December 2013 Church & State | People & Events

Approximately 180 private schools in New Jersey that cater to special-needs students are raking in large personal profits for their administrators at taxpayer expense, a recent investigation found.

The Newark Star-Ledger, which conducted the investigation, found that in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 19 heads of the institutions examined were paid the maximum salary allowed ($225,734) to manage schools with anywhere from 30-327 students. By contrast, public school heads can only receive up to $175,000 to oversee school systems with as many as 10,000 students.

And from there, the findings just got worse. The Star-Ledger said about one-third of the 180 schools “did business with companies owned or controlled by the same people who run the schools, or their relatives or associates, oftentimes at a higher cost than other schools pay.”

These dealings ranged from real estate to bus rentals to food, the newspaper reported. Nepotism also runs rampant in these schools, plaguing almost 20 percent of those scrutinized. The Star-Ledger said one school had three directors who are related, while another paid $94,000 to a part-time classroom aide who is related to the school’s director, even though that amount is three times what other aides made.

Still, the questionable spending didn’t end there. Almost 40 schools gave out pension plans paid for with taxpayer dollars with no mandated employee contributions. In what was likely the most egregious example of this problem, one former school administrator received retirement benefits even though she served time in prison for defrauding taxpayers, the newspaper said.

Then there was the matter of 22 cars, including BMWs, a Land Rover, three Lexus and two Mercedes that were at least partly charged to state taxpayers even though the school officials used them for personal reasons. Many of these vehicles were even stored at the homes of the administrators who used them, the Star-Ledger found.

Naturally, these findings raised some eyebrows.

“We don’t want to see one penny spent that doesn’t need to be, let alone in ways that seem wholly inappropriate,” Ruth Lowenkron, a senior attorney with the Education Law Center, told the Star-Ledger. “We’re very concerned about how these schools contain costs.”

Unfortunately, watchdogs like the Education Law Center are in a difficult position because private schools, even those that receive public funds, have little to no accountability. Some even say there are too many regulations for schools as is.

“All of these regulations have been applied to the schools over the years, and it buries us in all this compliance stuff that reduces the flexibility we have to develop programs to serve the kids,” Gerard Thiers, executive director of an association representing private schools, told the Star-Ledger. He added that state oversight of these institutions is already “too heavy” and frequently is unfair.

Thiers also said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a voucher advocate, is aware of the complaints raised by the Star-Ledger investigation. Thiers told the newspaper that the state Education Department is weighing a plan primarily proposed by these schools for special-needs students that would end many spending rules but set a maximum tuition.

Christie’s office did not comment for the story, but the Education Department did. Department spokesman Michael Yaple said these proposed changes would be the first “substantial” change to private school regulations in the state in about 25 years, and would lower costs. Yaple added that even with some changes in spending rules, the extent of reforms would be limited because the schools are private.