Lakewood Courtesy Busing Will Continue, but Long-Term Solution Elusive

LAKEWOOD -

Neither hopes of a deal that would secure funds for Lakewood’s courtesy busing for years to come nor fears of its imminent cancelation have been realized. Instead, the state has allowed for the service to continue for the remainder of the school year by adding funds to the district’s deficit.

The anti-climactic announcement that busing would continue uninterrupted led to several reports pondering where financing had been found, but school board member Isaac Zlatkine told Hamodia that no extra funds had been committed. Rather, state authorities have decided to allow for the expense, estimated at $2.5 million, to be added to the district’s budget deficit, currently at $12 million.

As reported by Hamodia last week, local officials have been engaged in negotiations with the state to secure additional funding in exchange for a greater contribution from the township. Ultimately this deal was not reached, but Trenton-appointed monitors allowed for services to continue. The decision honors a commitment made by the state’s Department of Education last summer to ensure the service for the year in exchange for a $1 million contribution from the township and adherence to a “tiered” pick-up and drop-off plan by mosdos.

“They [the state] backed down because of the liability,” said Zlatkine. “They realized that the township is not able to build sidewalks so fast, and that to just stop it in the middle of the year is dangerous.”

He also attributed the state’s reversal to “public outcry, especially from public school parents.”

Zlatkine added that the board had hired Nate Boxer, an expert in school financing, to seek longer-term solutions for Lakewood’s recurring financial problems. Local leaders and askanim blame the present financial crisis on the state’s funding freeze enacted in 2011, which prevents the amounts given each year from being adjusted to match increasing school populations.

“The state gave a little more this year, but everybody is still being shortchanged,” Zlatkine said. “Toms River now also has a $7 million deficit. The longer the freeze goes on, the more and more districts are going into the red.”

Officials admitted that the problem would resurface, possibly as soon as three months from now when New Jersey’s budget plans for the coming year are made official.

Michael Yaple, director of public information for the New Jersey DOE, echoed both reasoning and effects of the decision in a statement to Hamodia.

“Due to the fact that the township has demonstrated that they are not prepared to provide safe passage to school through deployment of crossing guards and sidewalk installation in a short time frame, and for the safety of the roughly 10,000 children involved, the state monitor has decided to allow the Board of Education’s resolution to continue busing through the remainder of the school year to stand,” he said.

“As previously disclosed by the state monitor, the district will end the year in a substantial deficit, half of which is caused by the unanticipated cost increase of courtesy busing. The cost of this deficit will need to be assumed by the Board of Education because, as previously stated, state funding is not available for courtesy busing.”

Residents were relieved, but disappointed by the nature of the solution.

“I’m definitely glad that the chaos that everybody was worried about is not going to happen, but it would be nice if all the experts working on this could find a way to stop this problem from cropping up every year,” said one Lakewood parent.