As part of the latest effort to save Lakewood’s courtesy busing routes for thousands of the town’s students, a meeting was held between elected officials and a broad base of community advocates to discuss legislation that would radically change how funds for non-public transportation are administered.
Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, of the Ichud Hamosdos, who was involved in designing the bill, said the legislation was a “win-win” for all stakeholders in the district.
“For the district to handle busing for the mosdos is a huge undertaking. This would take them out of it, which makes a lot of administrative sense and also saves courtesy busing,” he said. “If the bill could get through, the frum community would be very supportive of solutions that could secure services for the public schools as well, so we are working to get all sectors in the community behind it.”
The meeting, held on Tuesday at the offices of one of the sponsors, State Senator Robert Singer, was attended by several local legislators, representatives of mosdos, and activists from the Orthodox community as well as representatives of UNITE, a group representing public school students, and Senior Action Group, a group representing the town’s senior citizens.
As part of massive budget cuts made to close a $12 million deficit, non-mandatory busing for children living within 2.5 miles of their schools was totally eliminated. However, local officials and activists feel that the cost, safety risks and congestion that will be caused by slashing the service will be too serious for the township to handle.
To that end, Sen. Robert Singer and Assemblymen Sean Kean and David P. Rible, all Republicans representing the Lakewood area, have sponsored legislation that could serve as an important first step toward solving the district’s perennial transportation funding problems. The bill uses an option in state budgeting known as “aid in lieu of transportation.” For students who live in locations that do not have bus routes, the Department of Education pays the family $884 in place of providing mandatory busing. The present legislation calls for the state to effectively cancel busing for all of Lakewood’s non-public school students and instead pay the “in lieu” sum to a central fund that will be administered by a board under the supervision of the state commissioner.
The board will then be free to negotiate independent contracts with bus companies and it is estimated that under this plan enough of a surplus will exist to cover courtesy busing as well.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey division of Agudath Israel of America, said that the bill’s passage would free up many options to find solutions for public school non-mandated busing as well.
“It was a very positive meeting,” he said. “It’s a vital issue that the whole community is facing. It addresses one part of the problem and we are committed to working to address other issues caused by the district’s deficit.”
The bill has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing by legislators.