LAKEWOOD — The same school district that asked the state for help with a multi-million dollar gap in its budget is also paying an attorney at least $600,000 — and the state is starting to ask questions.

This summer, the Education Law Center — which describes itself as "the leading voice for New Jersey’s public school children — sent a letter registering a complaint about the hiring of Michael I. Inzulbuch with the Office of the Attorney General.

And that, in turn, has prompted as response from the attorney general, weary of such high spending. In an Oct. 5 letter, the OAG warns that it may violate state regulations.

But district officials have defended hiring Inzulbuch — the same attorney the Asbury Park Press recently estimated sued the district more than 80 times over the last few years, on behalf of families with children requiring special education services. The APP said the district's legal bills amounted to $1.2 million for the past school year — including nearly $500,000 in attorney's fees to Inzelbuch himself.

State monitor Michael Azzara was quoted by the Asbury Park Press in August as saying that the contract was a benefit to the district: "If he's on our side, he's likely going to be on top of special education issues before anyone is paying extra legal fees."

The contract for the special education attorney went into effect in August and runs through the end of June of next year. It also includes a $29,000 payment medical and prescription coverage for Inzulbuch and his family, as well as $350 an hour for any litigation services.

The center's letter notes the payments must be made every month — without regard to whether any legal services are actually performed, and without any itemized invoice asking for them.

And it says Lakewood is spending some of the highest amounts per pupil for legal fees in the state.  It estimated if Lakewood spent the state average per pupil on legal services, it would only spend about $286,089 — just a fraction of Inzulbuch's retainer.

The retainer alone is more than three times as much as Lakewood's superintendent's $196,000 salary.

In May, the state gave Lakewood $8.5 million to avoid major teacher layoffs — plugging part of a $15 million budget shortfall. As many as 100 teachers' jobs were on the line.

The center's complaint noted a state monitor signed off on Inzulbuch's contract, but said it still "remains unclear" how it meets rules meant to reduce "the district's excessive spending on legal services in prior years."

In its letter to the board of education and the superintendent, the attorney general's office echoed many of the sentiments from the letter from the Education Law Center. It says school boards are required to establish strategies to avoid outsized legal services — including setting a "maximum dollar limit" for professional services, and prohibiting boards from making "advance payments" for legal services.

The letter from the attorney general's office gave the district until Oct. 30 to prove "the district's position regarding the compliance of the contract with Mr. Inzelbuch with the Department's accountability regulations." The state said that should include a description of the "procurement process" the board used before awarding the contract.

"Upon receipt of the information, this office will conduct a thorough review and make appropriate referrals to the Department of Education or other entities, as may be warranted," the letter said.

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