Lakewood Busing Cut Averted: Pilot Program Staggers Routes

LAKEWOOD -

The wheels of the buses will continue going round, round, round for Lakewood’s non-public school students.

A deal announced Wednesday and agreed to by the New Jersey Department of Education and many of the township’s largest mosdos will shake up Lakewood’s morning routine, but averts a threatened termination of courtesy busing, a means of public transportation the yeshivos and girls’ schools rely on to ferry 25,000 students every day.

Fears over the state’s threat to end the busing prompted a rare two-day “no-bus drill” last month. Led by Assemblyman Gary Shauer (D-Passaic),  negotiations that culminated in Wednesday’s agreement began a day after the drill.

“In the end,” said Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg of the Lakewood Busing Task Force in a statement, “after scouring for increased efficiencies in existing busing routes and exploring creative new configurations and schedules, a reasonable proposal was brought forth and accepted by all the major stakeholders.”

The deal calls for a pilot program that staggers bus routes into two shorter shifts, rather than the single long run they currently have. This would entail the boys’ yeshivos beginning a half hour earlier each day — at 8:30 a.m., instead of the usual 9:00 — and the girls’ schools opening at 9:15, fifteen minutes later than regular.

The deal only affects schools that start at 9:00. Most mesivtas and girls’ high schools begin much earlier and will not be affected.

The pilot program envisions an evaluation period in several months to see how it is working out.

The deal was contingent on most of the township’s largest schools accepting the plan. According to Rabbi Yisroel Schenkolewski, who heads the Iggud Hayeshivos, seven of them agreed while at least one did not.

Accepting the deal include Yeshivas Toldos Aharon, Shaagas Aryeh, Yeshivah Ketanah, Tashbar, Bais Feiga, Beis Tova and Beis Rivka Rochel. The Cheder did not accept.

For those not agreeing to the arrangement, there will be no change. They will keep their 9:00 start of the day and will receive regular transportation.

“All [the state] had asked for is a pilot program of the biggest schools,” Rabbi Schenkolewki told Hamodia.

New Jersey’s latest Department of Education budget ended the nearly $4 million courtesy busing program for an estimated 8,100 Lakewood students attending private school in grades four to 12 who live less than 2 1/2 miles away from the school. Busing for those living further out was not affected.

Fearing the outcome if the cuts were allowed to go into effect, Lakewood parents allowed the courtesy buses to pass their regular stops on June 11 and 12 in a bid to show what the state’s seventh largest township would look like without public busing.

According to traffic reporting service WAZE, there was an average of 20 to 40 minutes of additional delays due to the extra congestion caused during those two mornings.

In his statement, Rabbi Weisberg said that it was those scenes that convinced the task force to arrange the drill.

“Massive traffic tie-ups, coupled with the anticipated serious disruption of the education of thousands and thousands of students was the picture we were looking at, had the busing cuts been maintained,” he said.

Under the deal, every student living at least a half mile away from their school will receive courtesy busing for the new school year beginning in September. For those living closer, details are still being ironed out but it appears that it will only be for schools who accept the deal, Rabbi Schenkolewki said.

So instead of the current system, where all the dozens of buses begin their routes at about 8:15 and conclude at 9:00, the number of buses will be halved and they will do a double run. That necessitated the changing of the schools’ opening bells.

With the morning rush already hectic for most households, Rabbi Schenkolewski says that he expects some parents to be unhappy with the new schedule but “there’s no choice.”

“It’s going to be a problem,” he conceded. “But I guess the parents will rather have that than not have busing. They will have to drive the kids to school; they will have to leave a lot earlier than that with all the rush hour traffic that will be.”