Pending the legislature’s approval, busing for all children in Lakewood will continue uninterrupted for the coming year, as per a clause of Governor Phil Murphy’s budget proposal that extends a program which has lifted years of constant jeopardy from the town’s school transportation.
According to the preliminary budget, the Lakewood Student Transportation Association (LSTA) will continue to manage busing for the town’s private school population, an arrangement under which sufficient funding has been made available to cover busing for the unique district.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, Director of the Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey division, welcomed the move.
“We are very grateful that the governor has recognized the value that LSTA has to all students in the district and look forward to working with the legislature to make sure that this successful program can continue to work,” he told Hamodia.
New Jersey law requires the state to transport both public and private school students. However, this mandate is only in place for those who live two miles or more from their school, while those whose homes are closer receive what is termed “courtesy busing,” which is only provided if extra funds are available. For years, mounting deficits in the Lakewood district made the cancellation of courtesy busing for both private and public school students a yearly routine. Yet as the safety risks and congestion that would be caused by slashing the service would have posed too great a challenge, it would annually be saved at zero-hour through a combination of state loans and funding from the township.
In 2016, the legislature approved a bill that launched a three year pilot program which transferred all funds for the transportation of private school students to a consortium which became known as LSTA. A combination of more aggressive price negotiations and efforts to streamline the transportation system combined with additional help from the township have allowed for nearly all of Lakewood’s students, both private and public, to receive transportation since the launch of the program.
When the legislation was signed by then Governor Chris Christie, he acknowledged the district’s “unique challenges,” but also urged local leaders to seek more creative solutions. Rabbi Schnall said that while LSTA has done a great deal to cut costs and reduce the number of stops being made, that the three years has shown that extending the program is “the only real way” to maintain the town’s busing.
Governor Murphy unveiled the high profile aspects of his budget in a public address two weeks ago, but the 580 page document that lays out spending for all the state’s needs was only released this Wednesday. In addition to language that authorizes LSTA to continue, other line items that have been a priority to the Orthodox community such as security grants and a smattering of other funding for non-public schools was preserved at the same level as the year prior.
The proposal now goes to the state legislature which must approve spending for the coming year before July 1.