NJ Governor Chris Christie today signed into law a bill that would provide safety busing, sometimes called “courtesy busing” for 10,000 public school and private school students who live in the Lakewood School District. The bill, sponsored by Senator Bob Singer and Assemblymen David Rible and Sean Kean, passed in the Senate and Assembly just ahead of the Spring legislative session, and was awaiting the governor’s signature.

According to state law, busing is only mandated for those living beyond a prescribed distance, typically two miles, from school. Districts can provide busing to other students based on local conditions. For the past 30 years, the Lakewood school district provided such “courtesy” busing to children who live more than 6/10ths of a mile from school or who would have to cross a major roadway.

In recent years, the number of students in the Lakewood school district, in public schools and in private schools, grew dramatically. At the same time, State Aid, a primary funding vehicle for the district, remained the static, allowing no additional State support for many of these children. For the last two years, to reduce costs, the Lakewood Mosdos implemented several changes, including staggered start times, called “tiering”, and eliminating safety busing for children who lived above .6 of a mile and less than .8 of a mile. While helpful, this did not close the gap.

This year, as the district continued to grow, savings from these measures were not enough to offset its growing deficit. The district eliminated all non-mandated services and terminated courtesy busing.

Lakewood now faced the certain prospect of 10,000 public and nonpublic school children left without transportation for the 2016-17 school year and beyond; the township foresaw that thousands of young children would be endangered, walking to and from school, often on busy roads, in poor lighting or inclement weather, including on main thoroughfares.

On the advice and with the partnership of Lakewood Mayor Menashe Miller and Committeeman Meir Lichtenstein, Lakewood’s local delegation, comprised of Senator Singer and Assemblymen Kean and Rible, developed a funding mechanism that would allow the state to provide such busing, outside of the frozen State Aid formulas. Compared to the “bailout” of other NJ school districts, the cost would be small.

The bill establishes a three-year nonpublic school pupil transportation pilot program in Lakewood School District. The program will fund a consortium of nonpublic schools, which will also assume responsibility for the district’s mandated nonpublic school busing. The Lakewood Township will fund safety busing for the public school children.

The Advocacy Group, comprised of Agudath Israel of New Jersey and its director, Rabbi Avi Schnall, the Lakewood Vaad, represented by Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg; Rabbi Yisroel Schenkolewski and, the Igud Hamosdos, represented by Rabbi Shimon Balsam; and coordinated by Mrs. C. Jacobowitz of Beth Medrash Govoha. worked hand in hand with Senator Singer and Assemblymen Kean and Rible and the Lakewood Township Committee.

“We are so grateful for the understanding, shown by the members of the Senate and Assembly, of how badly Lakewood has been shortchanged by the existing State Aid formula,” said the advocacy group, in a statement to the press lauding the bipartisan, bicameral effort. “We would like to particularly acknowledge and thank Governor Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, and Assemblyman Gary Schaer, for their support of this bill and for their efforts to ensure the safety of our children.”

Rabbi Binyamin Heinemann of the Lakewood Vaad pointed out that this is a perfect moment to reflect on how valuable it is that our community comes out to vote – as elected officials respect and recognize communities that are active and engaged.

Rabbi Schnall, who worked tirelessly for months to help make this happen, emphasized how awed the members of the advocacy group were by the responsiveness and commitment shown by the Lakewood delegation as they worked to shepherd their legislation through the many steps needed to gain its passage. “Senator Singer, Assemblyman Rible, and Assemblyman Kean are truly the heroes here, for recognizing the tremendous threat to the well-being of our community’s children and undertaking not to give up until they had achieved a successful solution.”