In a statement that shocked Lakewood residents, state monitor Michael Azzara announced the cessation of several district-provided busing services, including guaranteed separate buses for boys and girls. The move came after terms offered by state leaders were rejected by the town’s mosdos as being detrimental to their operation.
“The district will not provide courtesy busing to either public or non-public schools,” said Azzara at a school board meeting Tuesday night. “We must do everything in our authority to save enough money to do mandatory busing.”
He went on to state that in the coming year, busing will only be provided for those students living outside the minimum radius of two miles from school and will not accommodate multiple start or dismissal times. Azzara’s last point was that buses could be “intermingled” and not automatically separated school by school, noting that the practice of doing so had been a “courtesy.”
When asked by board member Isaac Zlatkin if that included placing boys and girls on the same bus, the monitor responded, “If it saves money.”
Azzara was appointed by the state as a monitor over the financially strapped school district in April of last year. He retains veto power over board decisions and power of enforcement.
The 2016–17 budget, passed in May, fully covered mandatory busing but left open the issue of courtesy busing, which the district lacked the necessary $5 million to finance.
In two meetings held in recent weeks, the state said that non-mandatory busing could be provided if schools would agree to “tier” their start times and dismissal times, with all boys’ schools starting at 8:30 and all girls’ schools at 9:30. As part of this arrangement, grades one through eight would have to have a uniform dismissal time.
Due to the multitude of operational and chinuch problems this would create, Lakewood’s Ichud Hamosdos rejected the offer in a letter sent to state officials, saying, “The sacrifice is too great in comparison to what we are receiving.” They also announced that the 10 large schools that had been operating under a pilot tiering program since the beginning of the year would be returning to regular schedules.
Despite the challenges it presented, mosdos had been willing to consider the proposed busing plan if funds would be guaranteed for five years. However, since the state only offered to finance courtesy transportation for the coming year, the sacrifice was not deemed to be a sound one.
“For the mosdos to completely restructure their schedules in order to save courtesy busing simply is not worth it for them,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath Israel’s New Jersey Division, which is heavily involved in trying to solve Lakewood’s busing woes. “Having one dismissal time means that some second graders would be in cheder until five o’clock. Courtesy busing only touches a minority of parents.”
In response to the rejection, Azzara announced proposals that will not only do away with busing outside the mandated two-mile radius, but said that funding must now be re-examined for mandatory busing as well. The policy would affect public and non-public school students alike.
The suggestion of “mingling” students of different schools and, possibly, genders on buses is not a formal proposal, but was left open as a possible money-saving option.
“I think it’s just a threat to get us back to the table,” said the director of a prominent Lakewood mosad, who asked not to be named. “The state needs a solution even more than we do. This plan would take courtesy busing away from the public schools also. They need us to tier or else they will have a problem as well.”
While elimination of courtesy busing would burden many yeshivah parents, it would exact an even greater toll on public school students, 50 percent of whom live within a two-mile radius of their schools. Roughly 30 percent of the non-public school community would be left without busing.
Mandatory busing for all students who live two miles or more from schools, which is funded directly by the state, would remain intact. However, Mr. Azzara proposes cost-cutting measures for this service as well. Several askanim interviewed for this article questioned why the monitor deemed it necessary to re-examine the mandatory routes and methods, citing that they were fully covered by the budget and have never been a source of contention in the past.
Some conjectured that the mosdos’s decision to end the pilot tiering program might have made funds tighter than they were when the budget was initially passed. However, many echoed the belief that this is merely a tactic to draw non-public schools back into negotiations to work out a deal that will make it fiscally possible to finance courtesy busing for public school and yeshivah children alike.
Several key figures cite the state’s method of determining funding allotments for school districts as the root of Lakewood’s perennial squeeze.
“As I see it, the root cause of the financial crunch is that the state funding formula shortchanges Lakewood,” said Rabbi Aaron Kotler, CEO of Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood.
Rabbi Kotler explained that according to the present method, Lakewood is considered to be a “rich,” low-need district due to its high property tax revenue and low number of children attending public school, roughly 5,500. However, it ignores the approximately 30,000 non-public school students who receive state-mandated funds for special education, nursing, busing, technology and, as of next year, security.
The result is a desperate lack of funds for the most basic needs of the district, let alone anything extra. According to Rabbi Kotler, if all of Lakewood’s needs were taken into account, the district would be rated as being six times poorer than its present rating, “and that would trigger far more aid for the public school district, which would free up funds for busing and other purposes. The same problem [exists] for Ramapo and Lawrence in New York,” he added. “They all look rich because they don’t count private school kids.”
Changing the formula is far from simple.
“The formula is not just a problem for Lakewood; dozens of districts in the state suffer from it. The state commission said publicly that it does not work,” said Rabbi Schnall. “New Jersey essentially froze which districts it considers rich and poor years ago and now it is almost impossible to change.”
He cited the interests of legislators whose districts receive high funding and the clerical and financial challenge of re-constructing the statewide formula as key reasons for reluctance to address the issue.