I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Wither, Part III

 Here are the other parts of this series:

- Part I

- Part II

What happens when a majority of citizens rejects its own public schools? We need look no further than Lakewood, NJ -- a town that I contend is an object lesson in the consequences of school privatization. Again, I believe at least three things will happen when public schools are left to wither, as they have been in Lakewood:

  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
Regarding point #2: in the last post I showed definitively that Lakewood's public and private school populations are highly segregated. In this post, let's spend some time discussing point #1.

I'll note first that, as I've written before, there are plenty of examples of corruption and malfeasance in districts where the majority of children attend the public schools. And the problems with private schools enrolling special needs students in New Jersey have been well documented

But one of Lakewood's private schools had, according to the verdict of a jury, taken things to a new level (all emphases mine):

2/27/19: NEW BRUNSWICK - The founder of a Lakewood special education school is guilty of money laundering and misconduct by a corporate official, but not guilty of corruption involving public funds, a jury said Wednesday after deliberating for about 20 hours over four days.

The jury's mixed slate of verdicts expose Rabbi Osher Eisemann, founder of the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, to possible prison time of five to 10 years, according to prosecutors. He was acquitted of three charges, including the most serious count brought against him: First-degree corruption of public resources, which carried a prison term of at least a decade. 

Eisemann left a courtroom Wednesday afternoon surrounded by supporters and family members, who have occupied courtroom benches throughout the trial. He smiled as he thanked his defense team, which declared victory shortly after the verdicts were announced.

"The reason you saw the defense team is enthusiastic overall about the verdict is this case is not about money laundering or misconduct by a corporate official," said Eisemann's lawyer, Lee Vartan. "This was about theft of public funds. The state made that clear in its multiple press releases, at every court appearance, in their opening statement, in their closing statement. And on theft of public funds, he was completely vindicated."

It turns out the defense team had reason to be optimistic

4/29/19: NEW BRUNSWICK - The founder of a Lakewood special education school will not go to prison, but will serve 60 days in jail and two years on probation for laundering $200,000 from the school, a judge here ruled Monday afternoon.

Rabbi Osher Eisemann, who founded the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, must also pay a $250,000 fine, according to the sentence handed down by state Superior Court Judge Benjamin Bucca, sitting in Middlesex County. Eisemann will begin the jail term on July 1. 


"The defendant is many things," Deputy Attorney General Anthony Robinson said. "He is a builder, a nurturer and an educator. But he is not a victim. ... The defendant has led a great life but that does not exempt you from the law.”

But Bucca found even the minimum prison term, six years, would be a "serious injustice" in part based on Eisemann's work in special education. More than three dozen letters were sent to the judge in support of Eisemann, many of them outlining Eisemann's dedication to students at the school he started to help his own son. 

The prosecution was not happy with this ruling, however, and appealed the original sentence. The appellate judges, according to the Asbury Park Press, "...issued a scathing opinion saying the judge who sentenced him to probation for money laundering and misconduct ignored the law and a jury’s verdict." At last report, Eisemann's sentence is on hold as his attorneys appeal the latest ruling.

It's worth noting that this would not be the only time SCHI found itself in trouble:
4/19/19: LAKEWOOD — A high-cost school for special-needs children, whose founder and director was recently indicted on charges he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money, overcharged the township's impoverished public school district and other schools by at least $340,000 in one year, the Asbury Park Press found.

The School for Children with Hidden Intelligence overbilled the districts by paying uncertified teachers; paying certain employees more than permitted by state law; and buying items deemed unnecessary for the school, according to an audit by the state Department of Education of the 2011-2012 school year. Some of those items were purchased at Costco, Staples and from merchants on eBay and mailed to the home of an employee not named in the audit. A large-ticket item, a power generator, was ostensibly purchased for the school's summer camp, but it could not be located by auditors. 

The school also failed to do background checks on 71 of the 77 employees it hired that year, the audit found. 
Rabbi Osher Eisemann, the school's founder and current director, was indicted earlier this month for allegedly stealing more than $630,000 in public funds and laundering much of the money. He was not blamed for the overbilling in the state's audit.

Now, I will confess that when I started following this story, my first reaction was: "Where was the oversight? Why wasn't the Lakewood Board of Education aware of this?" But the more I've thought about it, the more obvious it became to me that it's unreasonable for a board of education to oversee the proper use of monies when so much of those monies are spent by entities that are not regulated by that board.

Look at these figures again:

The rest of New Jersey has to keep watch over less than one percent of its students who are placed into private schools. Lakewood, however, has to oversee the placements of nearly six percent of its students.

The amount of spending on private schools is, on average, six percent of a New Jersey district's budget. But nearly sixteen percent of Lakewood's budget is spent on private schools. How can a local board of education keep track of this much money if it is given to entities out of their control? Local districts have enough to do keeping track of their own finances, let alone audit the accounts of private schools.

Eisemann's jury found he engaged in a complex financial scheme to evade the law. It took years for prosecutors to develop the case and win a conviction. It's not reasonable at all for any school board to be  expected to catch a private entity in this kind of act. But if that's true, it stands to reason that bad faith actors will see an opportunity and try to game the system. And when there is a lack of accountability, bad things inevitably happen.

Should New Jersey completely eliminate private schools for special education students? That's a question on which reasonable people can disagree. In my own career I've worked with people who run these schools, and they were all decent, committed professionals who had the best interests of their students at heart. There are much easier ways to make a living than running a school for kids with the most profound special needs, so I give anyone who enters the field the benefit of the doubt.

But public policy can't be run on faith. And the more public revenue that is doled out to nongovernmental entities, the more oversight is required. Lakewood gives out a lot of money to private interests, but it clearly hasn't figured out how to hold all of those entities fully accountable. How could it? Boards of education were never designed to be overseers of private schools... but, in this case, it's precisely what the situation requires.

But now imagine if we expanded the subsidies so all students, not just those with special needs, could attend private schools. Who would provide the necessary accountability? Boards of education clearly aren't up to the job. Who instead would protect the public's interest? Who would be in place to make sure public monies were being spent responsibly? For that matter, given how much support Lakewood provides to private schools right now...

... who's making sure that those private schools are spending it properly?

Point #3 on my list mentions disrespect for teachers. Let's talk about that next...

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