Lakewood School Board lawyer Michael Inzelbuch earns more than $ 1 million
Ryan Ross and Joe Strupp discuss the compensation of Lakewood School Board lawyer Michael Inzelbuch, which has exceeded $ 2.1 million in the past two years.
Ryan Ross and Joe Strupp, Asbury Park Press
LAKEWOOD – Two days after Gov. Phil Murphy called the annual taxpayer payment of $ 1 million to school board lawyer Michael Inzelbuch, “GOP opponent Jack Ciattarelli said there was a” problem fundamental “with the compensation of Inzelbuch.
“This is excess pay and this Board of Education must be held accountable,” Ciattarelli said in a meeting with editors on Thursday. He later noted that “a discussion needs to take place on the right approach to funding public schools in Lakewood.”
Ciattarelli’s remarks came in response to a question from press editor Paul D’Ambrosio during an editorial board meeting Thursday with the New Jersey editors of the USA TODAY Network, including Asbury Park Press .
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Murphy raised the same topic with editors on Tuesday. “I don’t tolerate it,” Murphy said, later adding, “I also have to tell you, as we sit here, I don’t have any insight into the details, the number is mind-blowing,”
Ciattarelli and Murphy were referring to the board attorney’s salary, which topped $ 1 million in 2019-20 and 2020-2021 and was the subject of an Asbury Park Press investigation in August.
This investigation found that Inzelbuch, who is an entrepreneur with other clients, also failed to itemize the tasks he performed for more than half of his salary, as his contract requires.
Neither Inzelbuch nor the school board have publicly commented on the candidates’ remarks or the press investigation.
In the meantime, Inzelbuch has collected nearly $ 170,000 from Lakewood taxpayers over the summer, according to records reviewed this week, including more than $ 100,000 in August alone.
The school district has tens of millions of dollars in debt and relies on state loans to fill growing operating budget gaps.
Ciattarelli said there was a “fundamental problem” with the compensation paid to Inzelbuch.
He noted, however, that Lakewood faces particular challenges due to its unique circumstances. The district accommodates about 5,600 students, but also provides services, including transportation, to another 30,000 students in private schools.
School district officials have long complained that the state’s school funding formula does not sufficiently take into account the district’s spending on private school students.
Lakewood Mayor Ray Coles, a Democrat, also weighed on Inzelbuch’s earnings on Thursday, telling reporters in an interview that the district should require Inzelbuch to provide more detailed information on the exact hours worked in his monthly bills.
“Based on some of the stories I read, if I had to recommend anything, it would be to make sure that the invoice reporting was a bit tight and that it met all the standards requested by the Board. of Education and its contract, ”Coles said.
Coles added, “I think it’s just a good deal. When an invoice arrives, you must specify what it is used for. From what I have read I have not seen this personally, it may not be like this. As a businessman, I have to make sure that when I send an invoice to a customer, they know what they are paying.
Inzelbuch’s contract provides that he receives a monthly retainer for his school board work based on hours worked multiplied by his hourly rate of $ 475, up to a maximum of $ 50,000.
These invoices, however, do not offer a detailed log showing the time spent on each task, only charging the overall fee of $ 50,000 each month. The state administrative code only allows school districts to pay for “fully itemized and verified” claims.
Inzelbuch typically adds tens of thousands of dollars more to his personal financial results each month, billing taxpayers for additional “litigation services,” also at an hourly rate of $ 475, in addition to his school board work.
For example, Inzelbuch billed taxpayers $ 60,647.86 in July and $ 109,742.66 in August, according to data obtained by the press as part of an Open Public Records Act request, the monthly excess resulting from the fees. additional for “litigation services”.
The August payment marked the sixth time since Inzelbuch joined the district in 2017 that he received more than $ 100,000 from taxpayers in one month, and the fourth time in 2021.
The press investigation found that Inzelbuch had been paid over $ 3 million during his current four-year tenure with the Lakewood School District, with the majority of income coming from the past two years.
While invoices for additional litigation services provide itemized charges based on the hourly rate, most entries offer little detail on the tasks involved. The people referenced in the invoices are identified by their initials and many passages are redacted.
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Coles championed Inzelbuch’s work and said his overall service to the community was positive.
