A Tale of Two Towns

I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the school board that has been facing a unique challenge recently … you know, how the district is grappling with a confluence of circumstances that led to a less than ideal situation. Cuts in state aid, together with rising regular and special-education costs, along with an already overtaxed population, created a state of affairs that would be hard for anyone to “solve.”

The budget crisis has made it so that the democratically elected board’s members (who, since the overwhelming majority of residents in this town are private school parents, don’t necessarily send their children to the public schools) have to make difficult choices. Despite valiant efforts to keep costs from rising even further, some people, who see an opportunity to create division, insist the board can’t be trusted to make any decisions.

No, this isn’t the story of the East Ramapo School District, where efforts have been made to supplant the board with a monitor. That effort, by the way, has been the subject of strongly worded statements by many national askanim and community leaders, e.g., “The notion is offensive to us that Orthodox Jews cannot run a school board in an equitable way simply because they send their children to yeshivos rather than public school.” Others expressed concern that such an appointment can lead to yeshivos losing funding for busing.

Those are valid concerns, for sure. They also happen to be things that have become the reality for a different school district in the tristate area. In Lakewood, New Jersey, the board has been subjected to the “oversight” and vetoes of a monitor, a fellow by the name of Michael Azzara, for over a year now. But you wouldn’t know it by the relative silence coming from those same askanim who are all up in arms over what is happening in Monsey.

Some of the people who are constantly attacking the board in Lakewood would have you believe that the reason Lakewood needs a monitor to help deal with the budget shortfall is because the district has a “spending problem” — i.e., they waste money on things that are not needed. But the monitor himself has said clearly, at an open board meeting in March, that “this district has a revenue problem, not a spending problem, in my opinion.” The problem, said this representative of the State of New Jersey, is that the state aid formula just doesn’t work for a district like Lakewood.

So what does the state representative do when he sees a problem that is a result of the state’s refusal to adjust its formula? Why, what any self-respecting public servant would do: take it out on the people who are already paying 64 percent of the total budget via the property taxes they already can’t afford and who derive minimal personal benefit from these taxes. Working his way through a $140 million budget, Mr. Azzara can only manage to find that the culprit must be the few million dollars the private school parents do get — for busing. He demands concession after concession from these taxpaying parents in order to fix the hole in the budget.

His latest proclamation was that since the schools won’t accede to his demand to change the start times of all schools (a demand they may have agreed to if he could guarantee it was more than a temporary band-aid), he is not allowing the district to provide any busing to frum schools. He can do this by demanding there be no separate buses for boys and girls, thereby eliminating all busing for yeshivos and girls’ schools in Lakewood.

And yet, all this is met with silence.

Where is the outrage at these and other actions being taken by him and other state officials, which overwhelmingly and deliberately target and affect the frum community? One would expect that the politicians who represent us on a state level would be more vocal in our defense, but we hear nothing from them, either.

These are issues that affect the way we can impart chinuch to our children. They are important. And they aren’t going to be limited to East Ramapo and Lakewood. As the precedent is set in Lakewood of how we allow bureaucrats with no sensitivity to our needs to dictate our educational requirements, other growing Jewish communities can see what the future has in store for them as well.

Unless we all stand up and demand change.

The governor of the state of New Jersey, whose education commissioner appointed the monitor and refuses to work with the town on the “revenue problem,” is now running for president. Can’t national askanim impress upon him the need to work with us? Christie ran twice on the (unfulfilled) promise of school vouchers, one of the promises that earned him overwhelming support from Lakewood voters. Yet, all we received was targeted abuse by his appointee, directed at private school parents in a district with failing public schools. That would not go over well with conservatives, who play a huge part in deciding who will be the nominee. Maybe we should let them know what is happening here.