Three million dollars in state transportation aid to the families of parochial school students have been spared from budget cuts by Gov. Chris Christie.
The funds have been used to partially reimburse parents who send their children to parochial schools within a two- to 20-mile radius of their homes.
The aid had been threatened with elimination under the governor’s austerity budget for the final months of the 2010 fiscal year. But on Feb. 12 the cuts were rescinded after meetings between administration officials and lobbyists for Catholic and Orthodox Jewish organizations — two constituencies that rely heavily on parochial educational systems.
Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky, executive director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey, worked closely with George Corwell of the Catholic Conference of New Jersey, which represents the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey on matters of public policy. Together they met with state education commissioner Bret Schundler and one of Christie’s deputy chiefs of staff in the days before the rescission was announced.
“The administration changed its mind,” Pruzansky told NJ Jewish News. “It was nice that the administration listened to us and heard our side of the equation and understood it would be onerous to certain families in the state.”
The state aid is provided through school districts, which are obligated to give to parochial students the same type of transportation service as public school students. Had the cuts not been restored, the busing would have cost $442 for each student, Pruzansky estimated.
“There are 40,000 kids who get this aid throughout the state and 27,000 kids in yeshivas,” he said. “Many kids who go to schools in Elizabeth or Lakewood or Bergen County or Highland Park travel there from across the state. It is statewide. I know families with five kids who send them to yeshivas. It would have cost them approximately $2,500 had the cuts gone through. That is a big chunk of change.”
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, also praised the decision. “I think it’s wonderful. With the $7 million in cuts to technology funds for private schools that came under Gov. Corzine, this would have been an added blow,” he said. “I am glad to hear there is openness from the Department of Education to listen to our concerns.”
Toporek and other Jewish community leaders are hoping for similar understanding as the state contemplates deep cuts in other programs.
One is the proposed elimination of $5.2 million due to New Jersey After 3, a statewide network of after-school programs that operates in 115 schools and serves approximately 12,000 children and their families.
The Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey and the JFS of Bergen County each operates a NJ After 3 program.
Tom Beck, executive director of the Central NJ JFS, expressed frustration about the proposed cut. With money expected to run out by the end of March, he said, “That means that with very short notice — in mid-year — 274 children in our care are going to be tossed out onto the street. It’s very unfortunate.”
The Central JFS organizes and hires staff for the program at two public schools in Linden.
“This isn’t glorified baby-sitting,” Beck said. “This program provides the children with a safe environment, help with their homework, and creative, enriching activities. It keeps them safe and allows their parents to work, and it has improved their academic results. I’m hoping that somehow we can find a way to sustain the program.”
But, Toporek said, he is pessimistic. “I don’t see a lot of hope that these cuts will be restored,” he said.
Sean Conner, a spokesman for the Christie administration, said severe budget trimming was unfortunate, but necessary.
“We have to make some really tough decisions to close a $2.2 billion gap in the budget,” he told NJJN. “There are some worthwhile programs we would love to continue to work with, but at this point there is no money. These were regrettable decisions.”
But, Conner said, two bodies of concern to the Jewish community — the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education and the New Jersey-Israel Commission — will not have their funding cut.
And without giving specifics, he said he expected the governor will appoint a so-called “liaison to the Jewish community.”
“There will be somebody who has that role,” Conner said. “An announcement has not been made yet, but there will be someone tasked with Jewish outreach and having a strong relationship on behalf of the administration with the Jewish community. There will be similar roles for a number of other constituencies, but I don’t know what they will be.
“I don’t know when it is going to be announced,” added Conner. “I think right now we are really working on budget stuff, working on cuts for this fiscal year as we propose our own first budget for fiscal year 2011.”
Elaine Durbach contributed to this article.