Education Law Center Files OPRA Request for Lakewood

Education Law Center has filed an OPRA request for “detailed documentation about the Lakewood school district's plan to reconfigure school grade assignments and for academic and budgetary records from prior years.”

Lakewood’s sad story stems from a peculiar set of circumstances: while there are about 28,000 school age children in the Ocean County city, only 5,600 children – about 80% Hispanic and 20%  black -- attend the public schools.  Jewish students attend private yeshivas. However, the School Board is almost entirely composed of members from the Hasidic community, and questions have been raised about the Board’s commitment to public education. (See here for the new community group Lakewood Unite.)

This conflict of commitment leads to various fiscal oddities. For example, Lakewood currently spends about 20% -- way more than any other NJ district --  of its $99 million annual operating budget on transportation because all children, including those in private schools, are entitled to a bus ride or an annual payment. (DOE budget here.)

Like all districts, Lakewood is required to cover tuition for special education students placed out-of-district. Lakewood is well-known for placing Jewish special ed kids at one particular private school called the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence at an annual tuition of about $100K per year per child. Minority children with disabilities receive sub-standard services. Other Lakewood trivia includes the Board’s practice of paying for Jewish children with special needs to religious summer camps;  turnover in administrators (3 superintendents in 4 years and 4 high school principals in 4 years); poor student achievement (e.g., 63% of the senior class at Lakewood High failed the state assessment in math); poor record-keeping, perjured grant applications.

 NJ districts calculate two different costs per pupil, one restricted to instructional and administrative costs “Budgetary Cost Per Pupil”) and another that factors in additional overhead like transportation and tuition to other schools (“Total Cost Per Pupil”). The typical discrepancy between the two calculations is usually small: maybe $1K-$2K.

In Lakewood, for the 2010-2011 school year, the Budgetary Cost Per Pupil was $12,675. The Total Cost Per Pupil was $23,362.

For past NJLB coverage, see here, here, here, and here.

ELC’s OPRA request includes:
•    data on the classification rates and expenditure of funds for special education, disaggregated by race, as well as documents related to the allocation of special education funds to private schools, which was the subject of a 2006 NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) investigation;
•    budget documents related to the expenditure of funds to private school students, which now makes up approximately $30 million of the district's overall budget, about half of which is spent for private school transportation;
•    documents related to the performance of the district's schools, considered by the NJDOE to be low performing, and related to the district's aging facilities in need of repair.

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