By Judith Dinowitz
For years, Agudath Israel of America has pressed New York State law-makers to address the inequitable and dangerous denial of transportation services for New York City’s school children – including many Yeshiva students – who are dismissed from school in the late afternoon. The failure to provide busing for such children, requiring them instead to use public transportation, posed significant safety concerns for the youngsters – especially during the winter months when dismissal takes place after nightfall. The other alternative required parents to pay out of pocket for private transportation services or personally car pool their children, which created significant expense or hardship.
Agudath Israel’s advocacy led to a number of stop-gap measures that partially addressed the problem over the past several years. However, serious gaps of service remained.
Those gaps were finally closed last week, when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed off on a new budget bill that once and for all addresses this serious problem. Agudath Israel expressed appreciation to the Governor, the Senate and the Assembly for amending the state’s school transportation law in a manner that will be welcomed by yeshiva and day school families throughout New York City.
The new law does three things: It guarantees transportation from New York City public or private schools for all children from kindergarten to sixth grade, even those dismissed after 4 pm; it mandates that all bus stops be no more than 600 feet from a child’s house; and, in the case where two or more school-age children in a family attend more than one school, it authorizes the family to pick one bus stop for all children involved.
Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Community Services, said getting these changes approved is an outstanding achievement for long-suffering families. It demonstrates the sensitivity that the legislature has for the safety of our children.
State Senator Simcha Felder made this an issue of high priority, and with diligence and determination was able to deliver it. Working closely with veteran askonim Shimon and Shiya Ostreicher, whose role in promoting the new law was pivotal, the important issues were identified, the wording of the bill was drafted and support was generated. “Senator Felder’s stature, and his recent appointment by Senator Skelos as the Chairman of the Senate New York City Education Subcommittee, proved critical in driving this forward,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s Executive Vice President. “We could not have done this without him.”
The transportation issue was brought to the attention of the State government leaders at the annual Agudath Israel mission in February and amplified to Senate Majority Coalition Leader Dean Skelos at a recent Agudath Israel Community Breakfast in his honor. “Senator Skelos understood the importance of this issue and went into the ‘budget negotiation room and fought for our community,” Rabbi Lefkowitz commented. Working together with Senator Skelos were Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein, Senators Martin Golden, John Flanagan and Andrew Lanza.
In the Assembly, under the leadership of Speaker Sheldon Silver, veteran Assemblymember Helene Weinstein undertook to get a transportation bill passed that addressed the safety needs of children and families. Assemblymember Weinstein, working together with Agudath Israel activist and board of trustee member, Chaskel Bennett, drafted and shepherded a bill that was supported by Speaker Silver and her colleagues. Assemblyman Dov Hikind was involved in the process and pushed it because he said that he did not want to ever see another Leiby Kletzky tragedy again. Also strongly supporting the bill were Assemblymembers Phil Goldfeder, Michael Simanowitz, and Steven Cymbrowitz. “Speaker Silver’s determination to make this happen proved critical in the budget negotiation process,” commented Rabbi Lefkowitz.
In yeshivas and day schools, where dismissals often occur after 5 pm and sometimes much later, the lack of district busing has made life rather difficult for many parents. Families face three choices: have their children use public transportation, often after dark, creating serious safety concerns; pay for private transportation, which adds a financial burden to families already struggling to pay tuition; or car pool, sometimes forcing parents to leave work early to make the pickups. In addition, large families with multiple school-age children may have younger children at home who need care, making car pool obligations difficult or impossible. The new law, once implemented, will remove these financial and/or logistical burdens from these families.
The law addresses additional safety concerns of large families who may have several children in different schools, waiting at bus stops that are often blocks apart. Limiting the distance of a bus stop to the child’s residence and making sure that every family has only one bus stop simplifies life considerably, and eliminates the need for children to walk home alone.
Parents who have benefited from the late dismissal busing during the 2012-13 school year expressed their enthusiasm for the service. One working mother of four, whose sixth grader attends Yeshiva Toras Emes Kaminetz in Brooklyn, New York, said, “I’m thrilled beyond words! I don’t have to rush out of work and lose money. I couldn’t even believe it was true; I had to double-check with a couple of parents.” Last year she had to leave work early to pick her son up; now she can do a normal nine to five without worrying about his safety. She thanked Agudath Israel profusely.
Mrs. Giladi, a mother of six whose sixth grader goes to Yeshiva Ahavas Torah in Brooklyn, New York, said, “When you have a large family with a lot of kids, it makes a difference, especially in the wintertime.” She explained that before her son’s 5:30 bus, she would have to run out to pick him up while waiting for younger kids to come on the school bus. “I cannot divide myself… At this time, I have to be home for the rest of the kids that are coming, and it’s impossible to make sure of his safety and to get him also. So a very big burden came off of me.”
“Sometimes,” Rabbi Zwiebel remarked, “it takes years before advocacy efforts translate into legislative success. We are grateful that the Governor and the legislature recognized the pressing equity and safety concerns at stake here, and that they finally enacted these vital reforms in this year’s budget. Taken together with the increase in this year’s mandated services reimbursement allocation and other initiatives for the nonpublic school community, New York’s new budget gives our community much to be thankful for.”