I regularly follow the mishigas at Lakewood Public Schools, largely because the district is a useful caricature of the educational inequity that pockmarks New Jersey's public school system. The school board in Lakewood is dominated by Orthodox Jewish leaders who disproportionately allocate money for non-public students, including busing costs for about 20,000 Jewish children who attend parochial schools. The board also pays for gender-specific buses to placate local rabbis. The tab is $20 million a year, about a fifth of this year's school budget.
Lakewood's fiscal condition is so dire that the State recently appointed a fiscal monitor to manage the district's finances, which include a $5 million deficit. The district may also have to reimburse the state and federal governments for another $6 million for falsifying grant proposals.
Most of the 6,000 children who attend the public schools are economically-disadvantaged minority students, largely ignored by the school board. Only 6.1% of Lakewood High School students receive a score of 1550 or above on their SAT's, a measure of college and career-readiness.
Last month, according to the Asbury Park Press, the fiscal monitor, Michael Azzara, proposed a $151 million budget for next year that eliminates "courtesy busing," or school-funded transportation for students who live relatively close to their schools. This elimination affects mostly Lakewood children who attend private Jewish day schools. The school board voted it down but Azzara overruled them.
In response the Jewish Orthodox leaders have organized a protest for yesterday and today. Parents of yeshiva students have been instructed to drive their children to school in order to clog up streets and demonstrate traffic woes that will result from the elimination of courtesy busing. . Rabbi Weisberg told the Lakewood Scoop that "“Similar to a fire drill, this is no cheap stunt. Rather it is a real life simulation of what may actually happen in September on a daily basis. While we regret the inconvenience it may cause to residents and those passing through the town, it is in our opinion, the best way to prepare for the very real possibility of almost 10,000 children (both public and non-public) taking to the streets or their family cars in September.” (Nota bene: actually almost all the students are non-public.)
Also from the Lakewood Scoop:
In a letter to parents today, the Mosdos [leaders of Orthodox day schools] wrote that “the drill that took place today was truly a kiddush Hashem [a religious act that causes others to revere God] as all parents followed the directive and cooperated with the protocol of the drill it was a true show of ACHDUS [unity].”
How'd it work? According to Police Chief Robert Lawson, “Absolutely it was worse than usual but manageable. But we had no issues with emergency vehicles getting through and indeed pedestrian traffic was heavier according to the traffic guards.”
How will the board react? Will the fiscal monitor re-authorize courtesy busing? Stay tuned.
One other piece of Lakewood school news from the Asbury Park Press: "An audit by the state Department of Education’s Office of Fiscal Accountability found that during the 2011-12 school year, Lakewood spent $468,485 in federal Title I funding to buy computer equipment, including 760 iPads. But when auditors asked for documentation to justify the purchases or even for a record of where the devices are, district officials did not have answers, according to the audit."
The missing laptops are one more item in a long list of unaccounted expenditures by the district.
The Rev. Glenn Wilson, founder of UNITE Lakewood, or United Neighbors Improving Today’s Equality, said he has not heard of anyone who received an iPad from the district in 2012.
“If you’re spending someone else’s money, you should be able to account for every dime,” said Wilson, a frequent critic of how Lakewood handles its finances and makes educational decisions.