Friday, September 25, 2015

State monitor claims Special ed official made improper school placements

APP LAKEWOOD The school district’s state-appointed monitor has filed tenure charges against Helen Tobia, the supervisor of pupil personnel services, for a host of allegedly “illegal and/or highly improper” acts, including overstepping her authority to place children with special needs in Orthodox yeshivas and private specialized schools at their parents’ request, according to court documents.

A total of 18 charges filed by the monitor, Michael Azzara, will be referred to a state-appointed arbitrator, as is set forth under the state’s revised tenure rules.

Tobia, 52, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

A 20-year veteran of the district, she was suspended last month without pay, according to Laura Winters, schools superintendent.

Critics of the school system here have complained for years that the district has used a double standard when it comes to providing services for children with disabilities.

As a matter of routine, they allege, Orthodox children are placed in specialized private schools catering to the Orthodox community, where the tuition can be as high as $90,000 per year or more, while minority children generally receive services in the public schools.

“We’ve been saying it, we’ve been screaming it, and nobody wanted to listen,” said the Rev. Glenn Wilson, the head of Lakewood U.N.I.T.E., a local group that advocates for families in the public schools.

A former teacher and assistant principal, Tobia was appointed supervisor of pupil personnel services in 2013. Her chief responsibility is to oversee the district’s special education program, including the child study teams. Those teams are required to evaluate children believed to have disabilities, and then craft an individualized education plan to meet their special needs. Parents, teachers and therapists are supposed to have input on the final plan.

Instead, Azzara states in the complaint, Tobia has acted unilaterally on numerous placements, circumventing the child study teams.

In one instance, Azzara’s complaint states, Tobia ordered that a child be denied special services before the child was ever evaluated by the child study team.

Another time, during a meeting with parents seeking a private school placement, she ignored the objections of a school board attorney and agreed to work out an arrangement with the parents that would be acceptable to them, Azzara charges.

In another instance, Azzara said in the complaint, Tobia perjured herself when she asserted in a sworn affidavit that a local private school, The Special Children’s Center, wasn’t suitable for a placement because it displayed Jewish religious symbols and wasn’t nonsectarian, as federal law requires. She later admitted under oath during a different legal matter that she had no direct knowledge to substantiate that claim, Azzara states in the complaint.

Once the child’s needs are identified, the child study team has to determine whether or not the district can adequately provide the services the child needs within the public schools. State and federal law places a premium on educating children with disabilities in “the least restricted environment” possible, ideally a public school classroom with children who aren’t disabled.

If that isn’t feasible within the district, the team may decide the best alternative is to place the child in a specialized, out-of-district private school, at the district’s expense. If parents don’t believe the placement is appropriate, they have the option of filing a petition with the Office of Administrative Law.

More than a decade ago, the district lost or settled a series of such cases brought by Orthodox parents. The attorney who won those cases, Michael Inzelbuch, was later hired as the school board’s attorney, and private school placements soon became more common.

In 2011, a retired elementary school principal, Sheldon T. Boxer, told the Asbury Park Press he felt pressured to lie to the parents of disabled children in the public schools about the services the district could provide, in order to avoid costly out-of-district placements. At the time, both Tobia and Inzelbuch denied that any such policy existed.

Inzelbuch has since returned to private practice. Azzara charges that Tobia instructed a child study team supervisor to give the parents who had retained Inzelbuch “whatever they wanted,” including placements in various local yeshivas, the complaint states.

Inzelbuch could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Wilson, the Lakewood U.N.I.T.E. leader, said he is eager for the tenure charges to go forward. An arbitrator’s decision is generally final, though appeals can be filed if one party believes procedural errors were made.

“This system has been going on since before Helen Tobia. Helen Tobia inherited this system. . . . She continued that system,” Wilson said.

“We’re grateful that now it’s in the open,” he said, “and hopefully we can change course.”


  1. Who do we trust, TLS or the APP, there seems to be conflicting reports on this story.

  2. Why were they bashing her on the poop if she was helping the community.

    1. she wasn't. only helping SCHI, SCC and Inzelbuch. hurting everyone else.

    2. Could someone come up with the number of taxes these orgs are costing the tax payers in the name of "special ed". at what point do people have to foreclose their homes to enrich a few yechidim who take advantage and help pass mandated laws eating up property taxes.

  3. Your question is legitimate. But since you ask in the typical cynical way you wont he taken seriously. You o not need to demean people and accuse them of taking advantage to adk your question. Why dont you assume evetybodybis honest and not taking advantage. Yoy still have the right to ask how much a yochid is mechuyav to pay in money he cant afford to give these rachmonus children a top of the line 100000 per child service. Everybody agrees there mustt be a line somewhere. Nobody woyld day we have to bankruot ourselves and spend a million per child even i f that was a better service. Do the question is hiw much can we afford and who hasthe right to determine that. But as long as these question are always aked cynically as if everybody is a crook nobody will give it serious thought.

  4. anonymous has a good point. how much would the tuition be if the public wouldn't be paying for it, what efficencies can be found? If the parents would have to pay out of pocket, would they be willing to pay $90k of their own money even if they had it? How much improvement do these children see for the $90K

    I understand the parents of these children and the children themselves are in a tough position. But $90k of post tax money is enough to pay more 12 tuitions of other children, or support a large family for a year.