Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Article on Lakewood growth

New Jersey Public radio article on Lakewood growth etc.. The issue as we know is a funding problem yet people like to blame the state mandated courtesy busing for private schools. Listen below

NJ spotlight/ WNYC (by Meir Rinde) -The Ocean County town of Lakewood is New Jersey’s fastest-growing municipality, thanks to a soaring number of Orthodox Jews who have moved there from New York. Located about 10 miles from the shore, it’s more than doubled in size over the past two decades and is on pace to become the state’s third largest city by 2030.

But the phenomenal growth that turned a struggling former lakeside resort into a boomtown has also strained its outdated infrastructure and led to severe financial deficits in the schools. Together, those problems have created a school busing crisis that has exacerbated social tensions and, according to public school parents, endangered their children’s safety.

The town owes its rejuvenation in large part to Rabbi Aharon Kotler, who
escaped Eastern Europe during World War II. He established a yeshiva college, Beth Medrash Govoha or BMG, in Lakewood in 1943 with an inaugural class of just 13 students. The yeshiva grew, drawing more and more ultraorthodox Jews to Lakewood, even as the town struggled with the social conflict tearing apart New Jersey’s cities.

“The Lakewood that I grew up in was really in a time of transition and incredible turmoil,” recalled Kotler’s grandson, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, who is now the yeshiva’s CEO. “My childhood memories are of the riots downtown, downtown being burned down, and the National Guard. Lakewood at the time really was a failing city, in some ways comparable to Atlantic City today.”

Some of the yeshiva’s students settled in town after graduation, creating an environment that also attracted non-students looking for an Orthodox-friendly alternative to New York. They started large families, often with five or more children. Orthodox Jews generally don’t send their children to public schools, so private religious schools started popping up all over town, making Lakewood even more of a magnet for a community that places a priority on learning.

“There's always been a stress on Jewish education, even in the early grades and through high school,” says Rabbi Moshe Weisberg, a prominent advocate for the town’s Jewish community. “Along with that there were also other services, like the kosher stores and Jewish bookstores and toy stores and clothing stores and all of this that cater to young families. They all crept up all over Lakewood and it just became a pleasant place to live.”

Lakewood now has more than 100 Jewish yeshivas for elementary and high school students. The boom is also evident from the heavy traffic and constant construction of new housing developments throughout town.

Though the Jewish schools are private and religious, they carry high public costs. The state requires districts to bus all children who live more than two miles from their schools, whether public or private. (For high school, it’s 2.5 miles.) The state helps pay for that busing, but it doesn’t require or pay for busing of kids who live closer to school. That service, called “courtesy busing,” is optional and the cost falls entirely on the school district.

Courtesy busing is at the center of a conflict in Lakewood that is splitting the community apart.  That’s because the school district is in the midst of a severe budget crunch, and courtesy busing is set to go away after the current school year.

State and local educational funding systems aren’t built to handle a town with 25,000 children in religious institutions and 6,000 in the public schools, says Rev. Glenn Wilson. Wilson heads Lakewood UNITE, a group that advocates for the town’s public school families, most of whom are Hispanic or black.

“We have a very unique problem in Lakewood. We have a larger private school sector than a public school sector. Not many towns can say that,” Wilson says. “It creates a problem because no one really expected this to happen, so we've been having, let's call it, growing pains. Solving the growing pains has taken us years, just to be able to function from from year to year. It's just been very challenging.”

In 2014 the state Department of Education appointed a fiscal monitor to control Lakewood’s school finances and fix its budget deficit. Earlier this year, the monitor said that in a district with overcrowded classrooms, staffing shortages, and aging facilities, the budget simply cannot keep up with the cost of courtesy busing.

Rev. Wilson predicts that the cuts will have a relatively minor impact on Orthodox Jewish families, who will carpool or make private busing arrangements. But he says public school kids will be out of luck. Town planning and infrastructure has failed to keep up with Lakewood’s intense growth; the main thoroughfares are still two-lane roads, and they’re jammed with traffic for much of the day. Most of them don’t have sidewalks, either.

Wilson says public school students will be forced to walk through the resulting traffic chaos.

