Op-Ed: The Lakewood School System — Unique in NJ?

Michael Hoban, Ph.D. | December 5, 2012 | Opinion
Can a public school system survive under these circumstances?

When most citizens think of funding for a township’s school system, they ordinarily think about paying for the best possible instruction in the public schools.

Of course, most people probably know that some form of public funding does go to private school students for special purposes, like busing and special-needs students. But I think that most of the public believes this is a relatively small part of the total budget. And in the vast majority of school districts, this belief is probably justified.

But we have in New Jersey (in at least one township) what appears to be an example of what can happen to a public school system when this “relatively small part” explodes — and the public schools become victims of that explosion.

From numbers supplied by the school district, it appears that in Lakewood Township only about 25 percent to 30 percent of annual spending is actually spent on instruction. (The percentage spread is due to the lack of precision in reporting the numbers.)

I am not sure that any of our state or federal lawmakers could have foreseen such a situation when they created the laws requiring local districts to help to private schoolchildren.

And it raises the very serious question: Can a public school system survive in a township where the number of private schoolchildren far outnumbers the number of public schoolchildren?

Here is one example of how things can become distorted under the present laws:

There are four public elementary schools in Lakewood. Would you believe that there is a private school in Lakewood that received over $12 million in public funds in 2011-2012 — far more than any of the four elementary public schools?

Let’s take a quick look at what can happen to a public school system when (over a significant period) an inordinate amount of public funds are provided to private schoolchildren. (And it appears that virtually all of this is legal.)

The Lakewood public schools are failing by just about any criteria one wishes to use. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the poverty of the schoolchildren’s families.

But it would appear that one of the major contributing factors is the serious underfunding of the public schools due in part to the amount of funding that goes to providing services for private schoolchildren.

The total funds spent on Lakewood schoolchildren in 2011-2012 (from all sources) was $133 million.

If we exclude the cost of busing and services for special-needs students, the total amount spent for instruction in the seven public schools was around $33 million to $40 million. (This includes all salaries, supplies and utilities — and allows $6 million to $13 million for other expenses.)

That means that only 25 percent to 30 percent of the public funds spent on education in Lakewood in 2011-2012 was actually spent on educating children in the seven public schools.

We all know that there are many other considerations that go into creating a successful public school system –but if the appropriate funding is not there, then that system starts at a decided disadvantage.

So where did the rest of the money go?

We may never know the full answer. But having spent 48 years as an educator, I was shocked to learn that almost 50 percent of the Lakewood district budget goes to busing schoolchildren and to providing services for special-needs children (the vast majority of whom are students from the private schools).

How is this possible? To begin to understand this situation, one must appreciate the unique nature of the Lakewood school-age population. According to the Asbury Park Press, there are approximately 5,000 public schoolchildren in Lakewood public schools, compared with 23,000 private schoolchildren. That’s right: 82 percent of the schoolchildren in Lakewood attend private schools.

Does this ratio of public to private schoolchildren (18 percent to 82 percent) exist anywhere else in New Jersey?

It also appears that in 2011-2012, $20 million was spent to bus some 23,000 children. That would be 15 percent of the total budget. (And this appears to be a conservative estimate; some have claimed it is closer to $30 million.)

Further, it seems that least $45 million was spent to service special-needs children. That alone is a staggering 34 percent of the entire district budget.

Is this an example of lawmakers inadvertently having created laws that discriminate against ordinary public schoolchildren in favor of special-needs children?

Consider the following: In 2011-2012, Lakewood spent some $14.5 million on 172 students who were placed in “special private schools.” That is more than $84,000 per student.

In fact, 137 of these students were placed in one school at a cost of more than $90,000 per student, Almost all of these students came from the private school population and have never attended any of the seven Lakewood public schools.

That $90,000 per student is more than seven times what was spent on a typical student in one of the Lakewood public schools (by even the most generous estimate).

As an educator and as a taxpayer, I have difficulty with the concept that one child’s education should be valued (and funded by the public) at seven times that of another child.

On November 20, 2012, the Asbury Park Press ran a story on a recent audit conducted in Lakewood. Here are some excerpts:

“Auditor Dieter P. Lerch said he had never seen anything like this. Millions paid to a special education vendor with little documentation. Shoe boxes full of papers . . . although little substantiation can be found. Catapult Learning, a vendor that billed $20.9 million to the township school district in one year”

“For more than a decade, the school district has been in a fiscal, educational and cultural crisis. The Asbury Park Press [has] documented how the Lakewood school district had failed its students, including how the Board of Education’s dealings with some of its largest vendors have been marked by lax oversight.”

“Lerch said the state comptroller also should review the contract because it is above the $2 million threshold that legally triggers such a review.”

As a resident of Lakewood, I confess to being completely amazed (and appalled) by these numbers and by these revelations. Is it possible that these problems are unique to Lakewood?

And again that important question: Under our present laws, can a public school system survive in a township where the number of private schoolchildren far outnumbers the number of public schoolchildren?

It is true that the current Board of Education seems to be trying to address some of the problems (even though only one of the nine members of the board has a child in the public schools). But it does not appear that they can really do anything by themselves.

What else can the state do at this time to help the failing public schools in Lakewood?

It appears that some form of state intervention is needed. Now.