By Judith Dinowitz
For years, Agudath Israel of America has pressed New York State lawmakers 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 carpool 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 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 guarantees transportation from New York City public or private schools for all children from kindergarten to sixth grade, even those dismissed after 4 pm; 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, authorizes the family to pick one bus stop for all children involved.
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 askanim 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.
“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.” v