“Those kids that need courtesy busing -- how are they going to get to school? Mainly in the black and Latino community where parents don’t drive?” Wilson asks. “In the Latino community we have a very large undocumented community that do not drive. So for that mother and father that have to go to work at six in the morning, how is that child going to be left at home, to get to school?”

This school funding crisis has aggravated feelings among public school families that their needs are being ignored by the Orthodox Jews who sit on the board and hold other town leadership positions. Tensions over the expected end of courtesy busing boiled over at a tense school board meeting in February.

“Have you seen the potholes in Lakewood? Have you seen the drivers try to swerve around them?” Annette Kearney of UNITE protested to the board, drawing applause from the audience. “When a kid gets hit, it’s on all of you.”

Lakewood is actually not alone in experiencing such tensions. Grievances about public schools being left behind in favor of religious schools are causing disputes in communities across New Jersey and New York where religious voting blocs dominate local elections. 

In the East Ramapo School District, in New York’s Rockland County, the mostly black and Hispanic public school parents accuse the Orthodox-led board of slashing services to their children and favoring private religious schools. A state fiscal monitor has been proposed for East Ramapo, too.

Busing isn’t the only problem Lakewood’s school board hasn’t fixed, according to Alejandra Morales, a Mexican immigrant and restaurant owner who has two children in the public schools. Morales, who heads the Hispanic advocacy group Voz Latina, says public school classes are too big and teachers are overwhelmed.

“It’s very bad,” Morales says. “I check the homework every day, and the teachers they don’t give too much work, because it’s too much kids for one teacher.” Despite reports that class sizes are small, she says, “it’s not completely the truth, only 18 or 19 kids for each classroom. The teachers have more kids. So, it’s impossible -- one teacher, she’s doing everything.”

But the school board and other town leaders say the blame lies with the state, which has never fully funded its formula for distributing education aid. Rabbi Aaron Kotler, whose leadership of BMG yeshiva and family history in Lakewood make him a key power broker in town, argues the board has actually done a good job despite receiving insufficient state funding. He says that, contrary to the constant criticism, the leaders of the Orthodox community are attentive to the needs of public school students.

“I share Pastor Wilson and Alejandra’s desire -- we all want to see a district that thrives and flourishes, and ensures that any kid, whether Hispanic, Orthodox, or Christian or Muslim or any religion, gets the same opportunities that every child really deserves,” he says. “The state really has a responsbility to step in and to examine the problem.”

State Sen. Robert Singer, who represents Lakewood, has proposed giving a chunk of busing money directly to the private schools and letting them figure out how to transport their students. As part of the deal, the municipal government would help pay for courtesy busing for public school students. But Singer’s bill has yet to be voted on, and less than two weeks remain before the legislature goes on break for the summer.

At the same time, the school district is still in a hole financially due in part to transportation cost overruns from the last two years. A ballot question in November will ask town voters to approve higher school taxes that would prevent teacher layoffs and other budget cuts. But Lakewood voters have repeatedly rejected tax hikes for more school funding, and the prospects for a different result this fall appear dim. 

21 comments:

  1. Harold herskowitzJune 21, 2016 at 7:56 AM

    Propaganda piece put out by those that continue to profit from unsustainable and irresponsible growth pushed onto a single town that needed to be spread into multiple communities. It is not the states fault that builders and developers and those that profit from their actions, are burdening one town with needs that can no longer be met. The state never had this issue before, because Lakewood created a new breed of monster that has never been an issue until now. As usual we have selfish people trying to run things their way no matter who it hurts, how unconventional and preposterous it may seem, simply for their own needs. And they won't stop no matter how bad it gets.

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    1. In other words, private school students, who pay more than their fair share in taxes, should not have busing because it won't be fair to the undocumented families, who don't pay taxes?
      Sounds like the author was educated in a communist country.

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    2. Are you responding to HH or the NPR author? It is the responsibility of all society to pay for public schooling to ensure we have a next generation of minimum knowledge beyond what their parents can provide. Single adults, childless couples, and retirees all have to pay along with private school families. Private school is a luxury and should not handicap those that must rely on public education.

      As for taxes.....School taxes come from property taxes, so undocumented or not the school taxes come out of the rent. However, Lakewood does have a disproportionately high amount of religious exempt properties that pay no property and therefore school taxes......

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    3. anaon 11:18 most of lakewood pays property taxes stop spreading the tax exempt nonsense. how about the undocumented children coming from Brick to lakewood schools??

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    4. Anon 11:29 - Yes most are not exempt, that is true, but also true that our town is disproportionately high. However the lashon hara about undocumented could not be ignored.

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    5. take off the "jewish glasses" and look at it from the non-jewish perspective. we,as yidden, choose not to send our children to public school. why should the state shell out money for us, be it bussing, tax credit for tuition, any other services if we can go to the public school system like the whites blacks asians latinos or any other ethical group?

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    6. Bec it saves them money if all the Orthodox and Catholic student's went to public school it would cost them a lot of money.That is why it is worth it for them to throw a few bones such as special ed and bussing. If education is a right for all children that is to be paid by the taxpayer there is no reason why non-denominational services such as special ed and busing should not be subsidized for all.

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    7. Disproportionate to what to the fact that there are two large colleges and a hospital. That lkwd is a very religious town and has a lot of synagogues that all the non jewish residents of Jackson and TR drive to church in Lkwd on sunday. That a lot of the land would have to be used for public schools if not for the fact that the children go to private school.

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  2. Westgate growth- a few individuals moved into a neighborhood thinking they were the only ones. They plotted and decided among themselves to control the neighborhood according to their liking. As the development grew to the tune of close to 900 families these few individuals only look after those who were there from the beginning. Only they get to have seats in shul and a place to daven. Only their wives get to make early appointments at the mikva. anyone else must fend for themselves All courtesies are only for the select few. anyone who dares to open a shul or provide services is shut down and chased away.

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    1. Why wont Rabbi Zimbal once and for all put a stop to all this craziness going on from the mispalelim of BM of westagte. He is their Rav a simple letter or drasha can put an end to the machlokes and redifos that are plaguing westgate for so long.

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    2. If you're a "paid employee just like the janitor" then you're basically just a puppet waiting for the puppeteer (aka Maffia) to pull your strings.

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    3. Mordy couldn't care less neither the rest of the maffia

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  3. School taxes come from property taxes, but you don't have 3 orthodox families with 12 school age children living in a single family home. That's 8k in taxes for $204,000 in ESL educated children.

    You don't have a family of 3 children in a 1 bedroom condo, paying $1,200 a year in taxes while there education costs $54,000 per year in the Jewish community.

    Aside for that, how do people who aren't legally supposed to be here in the first place, have a RIGHT to complain about anything?

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    1. The parents may be undocumented, but the children born in the US are citizens according the the 14th amendment of the constitution. We can not start denying public education to US citizens, unless you want to amend the constitution?

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    2. how does anybody who isn't paying for their own child's education but is relying on others to pay for a welfare school for them have a right to complain? If you have a child it is your responsibility to clothe, feed, house and educate that child. if you want a good education (or good food or housing) you have to pay for it. if you decide to take welfare food stamps you don't have a right to complain if they don't give you the type of food you want. If you send to the welfare public school you don't have a right to complain about the level of education that others are paying for your child.

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    3. Anon 2:08 - Who are you talking about? If you mean the undocumented, they pay rent, which pays school taxes. They are paying for the education for their children.

      There are very excellent public schools by the way, so I do not know why you are lumping them all together in one category.

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    4. That is true which is why one of the big factors in moving is the grade of the public school. If you choose to bring up your children in Lakewood, or Camden and Newark for that matter you cant really complain.

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    5. You obviously did not read the orig post
      "School taxes come from property taxes, but you don't have 3 orthodox families with 12 school age children living in a single family home. That's 8k in taxes for $204,000 in ESL educated children.

      You don't have a family of 3 children in a 1 bedroom condo, paying $1,200 a year in taxes while there education costs $54,000 per year in the Jewish community. "

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    6. Anon 4:45 - So your argument is that because the undocumented public school community with citizen children uses more tax dollars than an orthodox family on education, that public spending on bussing for private schools does not deserve scrutiny?

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    7. That was never said however if I am a taxpayer I have every right to advocate for services for my children that are provided to public school children as long as they are not inherently religious in nature

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    8. To your point there should be rigorous safeguards in place to make sure that these funds are not abused

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