EXPLAINER: Why School Transportation Is Such A Disaster – And What’s Being Done About It

On Friday, New Jersey Legislature passed the Fiscal Year 2024 state budget, which was then signed into law by Gov. Murphy. Importantly for local families, the budget brings relief to parents and school districts struggling with transportation costs.

Among the notable provisions was a $143 increase in aid in lieu, marking the largest increase in many years. The previous major increase occurred in 2017, with a $116 raise from $884 to $1,000. In 2022, the aid in lieu amount rose by a meager $22, leaving many families and school districts grappling with inadequate funds to transport children to school.

In towns like Jackson and Toms River, parents are witnessing firsthand how crucial these funds are. Due to the long distances between homes and schools, combined with distance between children requiring transportation, bus companies often fail to provide transportation for certain routes. Consequently, schools and groups of parents have taken it upon themselves to arrange transportation directly with bus companies. However, they soon realize that $1,022 is a meager amount relative to the steep expense of the cost of transportation.

As per regulations, school districts are not permitted to spend more than the allocated aid in lieu amount on transporting children to school. Thus, when the district cannot afford transportation, they issue a check to parents instead. However, the problem arises when parents receive the check and discover that it falls short of covering the actual cost of transportation. Inevitably, parents are left with the burden of spending additional money to secure transportation for their children.

In Jackson, where over 6,000 children are expected to attend school in neighboring Lakewood next year, less than 500 children will receive transportation based on the current aid in lieu amount. This significant disparity led to a pressing need for increased funding. By raising the aid in lieu amount to $1,165, parents will receive an additional $143 per child, which can be allocated towards transportation expenses. This substantial increase is a step in the right direction, bringing much-needed relief to families in need.

In Lakewood, the transportation funding requirements differ, but the need for adequate resources remains essential. According to state law, only elementary school children residing more than 2 miles away from school and high school children residing more than 2.5 miles away must be transported. As a result, the transportation system only receives funds for these mandated children. Any children living closer to school do not generate any funds for the system.

To address this disparity and ensure transportation for all children, regardless of mandate status, the Local School Transportation Association (LSTA) was established. The LSTA aimed to utilize the full aid in lieu allocation for mandated children, while employing collective negotiating power and finding additional efficiencies to reduce costs for transporting mandated children. By redirecting the savings, the LSTA aimed to provide transportation for non-mandated children as well. Understanding that the savings was not enough to transport non-mandated students, the LSTA charged a fee to the non-mandated students. However, as transportation costs increased over time without a corresponding increase in allocation, the savings became insufficient to cover the deficit. The fees collected from non-mandated children could no longer bridge the funding gap.

Although the $163 increase in aid in lieu is not sufficient to fully address the transportation needs of all children, it signifies a significant stride in the right direction. This increase acknowledges the challenges faced by parents, schools, and the LSTA in ensuring equitable transportation for all students. It provides some relief and allows for more efficient service, benefiting a larger number of children.

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