Lakewood residents welcomed the news that the New Jersey Senate and Assembly passed Bill S-2049, which garnered enough votes for passage through each of the houses in a compressed time frame just ahead of the end of the spring legislative session. Today, Governor Chris Christie signed the bill into law.
The bill, sponsored by Senator Bob Singer and Assemblyman David Rible and Sean Kean, is part of a state and local package that restores safety busing, sometimes called “courtesy busing,” for 10,000 public schools and private schools students who live in the Lakewood School District.
According to state law, busing is only mandated for those living beyond a prescribed distance, typically two miles, from school. Districts are free and often encouraged to provide busing to other students if they feel that local conditions mandate such. For the past 30 years, the Lakewood school district provided such busing to children who live more than 6/10ths of a mile from school and to children who would have to cross a major roadway.
In recent years, the number of students in the Lakewood school district grew dramatically, both in the number of public school students and in the number of private school students. During this time, state aid, which is a primary funding vehicle for the district, was stagnant and even shrank at times, allowing no additional state support for the many additional children in the district. The root cause of the shortage in state aid is actually two-fold: The state aid formulas do not account for district students who attend private schools, but are equally entitled to basic services. Compounding the issue is that the formulas do not even properly fund the public school children, as allocations under the formula have not increased apace with the growth in the public schools. These factors cause distortions in the formula that are well known in Trenton. There is a state consensus that the formulas must be fixed, and current efforts are underway to examine the overall inequities.
With state aid shortfalls, the Lakewood School District has been encountering recurring deficits. To help out and reduce costs for the last two years, Lakewood mosdos implemented ever more challenging staggered start times, increasing their costs and making their school day more challenging. Their laudable efforts to work with the district helped reduce costs to the taxpayer by more than $8 million a year, while preserving the vital safety busing. The mosdos implemented other changes to busing too in an effort to reduce cost. This included the elimination of safety busing for students who lived more than .6 of a mile and less than .8 of a mile. While this was helpful, it was not enough.
This year, as the district continued to grow, the savings from the staggered start times, called “tiering,” were not enough to offset the district’s growing overall deficit. The district saw no choice but to eliminate all non-mandated services, no matter how essential they might be. In the winter, the final announcement of the termination of courtesy busing was made, and the district made clear that there were no additional “last ditch” options available – there would be no last-minute reprieve as had occurred on some prior occasions.
Lakewood now faced the prospect of 10,000 public and nonpublic school children being left without transportation for the ‘16-‘17 school year and beyond. This presented the township with the hazardous situation of thousands of young children walking to and from school, often on busy roads, including Route 9, Route 88, Central Avenue, County Line Road and other major roadways. Imagine a young child having to walk from their home on Route 88 down Cedar Bridge Avenue to the Lakewood Cheder or Yeshiva Orchos Chaim in the Industrial Park area, or a young girl walking alone from school on an icy winter evening along Route 9.
Facing this predicament, at the advice and with the partnership of Lakewood Mayor Menashe Miller and Committeeman Meir Lichtenstein, Lakewood’s local delegation, comprised of Senator Bob Singer and Assemblymen Kean and Rible, developed a funding mechanism that would allow the state to provide such busing, outside of the frozen state aid formulas. The cost of this would be small compared to, say, the bailout of the Atlantic City school district, which is a tenth the size of Lakewood and which received $32 million this year in special aid, or the bailout of the Camden and Patterson districts, which cost the state well over $100 million in the last two years.
Singer, Kean and Rible wrote the funding mechanism bill, introduced it in the Senate and Assembly, and worked tirelessly to shepherd it through to passage. The bill establishes a three-year nonpublic school pupil transportation pilot program for the Lakewood School District. The program will provide funding to a consortium of nonpublic schools, which will also assume responsibility for the district’s mandated nonpublic school busing. As part of the deal, Lakewood Township will fund safety busing for the public school students.
Despite some opposition from the NJEA (teachers union), the Lakewood Vaad (chaired by Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg) and Rabbi Yisroel Schenkolewski, the Igud Hamosdos (in an effort led by Rabbi Shimon Balsam), and Agudath Israel of New Jersey (under the leadership of Rabbi Avi Schnall), put together a strong and united advocacy effort with coordination by Mrs. C. Jacobowitz of Bais Medrash Govoah. The Advocacy Group worked hand in hand with Senator Singer and Assemblymen Kean and Rible, with Lakewood Mayor Menashe Miller, and with the entire Township Committee, in an effort spearheaded by Committeeman Lichtenstein.
The bill passed a full Senate vote 22-8 as a result of a meeting between the Senate leadership and the advocacy group. This was followed by a dramatic week during which Rabbi Schnall and Committeeman Lichtenstein held vigil in Trenton as votes were repeatedly delayed until past midnight, when the bill fell just a few votes short of passage in the Assembly. Further efforts by the group, spearheaded by Rabbi Schnall, Committeeman Lichtenstein and Mrs. Jacobowitz, ensured that the bill was brought up again for a vote later in the week, when it passed successfully, following which it was signed by the governor.
“We are so grateful for the understanding shown by the members of the Senate and Assembly of how badly Lakewood has been shortchanged by the existing state aid formula,” said the advocacy group in a statement to the press lauding the bipartisan, bicameral effort. “We would like to particularly acknowledge and thank Governor Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, and Assemblyman Gary Schaer for their support of this bill and for their efforts to ensure the safety of our children.”
Rabbi Schnall emphasized how awed the members of the advocacy group were by the responsiveness and total commitment shown by the Lakewood delegation as they worked tirelessly to shepherd their legislation through the many steps needed to gain its passage. “Senator Singer, Assemblyman Rible, and Assemblyman Kean are truly the heroes here for recognizing the tremendous threat to the well-being of our community’s children and undertaking not to give up until they had achieved a successful solution,” he said.
Rabbi Binyamin Heinemann of the Lakewood Vaad pointed out that this is a perfect moment to reflect on how valuable it is that our community comes out to vote, as elected officials respect and recognize communities that are active and engaged.
The advocacy group’s next target is to work to fix the underlying state aid formula, as until that happens, the district will continue to be in financial distress and we will all be facing likely tax increases and cuts in services.