BY Joe Strupp Feb 28 2022, Education Reporter for APP NEWS
The Following is a direct Quote from APP News,
In the months since an August Asbury Park Press investigation revealed he had racked up more than $1 million in billings during each of the last two school years — and more than $3 million in the past four years — Inzelbuch’s income has dropped by an average of $26,000 a month.
The Press investigation found that during the first eight months of 2021, Inzelbuch received $731,198 in district payments, or an average of $91,400 each month.
But in the final four months of the year Inzelbuch received $261,235, or an average of $65,309 each month. That is a 28.5% drop from the prior period.
For the first six months of the 2021-2022 school year, which is billed from July to June, he received a monthly average of $71,938. If that trend continues, Inzelbuch would make $863,250 for the 2021-2022 school year, below the $1 million-plus he took home during each of the two previous school years.
For calendar year 2021, from January to December, Inzelbuch received $992,433.
As the Press reported in August, Inzelbuch’s contract, renewed in late June, states he serves as board general counsel at a rate of $475 per hour, “not to exceed $50,000” per month. The agreement does not guarantee that amount but caps his monthly expenses as general counsel at $50,000. The contract also states the “actual payment for each month will be based on hours worked times the hourly rate.”
But he has routinely billed additional hours for what he terms litigation and other expenses at the same $475 per hour.
When the initial billing amounts came to light, Inzelbuch received criticism from education and legal experts, as well as Gov. Murphy, who called the totals “eye-popping,” but has done nothing to provide further state reviews or investigations.
‘It’s just hard to believe’
At issue has been the process in which Inzelbuch submits invoices for his district work, failing to list specifics of time spent on each task for which he bills, despite his contract requiring such detail.
“It’s just hard to believe, it is appalling that the state, that Gov. Murphy and his administration haven’t stepped in to stop this not only illegal contract under department rules but also an incredible waste of public tax dollars that are desperately needed by the public school children in Lakewood,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and a frequent Inzelbuch critic. “The Murphy Administration has the power to stop this and to make sure that the board complies with state law in its contracting for legal services.”
He pointed out that even with a reduced salary, Inzelbuch is still making more than any other school board attorney in New Jersey at a time when the district is facing regular budget deficits.
Inzelbuch did not respond to requests for comment.
Lakewood schools have required $138 million in state loans dating to 2015 and continue running an annual shortfall that most recently required an infusion of $70 million in COVID-related federal funds to balance the latest budget. The district still owed $125 million as of late 2021.
Inzelbuch’s salary had increased regularly since he was rehired as board attorney in 2017.
He was paid $625,109 during the 2017-2018 school year, $721,644 in 2018-2019, and more than $1 million each in 2019-2020 and 2020-2021.
Second time as attorney
Inzelbuch had previously served as board attorney from 2002 to 2012, when he was dismissed after two new board members were sworn in that year. The board voted to replace him with a law firm on retainer.
When he was rehired in 2017, district officials conceded his salary was high, but they also said they expected the move to lower legal bills that had exceeded or come close to $1 million annually during the previous five years.
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That was due in part to Inzelbuch, who, as a plaintiffs’ lawyer, had sued the district in at least 80 cases on behalf of families with children requiring special education services. He also represented other children with special needs in hundreds of cases against districts across the state.
The lawsuits helped push the district’s legal bills to an estimated $1.2 million during the 2016-2017 school year, officials said at the time — with $474,800 in payments by Lakewood to Inzelbuch alone to cover his attorney fees and expenses incurred in successfully representing parents in legal actions against the district.
Former state monitor Michael Azzara said in 2017 that having Inzelbuch working for the schools instead of suing the district made the salary cost-effective.
A new state-appointed fiscal monitor — the third in nearly eight years — was hired in December as the district remains more than $125 million in debt. State law requires that a monitor be in place in a district as long as its state debt remains, which could be at least several more years for Lakewood given the tens of millions still owed to Trenton.
In 2021, meanwhile, Lakewood Schools were found by an administrative law judge to have failed in providing a “thorough and efficient education” to students.
The ruling stemmed from a 2014 lawsuit led by Lakewood High School teacher and attorney Arthur Lang challenging state funding.
But while Judge Susan Scarola recommended that the state education commissioner conduct a needs assessment of the district’s ability to meet its obligations and make “appropriate recommendations,” she stopped short of directly blaming the state aid formula.
Months later, acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan ruled that the state funding formula was adequate to meet Lakewood’s needs, despite its ongoing deficits. That ruling is under an appeal.