A protracted legal battle to fix a perennial school funding imbalance unique to Lakewood has yielded what some see as a potential victory. An administrative law judge’s ruled that the district’s overwhelmingly poor, largely Hispanic public school students are not being provided the thorough and efficient education that is the right of every child in New Jersey under the state constitution.
But the Lakewood math teacher and part-time lawyer who filed the legal action resulting in the ruling says his ultimate goal of getting the New Jersey Supreme Court to take the judge’s decision a step further by declaring the state’s school funding formula unconstitutional could be stalled by Lakewood’s public school district itself.
The district insists that its students are getting a thorough and efficient education, and in response to the judge’s March 1 decision has asked the state commissioner of education to reopen the case at the administrative court level, and to elevate the district’s standing, allowing it to file motions that would stretch the already 7-year-old case further into the future.
Arthur Lang, the teacher and lawyer who filed the initial action in 2014, said the district’s response to the judge’s ruling could add another two years to the legal battle.
Lang hopes the high court would eventually declare the funding formula unconstitutional and order changes, at least as the formula applies to Lakewood’s unique situation as a district with a private school population that dwarfs its public school enrollment yet does not receive nearly enough state aid to cover mandated costs of busing and providing special education to all students, public and private, in the fast-growing Ocean County community.
Lang said the judge’s declaration that students were not receiving a thorough and efficient education was key to an eventual scrapping of the funding formula by the high court.
While the district has called on state lawmakers to fix the funding formula, Lang does not believe there is the political will to do that and points to the years of legislative inaction on the issue up through the present.
“We have to go the Supreme Court,” Lang told NJ Advance Media. “And the only way we can get to the Supreme Court is if we get through the administrative court. And we’ve been there for seven years.”
The school district’s lawyer and spokesman, Michael Inzelbuch, agrees with Lang and others that the current funding formula does not address Lakewood’s unique circumstances. But Inzelbuch insists that Lakewood students do get a thorough and efficient education.
“The initial decision by the ALJ (administrative law judge) is flat out wrong,” Inzelbuch said in an email to NJ Advance Media.
The case began with Lang’s June 2014 petition on behalf of Leonor Alcantara and three other sets of Lakewood public school parents asking then-Education Commissioner David Hespe to declare that “all of Lakewood students are entitled to the same services for which students similarly situated elsewhere in New Jersey are entitled.”
After seven years and countless legal maneuvers on all sides, on March 1 Administrative Law Judge Susan Scarola issued a 105-page decision granting Lang and the parents’ request for a declaration that, “Lakewood cannot provide a thorough and efficient education to its public school students.” However, Scarola’s decision denied the petitioners’ additional request to declare the state law containing the aid formula, known as the School Funding Reform Act, or SFRA, “unconstitutional as applied to Lakewood.”
The decision further recommended that the current commissioner of education, Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, determine “the ability of Lakewood to deliver provide a thorough and efficient education,” and develop recommendations on how to do that.
The state’s response to the judge’s decision was in the form of an 18-page letter dated April 13, drafted by an assistant state attorney general, which recommended that the commissioner reject the decision that Lakewood students were not receiving a thorough and efficient education.
“Although there are deficiencies, they are being addressed and progress is being made, even if it is at a slower pace than Petitioner would like to see,” the letter stated, referring to improved district test scores and expanded educational programs.
Inzelbuch’s response on behalf of the district offered a similar response, filed on the same day, likewise rejecting the decision. The response asserted that pre-2018 test scores and other documentation cited by the judge were “old” and “outdated,” and that district scores have continued to rise since then.
There is agreement between the petitioners represented by Lang and the district that the school funding formula must be changed to account for Lakewood’s unique situation, in which more than 36,000 of Lakewood’s children and teens are members of the Orthodox Jewish community who attend private yeshivas, while only about 6,400 township students are enrolled in the district’s public schools.
The enrollment imbalance is at the root of the district’s funding problem under the current formula because New Jersey districts are mandated by state law to pay for the transportation and special education of all students, public or private, who live in the district, even though the overwhelming share of state aid is based on a district’s public school enrollment. For that reason, Lakewood is faced with staggering annual transportation and special education costs for private school students that are nowhere near offset by the amount of per-pupil state aid the district receives.
For example, 12% of Lakewood’s 2020-2021 school budget of just over $200 million was devoted to private school transportation
The result for several years has been an annual budget shortfall requiring special appropriations from the Department of Education in the form of grants and loans, all while the district has contended with a financially disadvantaged public school population, 100% of which qualifies for free or reduced cost lunches.
In the district’s response to the decision, Inzelbuch quoted the judge’s own criticism of annual loans as “a Ponzi scheme” that plugs the budget gap in the short-term but burdens the district with mounting debt. In light of that criticism, he said Scarola’s failure to declare the state aid formula unconstitutional “defies logic.”
But where Lang looks to the state Supreme Court to change the funding formula by declaring what the administrative law judge would not, the district has called on the state legislature to make the changes voluntarily, a move that Lang doubts will happen any time soon.
“The Legislature did nothing,” Lang said in an email. “We need a court order.”
State Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean County), whose district includes Lakewood, agreed that a permanent solution is needed to address Lakewood’s extraordinarily high proportion of private school students and the annual budget shortfall that results from the funding formula. Singer has not introduced a bill, but he said he’s been working with Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to arrive at some kind of fix.
Singer, the Senate’s deputy minority leader, said the most politically viable solution is to amend the school funding law with a provision tailored to address Lakewood’s singular situation, rather than trying to replace the entire school aid formula, which would likely be opposed by representatives of districts adversely affected by wholesale changes.
“You’ve got to create a carve-out that is unique to Lakewood,” Singer said. “If you start changing the whole formula, you open up a whole Pandora’s Box.”
“You’ve got to take it from somewhere,” Singer said of money to plug Lakewood’s perennial budget gap. “And wherever you take it from, they’re not going to be happy.”
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Steve Strunsky may be reached at [email protected].