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Monday, November 22, 2010

In special-education programs in New Jersey, furious dissent followed earlier report on tuition bill

Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg
This isn’t the first time that questions have been raised about the Lakewood School District’s ballooning tuition payments to the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence.

In 2002, an ad hoc committee of the Lakewood Board of Education looked at ways to make the district’s special-education program more cost-effective.

The committee was chaired by Arthur Godt, a local retiree who had spent 13 years as the special-education director in the Passaic school system.

“We made an honest effort to approach some of the problems, and the out-of-district tuition was one of them,” recalled Godt, 72.

The committee’s final report, citing the “inordinate number” of Lakewood students being placed at the privately owned and operated SCHI, said that there was “no valid reason why Lakewood should not develop appropriate special-education programs for these children.”

At the time, the district was spending approximately $2.5 million to send 53 students to SCHI, at an average tuition of $43,396.

The report called on the district to commit the resources to improve and expand its own special-education programs with a view toward bringing at least some of the students at SCHI back into the district. Doing so, the report stated, would be in keeping with federal and state special-education laws requiring that children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” ideally with their nondisabled peers at a local public school.

“The first line is always ‘public education first,’” Godt said. “Well, Lakewood doesn’t do that. They just automatically go to the private school.”

Godt said he wasn’t prepared for the reaction the report triggered.

A dissenting member of the committee, Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of Lakewood’s Vaad, the council of religious and community leaders that represents the interest of the township’s Orthodox Jewish community, called the report a “major misrepresentation and a complete rewrite” of a draft that had been circulated in the committee.

In a memo to the schools superintendent at the time, Ernest Cannava, Weisberg urged that Godt and another member of the committee who helped write the report “be sanctioned for a serious breach of professional behavior.”

“Having known both gentleman, I was truly shocked by their gross misconduct, especially with such sensitive issues,” Weisberg wrote. “My opinion is that they should both be removed from the committee and be barred from future official district committees.”

Godt said the school board accepted the report without comment, and he heard nothing more of it.

“To my knowledge, the report was just filed away,” he said.

Since that time, the district’s tuition payments to SCHI have increased nearly fivefold, to $12.2 million. Godt, for one, is hardly surprised.

“You didn’t have to have a special-education background to figure that one out,” Godt said. “It was going to snowball to what it is now.”

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