“I have known Michael for many years and know that he is extremely dedicated to students in public schools as well as students in private schools,” said Coles. “He’s a public school student who graduated from Lakewood High School. Most of my interactions with him have resulted in things being done for public school students.
Coles cited funding for new bleachers on the high school football field in recent years as an example.
“He was also a strong advocate for children with disabilities, before and during his tenure on the Lakewood Board of Education,” said Coles. “As far as the salary and all that goes, it’s something that is really between the Board of Education and itself.”
But the mayor stressed that the bills need to be better controlled.
“The board, the superintendent, Michael, and the (state) monitor (overseeing the district) should all have these conversations on a regular basis,” Coles said. “They need to tighten up their own internal bookkeeping mechanisms to ensure that when an invoice comes in and is reviewed, the Board of Education and anyone outside looking at it can better understand what the money is for. and how it was earned.
The challenges of COVID do not fully explain what has been a rapid increase in Inzelbuch’s compensation. He nearly doubled his pay for the 2017-18 school year by $ 625,000 at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, which paid him $ 1.12 million and ended while the pandemic was still in progress.
The rise in Inzelbuch’s income at taxpayer expense also comes as Lakewood schools’ tax woes and lingering academic problems continued, culminating in a 2021 administrative judge finding that the district did not succeeded in providing students with a constitutionally required “thorough and effective education”.
Lakewood’s population has grown 46% over the past decade, reaching 135,000 in 2020, making it the state’s fastest growing large municipality.
Acting State Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan this summer made a ruling that disagreed with the judge’s finding and declined to seek changes to state funding to benefit Lakewood schools . She said the district was making improvements and no aid changes were needed. This decision was recently appealed to the Superior Court.
Among the unique problems facing Lakewood, despite having fewer than 6,000 public school students, the law must provide certain services – such as bus transportation – to another 30,000 private school students who live in County. Most of these students attend local yeshivot and other private schools.
In assessing Lakewood’s needs, the New Jersey state’s aid formula does not fully take into account the additional burden placed on the school district by so many non-public school students, critics of the funding system say.
Lakewood’s state aid actually increased slightly this year, from $ 23.39 million to $ 23.81 million, for a jump of $ 420,000. But district officials say it remains grossly underfunded.
Since 2015, the district has also accumulated some $ 138 million in state debt as of May 2020, and an additional $ 70 million could be added this year.
The Lakewood District 2020-2021 budget has exceeded $ 204 million, of which over $ 24 million is earmarked for non-public school transportation. That’s over $ 1 in every $ 10 spent transporting students to private schools.
If the latest loan is approved, the financially struggling district’s public debt would reach nearly $ 200 million, with loans dating back to the 2014-15 school year, when $ 4.5 million was borrowed.
Since then, the district has borrowed $ 5.6 million in 2016-2017; $ 8.5 million in 2017-2018; $ 28.1 million in 2018-2019; $ 36 million in 2019-2020; and $ 54.5 million in 2020-2021.
The state’s education ministry has said in the past that Inzelbuch’s situation is under review and declined to comment further this week.
State Department of Education monitor David Shafter, who was appointed in 2015 and is paid more than $ 100,000 a year to monitor the district’s tax activities and practices, declined to comment on the latest checks Inzelbuch’s payroll, referring inquiries to the Department of Education, who also remained a mom.
State Senator Robert W. Singer and Assembly Members Sean T. Kean and Edward H. Thomson, whose 30th Legislative District includes Lakewood, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
In 2019, State Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, called Inzelbuch’s salary “outrageous” and suggested income levels would hamper the district’s efforts to get more financial aid. of State.
His office declined to comment on recent news reports.
“It is clear that the Lakewood School Board will pay Mr. Inzelbuch what he wants, when he wants it, without any liability,” David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and critic for longstanding disproportionate compensation paid to Inzelbuch. earlier this week. “State Education Commissioner Allen-McMillan must explain to parents and students in Lakewood why she will not act to end this outrageous abuse of public funds. “
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years of experience covering education and several local communities for APP.com and Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of two books, including “Killing Journalism” on the state of the media, and assistant professor of media at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Contact him at [email protected] and 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp