To protest next year’s elimination of courtesy busing for students in fourth through 12th grades, the head of the township’s private religious schools has asked parents to take to the streets in their cars next week and is warning the township to prepare.
Rather than use the public school buses that are still in use this year, the Iggud Hamosdos — a consortium of private schools in Lakewood — wants parents to drive their children to school on those days so they can perform a “drill” of what will occur this fall if the nearly $4 million practice is not brought back, according to a letter signed by Rabbi Yisroel Schenkolewski, a longtime religious and political figure in the community.
“We understand the ramifications that this might have on the township and are therefore giving ample time for the town to mobilize their resources to prepare for the upcoming drill,” wrote Schenkolewski, who could not be reached for comment.
Schenkolewski sent the letter to Mayor Menashe Miller, who forwarded it to state Department of Education Commissioner David Hespe as part of a June 3 letter that requests that the state grant “needed assistance” to the district so courtesy busing can continue.
“We anticipate this cause (sic) severe gridlock in town and create an unsafe condition,” wrote Miller of the private schools’ plans for next week.
Miller could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
A spokesman for the state Department of Education, however, questioned the tactic proposed by the private school leaders.
“We believe that children should not be used to make a point that can be addressed through dialogue between adults,” said spokesman Michael Yaple. “We firmly believe that — if all sides are open to compromise in good faith — we can develop a solution that is fiscally responsible, and still keeps the focus on student safety.”
But the Rev. Glenn Wilson, one of the leaders of a coalition of minority residents who have banded together in recent weeks to support the public schools and oppose any spending cuts that might be proposed by the Board of Education, said he understood the desire to protest the cuts to courtesy busing.
“We were never in favor of the elimination of courtesy busing,” Wilson said. “I hate to see any child who needs the busing lose that privilege.
“But after the protest, we still have to sit down and solve the problem. ... We definitely have to do a better job of handling our finances.”
As Lakewood continued its rapid growth over the last five years, the school district has struggled to keep up with rising transportation costs and increased spending on special education for private school students, the majority of which are Orthodox religious schools. The 2010 census reported that Lakewood was the largest municipality in Ocean and Monmouth counties and the seventh largest in the state. According to projections, Lakewood’s population could expand to 220,000 by 2030.
More than half of Lakewood’s residents follow Orthodox Judaism. About 54,000 residents — or more than half — were Jewish in 2009, according to a 2011 survey of Jewish populations by the University of Miami and University of Connecticut. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 92,000 people lived in the township. The Orthodox population has only grown since, attracted by a large, prestigious rabbinical college and an entire community of expanding yeshivas.
Currently, private and public school students who live within 2.5 miles of their schools can ride a public school bus from their homes to their classes. Of the approximately 10,450 students who use the service, more than 8,100 attend private schools, according to district documents.
But with major budgetary constraints and an estimated price tag of nearly $4 million for the 2014-15 school year, Lakewood eliminated courtesy busing for students in grades 4-12.
Detective Sgt. Greg Staffordsmith of the Lakewood Police Department said he was not aware of whether officials have formulated a plan on how to respond to or handle the potential traffic snarls next week. The temperature is supposed to reach the high 70s next Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
Lakewood school board members had originally proposed a separate referendum, asking residents to pay additional taxes to fund courtesy busing. However, in a surprise move, the Lakewood Board of Education only agreed to provide courtesy busing for students in kindergarten through third grade in their $151 million budget for the 2014-15 school year and dropped plans for the referendum. They then opted to vote against their proposal.
Michael Azzara, a state monitor appointed earlier this year to review Lakewood’s financial decisions, then overruled the board’s rejection of the plan. He found about $5 million in errors within the budget, directing the money towards courtesy busing for grades K-3.
District officials subsequently vowed they would somehow find the funding to continue the courtesy busing for the upper grades. It is unclear whether the nonpublic schools will attempt to raise funds to pay for the busing of students who attend private classes.
As a response to the potential for traffic tie-ups this fall, Lakewood plans to improve sidewalks, review traffic patterns and increase crossing guards, Miller wrote to Hespe.
Superintendent Laura Winters could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.