Despite a nearly six billion-dollar deficit, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s proposed state budget-maintained funding levels for non-public schools and even increased security grant levels. Yet, where funding to bus Lakewood’s students will come from in the coming year, remains to be seen.
Faced with the realities of huge shortfalls left by increased expenses and decreased tax revenue brought on by the COVID pandemic, Rabbi Avi Schnall, the Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey Director, was largely upbeat about the proposal.
“You have to look at this budget with a holistic vision and realize that it is like no other the state ever had,” he told Hamodia. “We will continue to advocate for the needs that remain, but if you look at the big picture given the challenges faced, dollar for dollar, we did okay.”
Nursing services, text books, transportation and technology, the key areas that non-public schools receive state funding for remained at previous levels. Security funding, which was first introduced as a line item in 2016, was increased from $150 per student to $175.
For years, the funds needed to transport the growing number of private school pupils in Lakewood drew heavily on the local district’s budget. In 2016, then Governor Chis Christie signed legislation that launched a three year pilot program which transferred all funds for the transportation of the town’s private school students to a consortium which became known as LSTA. A combination of more price negotiations and efforts to streamline the transportation system, combined with additional help from the township, allowed for nearly all of Lakewood’s students, both private and public, to receive transportation since the launch of the program. Last year the program officially expired, but was kept afloat by funding that was granted outside of the standard budget framework.
Funding for LSTA is absent from the Governor’s proposal, but Rabbi Schnall was “optimistic and hopeful” that a deal would be reached to allow Lakewood’s busses to keep rolling through the coming school year.
“We’re going to be working with the legislature and the Governor’s office to ensure that the final budget includes a means of funding bussing for Lakewood,” he said.
Another initial lobbying priority that Rabbi Schnall said was not achieved in the Governor’s budget proposal was an increase in re-imbursement for special education services for non-public schools.
“Special Ed has seen another consecutive year of decreases,” he said. “The number of students receiving services keeps going up, but the money from the state is stagnant.”
The initial level for re-imbursement for services was $995 per pupil. However the $31 million earmarked for re-imbursement has remained unchanged, yet as demand has risen by over 5,000 students, the level has dropped to $800. As a result, many vendors have had to cut back significantly on the services they provide to schools.
The budget process is usually finalized by the end of June, but it was postponed due to the challenges of the COVID pandemic. A final spending plan for the state must be finalized by September 30.
Rabbi Schnall said that in addition to the financial constraints COVID put on the budget process, barring lobbyists such as himself from the statehouse in Trenton has been a major challenge to his efforts.
“It changed the whole way we do things,” he said. “Usually I can meet legislators in the halls or by going into their offices, but now it was up to them to pick up the phone or not.”