The thousands of children in Lakewood’s mosdos are legally entitled to state funding for textbooks, nursing, technology, security and several other services — but according to a recently publicized report, an inordinately high percentage of the money never reaches schools and is being returned to government coffers on a yearly basis.
As in all districts, non-public schools are not awarded funding directly, but must submit orders through the district’s office, a process that involves a good deal of bureaucracy and red tape. In Lakewood, Board of Education member Isaac Zlatkine says that the process has become prohibitive for many applicants.
“Every question on an order [for equipment, supplies or services] is unique and because of the attention that Lakewood gets from the state, the employees in the district office are looking over their shoulders and are very hesitant as to how they make decisions. Sometimes they send questions about orders on to the state and the state is also scared to decide for the same reason. It’s making what is already a long process much more difficult,” he told Hamodia.
He added that understaffing in the office that deals with orders from non-public schools makes the process additionally difficult.
“The state tells us we are overstaffed because they only look at the number of public school children, but this little office is administering $50 million dollars for 125 schools,” he said.
In all districts, any funds unused by year’s end are returned to the state. Some funds are inevitably held back from their intended recipients due to bureaucratic and technical impediments, but averages throughout the state tend to range between seven and eight percent. In Lakewood, levels have been far higher in recent years. In 2016, 23 percent of funding for both nursing and security, which amount to more than $145,000 each, was returned. Other categories of aid were also left unused at above average rates.
Mr. Zlatkine said that the issue takes a disproportionate toll on smaller schools.
“When you have a very small staff, if making an order means going back and forth with the district four or five times, they might just have to say ‘forget about it, we can’t do this,’” he said.
In many instances, schools find the items they wish to order at far lower prices than at the state-approved vendor, but getting permission to make the purchase can take a very long time. One school had ordered a fire door which the state said would cost $5,000. The school found the identical item for $600, but it took 11 months to get approval to buy it at the cheaper price.
A request for comment from Hamodia to the Lakewood district office responsible for purchasing was not answered.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, the director of the New Jersey Office of Agudath Israel of America, bemoaned the present state of affairs.
“A lot of orders are denied unjustly. There is a lot of confusion and miscommunication and not much guidance. By the time what can and can’t be ordered is clarified, a lot of times it’s past the deadline,” he told Hamodia.
The board and other stakeholders in the district are presently working to streamline the process with the hopes of bringing the amounts of funding able to be used by schools closer to state averages in the future.
“What we want is a clear memorandum from the district attorney that will make the rules and procedure simpler,” he said. “Now, nobody will take responsibility for anything. If we give them a clear rule book, we hope it will be better for everyone.”