Matzav.com spoke to Rabbi Avraham Krawiec, the dynamic and devoted director of the Lakewood Student Transportation Authority (LSTA), today regarding the current busing situation in Lakewood, NJ, with just two days until the start of the school year for yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs.
One month ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill that approved funding to allow the Lakewood School District to provide courtesy busing for as many private school students as possible.
Lakewood faced the prospect of 7,000 private school children being left without transportation for the ‘16-‘17 school year.
“The bill was signed for the safety of the children in Lakewood, so that we don’t have 7,000 children needing to get to school without busing,” Rabbi Krawiec told Matzav, adding that he does not believe Lakewood’s infrastructure could handle that for a sustained period of time.
After last year’s budget cuts, the non-mandated/courtesy students were going to be scratched from the busing budget.
Students who live between .5 miles and 2 miles for elementary school, or between .5 and 2.5 miles for high school, are considered courtesy/non-mandated. Those who live further than that are considered mandated and, if they do not receive busing for whatever reason, are eligible for $884 annual according to state law.
The bill passed on August 9th stated that $884 would be given per mandated student to a consortium of private schools, and the schools would then be responsible for all busing matters.
How, we asked Rabbi Krawiec, does this address the 7,000 children in local private schools who require courtesy busing?
He explained as follows: Say that the average busing cost per child is about $600 annually. If the consortium receives $884 per mandated student, that leaves a surplus of $200+ per mandated student to be used for as many non-mandated students as possible.
So why, this year, is there a fee for courtesy students? Why $150?
Rabbi Krawiec prefaced his response by stressing that he understands that adding a new fee affects people in a serious way.
“It is not something I take lightly,” he said.
The need for the fee is due to a dearth of buses in Lakewood.
“We have a shortage of buses here,” said Rabbi Krawiec, “and we are working to address that. In truth, we could use an addition 100 buses.”
“Not every child will receive busing, because of our shortage,” he said. “For every mandated child who doesn’t get picked up because they weren’t placed on a route, we must take $884 from the general busing pot and give that to the student’s parents to cover his or her busing. However, by doing so, we are not left with the $200+ surplus to be used to subsidize for a courtesy student.”
Last year, there was a sizable number of students who did not receive transportation, “and this year we are seeing the same numbers,” said Rabbi Krawiec, “so we need to make up in the general fund for the money we’re going to lose. Hence the fee of $150 per non-mandated student.”
If last year’s Board of Ed budget would have remained the same, the estimated cost per non-mandated child would have been $650, so compared to that, the $150 fee doesn’t sound so steep, he explained.
“We have a new norm, a new way of handling the busing, and people are opening their minds to this new thought process,” said Rabbi Krawiec.
For the first time in Lakewood, he said, there are some schools that are combining their routes with other schools, a system that has proven effective in other large frum communities. Some schools have also shifted their schedules, allowing for early drop-off. Thanks to one school that did this, about 14-16 bus routes opened up for other schools.
Rabbi Krawiec said that it is also important for the bus routes to be minimized and for them to be fuller. This will ultimately help address the busing shortage.
The new realization on the ground has caused people to begin to accept a new mindset and a new approach to busing in Lakewood.
Some schools that have their own private buses have agreed to start busing for the school year on their own dime.
“They have agreed to give up their spot in the bidding till later in the process,” said Rabbi Krawiec. “We’re finding that the schools have really jumped on board in accepting this new reality. The tzibbur is beginning to understand that busing in Lakewood is a whole new world. Things we are doing now weren’t done last year or before.”
With this background, we asked Rabbi Krawiec when parents will know the details of their students’ busing schedules and routes for this year.
“Approximately 50% of students were routed and bid on already,” he said, explaining that the largest schools were addressed first.
“The spirit of the August bill was safety, so it was prudent for us to take care of the largest institutions, with the most students, first,” he explained.
Those schools were emailed bus passes, with busing for those students slated to begin Wednesday.
A large bid is scheduled for Wednesday for the rest of the large mosdos and the middle-range schools. There will be two more days of bidding on Monday and Tuesday of next week.
“Approximately 48 hours after a bid is complete, the buses should be ready to roll,” said Rabbi Krawiec.
Hopefully, by the end of next week, all the routes for this year will be on the road.
Why couldn’t all of this have been done earlier? Why wait for the first two weeks of school to sort this out?
“We would have loved to,” said Rabbi Krawiec, “but the bill was only passed less than four weeks ago, on August 9th. Before then, we didn’t have funding for this. The bill was not signed until a few weeks ago, and until then there was nothing to talk about. The consortium had to be formed, the schools had to then sign a member agreement to join the consortium, a board had to be elected to oversee the LSTA, the LSTA then hired me, and then we had to take all the data from the Board of Ed and start going through the routing and bidding process. When you think about it, we’ve accomplished quite a lot in a short period of done, and we will continue working on behalf of all students.”
Rabbi Krawiec admits that there will likely be some more bumps in the road as the LSTA sorts through the bureaucracy inherent in such an undertaking, but things will improve with time as busing is arranged for the 28-30,000 private school students in Lakewood.
“For next year, I hope that the routing and bidding will begin in May,” said Rabbi Krawiec. “For now, we ask parents to be patient as we implement a new system that we hope will be to the benefit of each individual family and the community as a whole.”