The Case of the Invisible School

The white-collar crime squad recently wrapped up the Case of the Invisible School. It is quite interesting.

To be sure, the school existed - in the Education Ministry computer system. For five years, the Beitar Ilit school reported having some 100 pupils, from the ultra-Orthodox sector, and teachers too. Based on these reports, the school received more than a million shekels from the ministry.

The rub was, throughout that time, there never had been a school. There were no pupils, there were no teachers: the whole thing had been a scam designed to bilk the ministry of money.

That scam flourished for five years, until the accounting department at the Education Ministry started to smell a rat.

The school had belonged to the "unknown" category, which includes most of the ultra-Orthodox schools and which is supervised by the ministry very, but very, loosely.

How loosely? Well, there is one (yes, 1) inspector, not allocated a car (yes, 0) to supervise the Beitar Ilit and another hundred (yes, 100) other ultra-Orthodox schools. With a load like that, and no car, there's no surprise that the inspector conducted the entire process of approving the Beitar Ilit school over the phone. For five years he never visited the place once, and never realized that he was approving money transfers to a school that existed only in his imagination.

That inspector works in the ministry department devoted to "recognized but unofficial" education. That encompasses almost all the ultra-Orthodox and Arab primary and high schools. The division is very different from the one supervising the regular, official schools.

According to figures that the Education Ministry gave to TheMarker, it has one inspector per each 16 "official" primary schools, and one per 27 high schools. Moreover, the "official schools" department checks the identity of each and every pupil: you can't scam the ministry by registering a child in more than one school, which had been part of the scam operated in the Beitar Ilit case.

Who's your daddy

The "recognized but unofficial" schools division has four inspectors, each covering 100 primary schools. There is one female inspector for the girls' high schools, who covers about 130 institutions. What about the boys' high schools? There is no inspector at the present, the ministry explains: the last one quit and no replacement has been found yet, to cover his 350 schools.

When did he quit, by the bye? Two years ago, which means that for the last two years the ultra-Orthodox schools for boys in the state of Israel have been operating entirely without any supervision whatsoever.

You may therefore not be surprised to learn that in the last two years, the accountants at the Education Ministry uncovered seven ultra-Orthodox schools suddenly reporting 1,000 new pupils, who had suddenly popped up in the system at the age of 16 from nowhere.  A check revealed that the 1,000 were Americans who came to spend a year in Israel studying Judaism.

They are not Israeli citizens or, as it happens, the problem of Israel's education system.

These American boys were taken to the Wailing Wall and Masada, and while about it, were reported to the Education Ministry as being regular students eligible for budgets. That scam continued for about five years if not more, and the schools won about NIS 30 million from the ministry, to which they were not entitled.

"The manager of the recognized but unofficial education division, Levana Abramovitch, says that the ratio of inspectors to schools does not allow maximal supervision as the ministry would have liked," the spokesman explains. "The reasons are budgetary restraints and the absence of positions, and therefore, the ministry cannot man additional positions. The ministry has frequently raised the matter with the Finance Ministry, but has not received a positive answer yet."

Now: the Education Ministry's budget is NIS 23 billion a year, the second-biggest budget after Defense. With all that money, the ministry feels it can't find the resources to beef up supervision over ultra-Orthodox and Arab schools. One has to wonder why.