State Senator Bob Singer (R – Lakewood)’s proposal to have state taxpayers foot the bill for courtesy busing students of Lakewood’s private, religious schools under a new pilot program has been approved by the New Jersey State Senate, receiving 22 votes in favor of the legislation, and 8 against during Thursday’s vote.Under Senator Singer’s bill, which also has an identical companion in the General Assembly sponsored by Assemblymen Sean Kean and David Rible, a three year pilot program will be established, that will see a consortium of private, religious schools in Lakewood oversee funding for and implementation of courtesy busing. Currently, Lakewood already buses 7,000 nonpublic school students per year.
The New Jersey legislature’s financial impact report indicates the bill would cause an increase in state expenditures by $2.4 million each year, for a grand total of $7.2 million in state tax dollars over three years.
The bill’s language was crafted so that Lakewood would be the only town eligible to participate in the pilot program, with the state Commissioner of Education being required to make that determination.
State Already Must Pay For Busing Private School Students
New Jersey law requires school districts to provide transportation to students who live more than two miles from school for grades K-8, and 2.5 miles for high school students. The law also requires that if the school district provides transportation to public school students, it must also do the same for nonpublic school students, but only those that travel within 20 miles to the nonpublic school.
If the school district is unable to provide transportation to nonpublic students within this limit, the district is required to make an “aid in lieu of transportation” payment to the parents of the nonpublic school student.
The state is then responsible for reimbursing the school district for nonpublic student transportation costs exceeding $735 per student. School districts are free to choose to provide courtesy busing to students who do not live the required distance in order to be considered “remote” under the law, with the caveat that this is done at their own expense.
Here’s a portion of the bill’s explanatory statement detailing how the program will work:
The consortium will assume the responsibilities of transporting the pupils for whom it receives the aid in-lieu-of transportation amount. In addition, if after providing the required pupil transportation any of the disbursed funds remain unspent, the consortium is permitted to use the remaining funds to offer courtesy busing to pupils who reside in the eligible district and are attending a nonpublic school in the consortium. At the end of the school year, the consortium will be required to refund to the school district any unexpended funds it received under the pilot program.
Lakewood Schools Are A Financial Disaster
There is no escaping the fact that this bill has come in response to the mammoth financial problems dogging Lakewood’s school district, which is already facing massive budget shortfalls. Most of the $9.5 million budget deficit being caused by transportation expenses. Amid the district’s fiscal issues, state monitors have been appointed to oversee the school district by the state Department of Education.
Lakewood school officials have repeatedly blamed a lack of increase in state aid for their financial woes.
In January, Lakewood voters overwhelmingly rejected a special referendum that would have raised taxes by $6 million to cover courtesy busing for the township’s schools. Nearly 98% of the votes cast in the special referendum were in opposition to raising local taxes to pay for courtesy busing. The Lakewood Board of Education unanimously rejected a resolution that put the referendum on the ballot, but the board was overridden by State Monitor Michael Azzara.
Bob Singer: Lakewood Needs A “Helping Hand”
Facing criticism, Senator Singer defended his bill. “I don’t know what will happen without this bill in September,” Singer said. “We need a helping hand.”
Singer – who was formerly the mayor of Lakewood – compared his bill to the state bailout of Atlantic City’s public schools, claiming that the impact to state taxpayers would be less than the bailout. “If I don’t do this today – if it doesn’t happen in September, 9,000 children – 3,000 public and 6,000 private – will be walking to school in unsafe roads and dangerous roadways.”
Senator Singer also emphasized that the population of Lakewood’s public schools consist of 85 – 90% racial & ethnic minorities.
Gill, Weinberg & Turner Decry Singer’s Bill
Despite receiving a majority of vote required for passage Thursday, some senators took time to speak out against concerns regarding Singer’s bill.
“I stand to oppose this bill,” said Senator Nia Gill. Gill argued that suburban districts are being left out of the measure, which will only fund Lakewood.‘”I think it is special legislation targets one town based upon courtesy busing that happens in other places – but only this one town [Lakewood] will receive the money.” “I think it’s a good idea to underwrite courtesy busing, but not in this way that discriminates for one town and no one else can participate.”
Explaining her vote against the bill, the senator said “This is about being fair and equitable to all school districts.” Gill was joined by Senator Shirley Turner and Loretta Weinberg, who both spoke in opposition to the bill before Thursday’s vote.
NJEA: Millions Taken From Lakewood Schools, Given To Ineligible Students Under Singer Bill
The New Jersey Education Association fiercely opposed Senator Singer’s Bill, claiming that the bill will take “millions from Lakewood public schools to pay for busing for ineligible private school students,” with the group offering the following reasons against the measure:
- It sets an $884 per pupil minimum that the district must pay EVEN if the actual cost to transport each student is less than that amount.
- It allows the consortium to use the overpayment to provide busing for private school students who are NOT eligible for busing under State law.
- The Lakewood public schools are already underfunded by $5 million.
- Requiring an underfunded district to use its limited funds to pay for a service that is not required would further erode the services provided to students enrolled in Lakewood public schools.
The bill passed the state Senate 22 – 8 , with it now heading to a final vote in the General Assembly before heading to Governor Christie’s desk.
Here’s how the legislators voted: