students are entitled to transportation and special education at the public school’s expense.
“Nobody wants to pay more taxes,” Inzelbuch said. “My mother is a retired public school principal who lives here and she doesn’t want to pay more taxes. My uncle is a retired public school teacher who lives here and he doesn’t want to pay more taxes. I live here and my property taxes are $36,000 and I don’t want to pay more taxes.
“But the state monitors the district, the state approves the special needs schools and their tuitions,” he said. “So if you want to blame somebody, blame the state.”
Michael Azzara, the state monitor overseeing Lakewood, did not return repeated calls, but on Wednesday the state board of education passed new laws cracking down on salaries and other expenses, as well as nepotism in hiring, at private special-needs schools that take public money.
The action follows a 2013 investigation by The Star-Ledger that showed exorbitant salaries and perks, including luxury car leases, and questionable hiring practices at many special needs schools, including one in Lakewood. However the school supplied no information.
And so the perceptions continue. With the case against Eisemann and Mostel’s lawsuit, the realities may not be too far behind.
Mark Di Ionno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.