LAKEWOOD – Passions between two community groups arguing over the future of the township’s schools grew so heated during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday that when the door flew open, two men tumbled out.
The two men fell onto the floor in the hallway outside the conference room in Lakewood’s municipal building, wrestling on the ground, while members of the township’s Orthodox community and of UNITE Lakewood, a coalition of mostly black and Latino residents, continued to argue inside.
The man who tackled the other appeared to be restraining him from getting into a confrontation with someone inside the conference room.
Tensions have increased in Lakewood as the Board of Education seeks to solve its ongoing budget crisis, which includes a $5 million budget gap — a deficit that prompted the state to appoint Michael Azzara as the troubled district’s fiscal monitor. Azzara has the final say on budget matters; he overruled the school board when it voted down the district’s $151 million budget, and approved it on his own.
As part of next year’s budget, the district has eliminated courtesy busing for all students from fourth- to 12th grade who live within 2.5 miles of school. Courtesy busing for third grade and younger students, who live within 2 miles of the school, will continue, at a cost of $3 million.
A coalition of minority residents has banded together in recent weeks to support the public schools and oppose any spending cuts that might be proposed by the nine-member Board of Education, which is dominated by Orthodox Jewish residents, most of whom send their children to private religious schools.
During the 2013-2014 school year, the district provided courtesy busing to approximately 10,450 students, more than 8,100 of whom are private school students.
Zlatkin, who called for the meeting that more than 20 people attended, said he hopes the discussion can be the beginning of an effort to build trust between the two communities.
“It’s so very necessary for Lakewood,” Zlatkin said. “I’m ready to host another meeting.”
The two sides agreed to close the door so they could talk in private. But it wasn’t long before the conversation became audible outside, even about 15 feet down the hallway. The Asbury Park Press was barred from covering the meeting, although a reporter waited outside.
Voices were raised and fists could be heard pounding the wooden table, as the participants covered topics such as courtesy busing for private school children, classroom sizes and how tax dollars are divvied between public and private education within the district.
Before the meeting, the Rev. Glenn Wilson, founder of United Neighbors Improving Today’s Equality, said he expected the leaders of some of Lakewood’s largest private schools would be in attendance.
“We understand that it will be an informal meet and greet, a way for everyone to get to know one another,” said Wilson, a frequent critic of how Lakewood officials have handled educational and financial decisions.
Afterward, Wilson declined to speak about the meeting, saying only that it had been a “productive discussion.”
Members of the Orthodox community who exited the meeting declined to identify themselves or to talk about what occurred.
Two men who had left the room after the meeting returned minutes later and requested that members of UNITE not discuss publicly what had occurred. Wilson agreed.
The meeting came only a few days after the state Department of Education issued two reports that claim Lakewood improperly handled more than $6 million in state and federal dollars during the 2011-12 school year.
The reports claim that Lakewood overstated its enrollment figures in 2011-12 and failed to justify to auditors how millions in federal Title 1 funds — money meant for districts with high numbers or percentages of low-income students — were spent.
As Lakewood continued its rapid growth over the last five years, the school district has struggled to keep up with rising transportation costs and increased spending on special education for students at private schools, the majority of which are Orthodox religious schools.
More than half of Lakewood’s residents follow Orthodox Judaism. About 54,000 residents — or more than half — were Jewish in 2009, according to a 2011 survey of Jewish populations by the University of Miami and University of Connecticut. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 92,000 people lived in the township.
After the two men — who were not identified — tumbled out of the meeting and got off the floor, they walked down the hallway and left.
Later, others inside could be heard asking that those who knew the men to call them back in.
The two men later returned and re-entered the room. Before the end of the meeting, there was the sound of laughter and applause from behind the closed door. The two men then stayed behind after the meeting and met with members of the UNITE group.
Contributing: Staff writer Nick Huba.
Kevin Pentón: 732-643-4009; firstname.lastname@example.org