Angelica Allen-McMillan, Ed. D., the Acting Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education this week issued a final decision in Alcantra vs Hespe. That decision now allows the case to proceed to the Apellate Court.
This lawsuit, filed over 7 years ago by Lakewood resident and public school teacher R’ Aron Lang argues that the state education department is not providing sufficient funding for the Lakewood School District to provide a thorough and efficient education (T&E). Mr. Lang argued, simply that the state aid formula has no rational relationship to the expenses in Lakewood because it only counts public school students while at the same time it looks at the total amount of property value of the entire municipality, hence, it calculates that Lakewood has few students and lots of money. The formula does not contemplate such a disproportionate ratio of nonpublic students to public school students.
Back in March, Administrative Law Justice Susan M. Scarola agreed with Mr. Lang that the Lakewood School District does not provide a T&E education, however, she disagreed that the reason is due to lack of state funding. Rather she argued that it is within the purview of the Board of Education “to find ways to cut costs” and raise more taxes. She recommended to the state education department that it provide recommendations for the school district to improve itself and to consider all options including reduction in busing and special education.
In response, Mr. Lang filed an exception to this decision, arguing, in part that indeed, the school district adds 2,500 to 3,000 nonpublic students each year (which heavily increases busing costs), and the state monitors have actually testified that Lakewood is operating its pupil transportation as efficiently as it can.
Angelica Allen-McMillan, the Acting Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education this Friday issued her final ruling in the case.
The Commissioner disagreed with Justice Susan Scarola’s determination that Lakewood is not providing its students with T&E, but agreed with her that the lawsuit fails to show that the school aid formula is responsible for Lakewood’s deficiencies.
“In evaluating the totality of the evidence”, the Commissioner wrote, “while Lakewood may be struggling to provide its students with the premiere level of education that many have come to expect in New Jersey, these deficiencies do not rise to a constitutional deprivation. The record reflects that standardized test scores are below State averages, but the district is showing slow but steady improvement in that area… and that the education provided by the Lakewood school district meets the constitutional threshold as students are prepared for college, career, and life”.
Interestingly, though the commissioner is of the opinion that Lakewood does provide T&E, she agreed with Justice Scarola’s recommendation that the State Education Department conduct a comprehensive review of the District in order to assess its compliance with the quality performance, specifically by measuring test scores, dropout rates, and attendance at college, in addition to teacher-student ratios and experience level of the staff.
Mr. Lang’s lawsuit is based on a claim that Lakewood does not provide T&E – with the reason being the fault of the school aid formula. Because that the Commissioner opines that Lakewood does indeed provide T&E, she no longer needs to reach the issue of the constitutionality of the school aid formula. Nevertheless, the Commissioner writes that she agrees with Justice Scarola’s decision that the school aid formula is constitutional as applied to Lakewood.
This decision is the final step of this case in the executive branch of government, paving the way for Mr. Lang to advance his case to the judiciary.