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Is Lakewood on the Verge of a Meltdown?

The former resort town is struggling with city-size problems: overstressed infrastructure, underfinanced schools, and growing social tensions

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Credit: Martin Griff

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But the phenomenal growth that turned a struggling former lakeside resort into a boomtown has also strained its outdated infrastructure and led to severe financial deficits in the schools.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 nonstudents 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.

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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 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 isn’t fully funding 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.

NJ Spotlight contributor Meir Rinde collaborated on this story with WNYC Public Radio.

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