A two-month Star-Ledger investigation found Somerset Hills and schools like it operate in a twilight zone of the state education system, under a unique set of rules that allows them to spend taxpayer money in ways few would tolerate of public schools.
In an era when public schools are under intense pressure to do more with less, the newspaper’s review showed nepotism, high executive salaries, generous pensions, fancy cars and questionable business deals are common in parts of this more than $600 million New Jersey industry.
Gerard Thiers, the executive director of ASAH, an association representing the schools, said they provide a vital service for parents of disabled children, from preschoolers to high schoolers, with severe autism, speech impediments, blindness, deafness and developmental problem
The spending practices by these schools are not unique. There are approximately 2,600 private special-needs schools across the country, Thiers said, each with varying degrees of government oversight. Some 300 in New York have come under intense scrutiny of late.
In a report released in December, New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said taxpayers there were suffering because of poor state oversight and wasteful spending — including inflated costs related to nepotism, insider dealings and criminal conduct.
A report released by the state auditor this year also found that as of March, 46 of the 140 private special-needs schools open since 2006 had not been visited by the state for an on-site fiscal review during the past six years.
When the reviews find excessive spending and the state demands public schools be refunded, the private schools often file lengthy appeals and pass those costs back to taxpayers. The schools spent about $554,000 on litigation in 2012, records show.