While total state takeovers of troubled school districts are getting the most attention of late, the Christie administration’s appointment of a fiscal monitor for the Lakewood public schools last week points up a quieter approach to how the state deals with its most troubled districts.
Less than a month into his tenure, acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe announced Friday that the state would send in a monitor and a team of other officials to help resolve a deepening budget crisis in the Ocean County school district.
The district has said it will ask the state for a $5 million loan to make it through the year.
At the center of the budget deficit is the escalating cost of providing services to district students who choose to attend private schools, many of them yeshivas for the large Orthodox Jewish population.
About 20,000 children in the township attend non-public schools, while district enrollment is under 6,000. The district is spending close to $20 million a year to provide transportation for these non-public students, as well as providing funding for other mandated services, includes special education.
“These are very complicated and unique problems that would be very difficult for any school district to resolve,” Hespe said on Friday in announcing the appointment of the new fiscal monitor.
“This group will go into the district starting Monday and try to assess the problem for the short term, and specifically closing the budget year, but the long term as well,” he said.
The state’s monitor will be Michael Azzara, a long-time education department employee who has served in a monitor role in five districts over the last 15 years. Also on the team will be the state’s county superintendent, Thomas Dowd, and county business administrator Thomas McMahon.
The appointment of a monitor is a more measured approach compared to the state’s recent interventions in school districts.
Just a year ago, in Camden, the state launched its fourth full takeover of a school district in two decades, amid ongoing debate over how the state is managing the districts under its control, especially in Newark.
In the case of Lakewood, state officials are invoking a 2007 law that created the role of a state fiscal monitor to deal specially with school district budget problems. Lakewood becomes the seventh district currently under fiscal monitor, and the 12th overall to fall under the law.
The others currently with fiscal monitors are Asbury Park, Trenton, Pleasantville, Garfield, Elmwood Park and Elmer. Districts that had monitors removed are Camden City, Irvington, Willingboro and Beverly.
Under the law, the state can move in with a monitor when a district faces a deficit or other budgetary questions as determined through their annual audits. The state posts the audits for every district.
Hespe stressed Friday that the state monitor deals specifically with budget problems, not instructional or other program issues.
“The (monitor) law was never designed to lead a district overall,” Hespe said.
But the move also comes as the debate heats up over what role the state should take in school districts. Newark has been the hottest flashpoint, with rising public protests over reform plans put forward by state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.
Camden has been in the early throes of its takeover, as well, as state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard plans to trim back administrative staff with the elimination of nearly 200 positions and is warning of widespread teacher layoffs to come. Azzara, the new Lakewood monitor, served as monitor in Camden for the last five years.
In addition, legislators have been pushing to revamp the state’s monitoring system as a whole. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate’s education committee, would tighten up the guidelines for when the state intervenes – and end interventions – in school districts. The bill, which is moving through the state Senate, is expected to be posted for a vote this spring.