LAKEWOOD – Gov. Phil Murphy called Board of Education attorney Michael Inzelbuch’s $1 million annual school district pay “eye-popping” during a meeting with editors Tuesday but stopped short of calling for a state review of the payouts.
“I don’t condone it,” Murphy said of Inzelbuch’s compensation, which topped $1 million in 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 and was the subject of a recent Asbury Park Press investigation. It found Inzelbuch also failed to fully detail what tasks he performed for more than half his pay, as required by his contract.
“But I also have to tell you as we sit here, I don’t have insight into the particulars of it, the number is eye-popping,” Murphy said.
Whether the state Education Department shares Murphy’s view that the Inzelbuch payouts are “eye-popping” is unknown. Department officials, who in the past have called the board attorney’s pay into question, have yet to provide a response to Press requests for comment.
Inzelbuch didn’t respond either — to the Press inquiries regarding his compensation, which is hundreds of thousands of dollars more than what some much larger school districts pay their lawyer, or to Murphy’s characterization.
How we got here
The governor’s remarks came in response to a question from Press Executive Editor Paul D’Ambrosio during an editorial board meeting Tuesday with the New Jersey editors of the USA TODAY Network, including the Asbury Park Press.
The recent Press investigation, published in August, revealed that Inzelbuch had been paid more than $3 million during his current four-year stint with the Lakewood school district, with the majority of the income coming in the past two years. The Lakewood district has relied on tens of millions of dollars in loans from state funds to keep itself solvent.
Inzelbuch, whose private law practice has other clients, added nearly $170,000 from Lakewood taxpayers over the summer, according to records reviewed this week that showed he received more than $100,000 in August alone.
Data obtained by the Asbury Park Press through a public information request revealed that Inzelbuch received $60,647.86 in July and $109,742.66 in August from the district.
The August payment marked the sixth time since Inzelbuch rejoined the district in 2017 that he received more than $100,000 from taxpayers in one month, and the fourth time in 2021.
“It’s clear the Lakewood School Board will pay Mr. Inzelbuch whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, with no accountability,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and a longtime critic of the outsize compensation paid Inzelbuch. “(Acting) State Education Commissioner (Angelica) Allen-McMillan needs to explain to the parents and students in Lakewood why she won’t act to stop this outrageous abuse of public tax dollars.”
The most recent monthly payments include $50,000 for Inzelbuch’s school board-related work, with the remainder for additional “litigation services” allowed under his contract. Both are provided at $475 per hour.
Inzelbuch’s contract states that the monthly retainer is based on hours worked times his hourly fee up to a maximum of $50,000. Those invoices, however, offer no detailed logs indicating time spent on each task, charging just the $50,000 overall fee each month.
While the invoices for the additional litigation services provide detailed charges based on the hourly fee, most offer few specifics about the tasks involved. Individuals referenced in the invoices are identified by their initials and many passages are redacted.
The additional charges paid Inzelbuch — on top of the $50,000 maximum he bills each month for school board work — totaled another $10,647.86 in July and $59,742.66 in August. Twice this past summer, on July 15 and July 26, Inzelbuch charged more than $3,000 in a single day for litigation services, on top of his regular board attorney stipend.
“There is no compensation for any school district employee that approaches his compensation,” Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said in August about Inzelbuch. “Those numbers are unheard of anywhere else in the State of New Jersey.”
Paul Tractenberg, a former Rutgers law professor and an expert on public education who has previously called Inzelbuch’s compensation into question, said recently, “The notion that a district that is struggling to find dollars to educate its students is laying out (hundreds of thousands of dollars) to its attorney is obscene and immoral as far as I am concerned.”
As in years past, Inzelbuch, a Lakewood High School graduate, was able to boost his compensation by billing for many tasks that are typically handled by non-lawyers in other districts. He also serves as district spokesman, though that role is not set forth in his contract.
He bills taxpayers at an hourly rate of up to $475, whether he is reviewing a contract or discussing COVID-related protocols and policies with administrators, parents or the press, according to the invoices.
The challenges of COVID do not fully explain what has been a quick rise in Inzelbuch’s compensation. He nearly doubled his 2017-2018 school year compensation of $625,000 by the close of the 2020-2021 school year, which paid him $1.12 million and ended as the pandemic was still underway.
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 none of Inzelbuch’s general counsel invoices includes the minutes or hours spent per task or per month. Inzelbuch has consistently billed for the entire $50,000 set forth as the maximum each month — for every month since 2017 — despite omitting such details as the actual time he spent on each task.
A New Jersey Department of Education official told the Lakewood Board of Education in 2018 that the board could not automatically pay Inzelbuch a portion of his contact — $50,000 each month — without first seeing Inzelbuch’s itemized billings to justify that cost.
Inzelbuch’s rising income at taxpayer expense also comes as Lakewood Schools’ fiscal issues and ongoing academic problems have continued, culminating in a 2021 Administrative Law judge’s finding that the district failed to provide a constitutionally required “thorough and efficient education” to students.
Murphy noted the fiscal situation in his comments Tuesday, stating, “as a broader matter, Lakewood is the fastest-growing community in the state and it’s got very, very unique challenges. The state has been there with Lakewood in our time in office and you should assume that we will continue to be there until we get this into much more of a steady state. I can’t predict what the growth in the community will look like, but it continues to be high as we saw from the census and we will stay there as a partner until we get to something more of a balanced and steady state.”
Lakewood’s population rose 46% in the last decade, hitting 135,000 in 2020, making it the fastest-growing major municipality in the state.
Acting state Education Commissioner Allen-McMillan this summer issued a ruling that disagreed with the judge’s finding and declined to seek state funding changes to benefit Lakewood schools. She claimed the district is making improvements and no aid alterations were needed. That ruling was recently appealed in Superior Court.