Special Ed Schools in Danger After ultra-Orthodox Towns Ditch Funding

In tapes obtained by Haaretz, a municipal official can be heard threatening a school principle: 'Don’t mess with the mayor. Are you suicidal?'

A special-education yeshiva school in Betar Ilit, Israel, May 2018
Emil Salman

Several ultra-Orthodox municipalities have failed to provide legally mandated funding to special-education schools. This has left dozens of such schools in danger of closing in towns including Betar Ilit, Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit and Elad, and parents say it has hurt their children’s development.

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In recordings obtained by Haaretz, a senior municipal official from Betar Ilit acknowledged the city’s financial obligations, but nevertheless told a principal not to dare demand the money. “You mustn’t quarrel with the mayor; he’ll destroy you in a second,” the official said.

By law, municipalities must fund special-education schools in their towns. But many ultra-Orthodox towns provide only partial funding, or even none at all, and most principals accept this, feeling they lack any other choice.

Elhanan Wissenstern, a school principal from Betar Ilit, Israel, May 2018
Emil Salman

Recently, however, a principal from Betar Ilit decided to challenge the city on this issue. Elhanan Wissenstern organized a group of parents to petition the High Court of Justice to force the municipality to transfer several years’ worth of legally mandated payments, totaling about three million shekels ($840,000).

Wissenstern said municipal officials told him they weren’t obliged to pay this money. But in its response to the court, the city acknowledged its obligation in principle; it merely said that in practice, it had deducted money the school owed the municipality from these payments, and therefore owed nothing more.

On Monday, the court rejected the petition, saying the parents had no standing to sue; only the principal did. It also said that since the city didn’t deny its obligation in principle, the High Court was the wrong venue for the case.

But in the tapes obtained by Haaretz, Yehuda Kornblit, who heads Betar Ilit’s education department, told Wisssenstern that the amount the city gives the school is completely discretionary. He also threatened that any school which demands too much will be closed.

A special-education yeshiva school in Betar Ilit, Israel, May 2018
Emil Salman

“If you cost the municipality millions that it can’t afford, you won’t be here. Any institution that he [the mayor] thinks wants to live at the municipality’s expense, even if legally, that we owe it, it won’t exist,” Kornblit said, referring to Mayor Meir Rubinstein.

He also warned, “Don’t mess with the mayor. Are you crazy? Are you suicidal?”

Kornblit even threatened to revoke Wissenstern’s license, adding that another school “has already been almost liquidated.” The court can force the city to pay the debt, he continued, “but the next day, it will end. You understand?”

He also advised Wissenstern on how to cut costs without the parents or the Education Ministry noticing – for instance, by merging classes and cutting teaching hours. The parents will send their kids anyway, because “they have no alternative,” he said.

But despite telling Wissenstern to give up on ever getting the missing funds, Kornblit advised him not to tell the bank that the money wasn’t coming.

At a separate meeting with parents, Kornblit insisted that a regulation requiring municipalities to pay tuition for local children who attend special-education schools outside the city was actually “voluntary.”

Other ultra-Orthodox towns take similar views. Elad, for instance, wrote in an official document obtained by Haaretz that it’s obligated to pay tuition fees only at schools where at least 65 percent of the students are Elad residents. Moreover, the document said, it is obligated to cover only 30 percent of the costs for children with mild disabilities and none at all for children with learning disabilities.

A special-education yeshiva school in Betar Ilit, Israel, May 2018
Emil Salman

Bnei Brak pays tuition fees only to schools that didn’t receive a municipal building, while Modi’in Ilit pays less than the full amount due.

Wissenstern said other principals support him in private, but fear to confront their mayors publicly. “They know it will cost them dearly,” he said.

Meanwhile, however, parents say their children’s development is suffering as a result of the lack of funds. One parent, for instance, said his 7-year-old son’s speech capabilities have deteriorated noticeably.

Betar Ilit said it has always paid everything it owed, except when it was implementing a financial recovery plan under the supervision of a government accountant. It said it reached a deal with Wissenstern’s school to pay 50 percent of that debt – which was a “fair and reasonable compromise,” since it also provides in-kind services, including a building, electricity, water, insurance, psychologists and guards – but then the school sought to revoke the deal by going to court.

It also said not all schools are entitled to full funding. For instance, it claimed, Wissenstern’s school doesn’t provide certain classes, charges parents illegal fees and doesn’t pay its classroom assistants.

Regarding the taped conversations, the municipality said Kornblit and Wissenstern have been friends for years. It denied that Kornblit made threats, saying he had actually tried to help. “The fact that the principal secretly recorded a personal friend who sought to help him is contemptible,” it added.

Elad said its 65 percent rule was approved by its legal advisors and was meant to encourage local schools to accept local children.

Modi’in Ilit said that by agreement with its schools, it provides in-kind services in lieu of cash.

Bnei Brak said it pays most schools in full, but has agreements with some schools to provide in-kind services instead.